Home > History of Wine > Mis en bouteilles au Chateau: The museum of wine at Chateau Lafite

Mis en bouteilles au Chateau: The museum of wine at Chateau Lafite

I became rather curious about the origins of chateau bottled wines in Bordeaux after reading Mabel Hubbard Bell’s letter describing the early “sample bottles” at Chateau Lafite.  It is quite clear that 1869 is considered the first wine where an entire vintage was bottled at Chateau Lafite.  This was the first vintage under the ownership of Baron James de Rothschild who purchased the estate the previous year in 1868.  There were earlier vintages that were chateau bottled in part.  Exactly how far back this practiced extended has been studied over the years.  Cyril Ray wrote that both Warner Allen and André Simon originally believed that 1846 was the first vintage chateau bottled at Chateau Lafite but with the publication of A History of Wine (1961), Warner Allen switched to 1797 as being the earliest chateau bottled vintage without explanation.[1]

Chateau Lafite. Image from Clarets and Sauternes. [8]

Chateau Lafite. Image from Clarets and Sauternes. [8]

The vintage of 1797 corresponds with the purchase of Chateau Lafite by Jean de Witt.[2]  During the same year of the purchase, Joseph Goudal took over the management of the affairs at Chateau Lafite.  De Witt could only hold on to the estate for just a few years before he had to sell it at the end of 1800. This time the estate was purchased by three Dutch negocients.  Across this and future sales the Goudal family maintained management of the estate and kept records from which it is known that a small amount of wine was chateau bottled for the owners and staff.  It was Joseph Goudal who built the vinotheque in the early 1800s which now houses the oldest bottle reaching back to 1797.  Cyril Ray describes this small caveau as “primarily –almost entirely – a museum.”  There were some 1,500 bottles as of 1985.

Over a century earlier, in 1864, this cellar was also described as “un muse de ses vins en bouteilles”.[3]  The collection for this museum of wine was begun in 1798 by Joseph Goudal.  The wines were not for sale but buyers were occasionally allowed to taste from them to see how the wines changed over time.[4] At the time the vinotheque or caveau was reported to contain the vintages 1797 through 1834.  The later date is of interest because, as we shall see, just several years later the bottled vintages range from 1797 through 1864. The date of 1834 is either a typographic error or stocks from the grande cave were subsequently transferred to the vinotheque.  Whatever the range of vintages contained this vinotheque was considered unique in all of France.

During the 1868 sale of Chateau Lafite to Baron James de Rothschild the previous owners reserved the right to sell the wine in the cellars.[5]  The sale of the wine represented some 5,700 bottles of Chateau Lafite from the vintages of 1797 to 1864.[6]  There were also barriques of the 1865 vintage.  The prices ranged from a minimum of 7 Francs per bottle for 1826 and 1863 to as much as 121 Francs per bottle for some of the 21 bottles of the 1811 Comet year wine.  The lots ranged from as few as 6 bottles of 1802 to as many as 817 bottles of the 1864.[7]  The few descriptions I have found of this sale do not specifically assert whether these wines were chateau bottled or not.  Half of the wine was purchased by Baron James de Rothschild and stored in the cellars at Chateau Lafite.

Chateau Lafite.  Image from  . Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux.  [4]

Chateau Lafite. Image from . Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux. [4]

It is Joseph Goudal’s vinotheque then that Francis Beatty Thurber named the “private cellar” with “specimen” vintages back to 1810.  Mabel Hubbard Bell described this space as the “sample cellar” with vintages back to 1798. Thus we have descriptions of old bottles of Chateau Lafite from 1868 and the 1880s.  I find it is curious then that in the 20th century, 1846 was considered the earliest chateau bottled vintage until Warner Allen’s change to 1797 in 1961.  Perhaps some history was lost or there was not yet proof that the 19th century descriptions applied to chateau bottled wines.  Even the definition of chateau bottled could have changed as well.

Clarets and Sauternes (1920) jumps into the subject of “Chateau bottling” immediately in the preface and certainly helps bridge the gap in some missing knowledge.[8]  This subject is described as “of perennial interest” amongst “Claret connoisseurs”.   Clarets and Sauternes credits Chateau Lafite with inaugurating La mise en bouteilles au Chateau in 1846 or 1847 because the claims of Chateau d’Yquem were more tenuous.  These bottlings at Chateau Lafite occurred “for quite small lots.” Between 1847 and 1862 chateau bottlings also took place at Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux.  The bottling of the entire vintage of 1869 Chateau Lafite by Jules Clavelle is given substantial weight not only because “it authenticated the wine definitely and finally” but it also “contributed in no small degree to popularize this feature of the Grand French Wines.”  The practice of chateau bottling continued to gain in practice until “it reached its zenith just before the outbreak of the lamentable World War.”

Dessus de Cheminee a Chateau Lafite.  Image from  . Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux.  [4]

Dessus de Cheminee a Chateau Lafite. Image from . Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux. [4]

Only the best vintages of Chateau Lafite in cask were allowed to be bought and sold as “Lafite” with inferior vintages known only as Vin Rouge.  This maintenance of quality was extended to the Chateau bottlings which only took place during approved vintages.  Thus there were no chateau bottlings between 1885 and 1906 due to strict quality standards.  After the first bottled vintage of 1846 it was “possible to arrange for Chateau bottling at Lafite, but it is understood the privilege was not generally availed of, except for quite small lots.”

Shortly after Clarets and Sauternes was published an interesting article exploring chateau bottling titled “Mise en bouteilles au Chateau” appeared in Le Sommelier during 1924.[9]  The article begins by stating, contrary to popular opinion, that Chateau d’Yquem is considered the first to chateau bottle the entire vintage, that being 1865, ahead of Chateau Lafite in 1869. There is prompt acknowledgement that small lots were bottled at the Chateau Lafite both for individuals and the trade prior to those vintages.  One early example was found detailed in a letter describing the 1811 or “Comet vintage” as being “mis en bouteilles au chateau” and bearing a stamp on the bottle “Chateau Lafite. – M. Goudal, regisseur”.  Other vintages bottled at the chateau, with similar guarantee of origin on the bottle or capsule, included 1836 and 1838.  The 1837 vintage was purchased “en nouveau” but turned out to be mediocre and was apparently abandoned before eventually being chateau bottled in 1839.  Several barrels of 1846 were chateau bottled, a substantial amount of 1847, and at least 50 barrels of 1848 were additionally labeled “grand vin”.

Chateau Lafite marks. Image from Clarets and Sauternes. [8]

Chateau Lafite marks. Image from Clarets and Sauternes. [8]

While we may never know the sources that Warner Allen and André Simon relied upon it is clear that based on the Goudal documentation the early accounts of the bottled wines in the vinotheque refer to chateau bottled examples.  I find this cycle of lost and found history interesting.  Whereas the article in Le Sommelier sheds light on Chateau Lafite it also informs us that the use of the terms Mis en bouteilles au Chateau and Grand Vin on wine bottles was hotly debated.  At key was the inevitable paradox that a chateau bottled poor vintage represented an authentically bad wine.  This would be at direct odds with the great French wines acting as ambassador products in foreign countries.  That is a subject for another post.  If you are at all like me, you must now be wondering exactly which vintages of old Chateau Lafite were sold in 1868, who purchased the other half of the bottles, and what did they taste like?

[1] Ray, Cyril. Lafite. Christie’s Wine Publications. 1985.
[2] Coates, Clive. Grand Vin. University of California Press.  1995.
[3] “Bordeaux”, 22 October 1864, Le monde illustre: journal hebdomadaire, Volume 2-8. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=isJLAAAAcAAJ&pg=PR4#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] De Lorbac, Charles. Les Richesses Gastronomiques de la France, Les Vins de Bordeaux. 1868. URL: https://archive.org/details/richessesgastron00unse
[5] Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Volume 16. 1868. http://books.google.com/books?id=z24KAAAAIAAJ&pg=PP7#v=onepage&q&f=false
[6] Vizetelly, Ernest Alfred. The Wines of France. 1908. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=2iw7AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] Bertall. La Vigne: voyage autour des vins de France. 1878. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=8To3AQAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[8] The Wine and Spirit Trade Record. Clarets and Sauternes. 1920. URL: https://archive.org/details/claretssauternes00kgagiala
[9] Le Sommelier. Revue mensuelle officielle [“puis” et propriété exclusive] de l’Union des sommeliers de Paris. May 15, 1924. Bibliothèque nationale de France. URL: http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb328709557

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