Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Book Review: Château Lafite: The Almanac (Flammarion)

Cover for Château Lafite: The Almanac, Flammarion, 2020.

Even the most casual wine lovers will have heard of Château Lafite, the historic wine estate which is today owned by members of the Rothschild family. When James Mayer Rothschild purchased the estate in 1868, he began a legacy which has spanned 150 years--and with continued care-taking and perseverance, will continue surely for 150 more.

Château Lafite: The Almanac is an incredibly unique book unlike any other. It is not a traditional almanac, nor is it an ordinary guide to Château Lafite wines. It is a hybrid tome that is at once indulgent, informative, and even surprising.

© Catherine Serebriakoff: Adagp, Paris 2020. From Château Lafite: The Almanac, Flammarion, 2020. Watercolors painted in 1961 by Russian-French artist Catherine Serebriakoff following the refurbishment of the château

Château Lafite: The Almanac is broken down into 150 sections, with one section dedicated to each vintage wine year from 1868 through 2018. Every section provides a wealth of fascinating information about the wine, as well as the historical context of the year itself--and some additional surprises that make for a delightful read from page to page.

For example, for the section on 1868, the book reveals: the vintage year, the volume produced, the price; the weather; notes on the vintage (in the case of 1868, these notes include a quote from an estate manage remarking on their quality in 1968; and a quote from a broker from 1868 noting the popularity of the sales); as well as several documents related to that year. The documents are the sweet surprise found within these pages, as they include everything from historical quotes to add-ons such as postcards with portraits, reproductions of tasting menus, vintage cabinet card prints, and much more.

© Philippe Jarrigeon from Château Lafite: The Almanac, Flammarion, 2020. 1945 vintage double spread. On the left, photograph of Baron Elie de Rothschild. On the right, signatures of Baron Elie, his wife Liliane, Baron Alain, and his wife Mary, upon their return to Lafite just after the Liberation. The two brothers had been prisoners of war in Lübeck, in Germany, for the whole duration of the war

The historical side of this book never ceases to fascinate. Of particular interest to me are the sections during tumultuous world events, such as WWI and WWII. In 1939, for instance, the book notes that the Germans stripped the Jewish Rothschild's of their French nationality, and their property--including Château Lafite--were sequestered. A German garrison was moved into the Château from July 1940 through August 1944, and German anti-aircraft guns were installed in the vineyards.

Although estates from Jewish people were typically liquidated, the Vichy government managed to save the estate by placing it under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture and Provisions. Gabrielle Faux, an accountant and steward at Lafite, hid precious objects (such as the Torahs secretly taken from the Grande Synagogue in Paris by Baron Robert de Rothschild, who entrusted them to her for safekeeping) and falsified wine books in order to protect precious bottles from the Germans.

The estate manger Joseph Landeche referred to the 1941 wines simply: “Mediocre wines. Negligence on account of the war situation influenced quality.”

© The Richard Avedon Foundation/Château Lafite. From Château Lafite: The Almanac, Flammarion, 2020. 2000 vintage double spread. On the left, portraits of the Château Lafiteworkforce, by the American photographer Richard Avedon, who spent a week at the estate for this series of photos.

The incredibly thorough dive into the history of these wines, the estate and the people behind the estate make this book absolutely fascinating to flip through. If I were a wine connoisseur, I can imagine it would make for a delightful wine tasting companion--comparing vintages while flipping through the book to learn more about the year in which the wine was made.

In addition to the Almanac section, the book features interviews with a range of people who have worked on the estate or with the Château Lafite estate in some capacity over the years; as well as reviews of various vintages, and a handy glossary to provide context to some of the more niche terms used throughout the book.

In regards to quality, once again Flammarion has stepped up to the plate to produce a beautiful, high quality book that is durable while still being easy to read, thanks to the binding style which allows for flat double pages and quick (if you’re in a hurry!) flipping. The various reproductions and extras throughout the book are the opposite of flimsy: these high quality prints feature a quality you would expect from a museum gift shop.

I recommend this book to any wine lover who is looking for something different than a traditional wine guide; wine connoisseurs who want to add to their wine book library; anyone with an interest in French history who enjoys coffee table books with high quality; and finally, anyone who wants to know more about the history behind this estate and its internationally renowned wines.

[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher]

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