The Rothschilds are arguably the most famous wine family in the world. They are the kings of Bordeaux, but also now have wine ventures in Argentina, California, Chile, China, New Zealand, Spain and South Africa. How I wish I could add Israel to this list! However, the family did play its part in Israeli wine in the past, because here they actually founded the modern wine industry.
The family’s wineries together produce almost every style of wine from a wide range of terroirs, but shared a basic problem: What to serve as an aperitif when people arrived to be entertained. I once did a memorable harvest at Chateau Mouton Rothschild in 1986. I was invited because the group I worked for were the UK agents for Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA. We drank so much Fine (Brandy) at lunchtime it was hard to continue in the afternoon. In the end we were paid in Francs with a pay slip, received a signed certificate from Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and afterwards received three magnums of the 1986 wines we harvested, which I shipped to Israel later on. It might be said they produce great wine, but certainly they are the best at public relations! The wines were Chateaux Mouton Rothschild, Clerc Milon and Mouton Baronne Philippe (later renamed d’Armailhac). I enjoyed them at various family events over twenty years later, with my children who were by then also in the wine trade! Anyway, in the evening after harvesting, we were wined and dined at Mouton Rothschild, enjoying their wines. However, the aperitif was noticeably not theirs, but a specially made cuvee of Henriot Champagne.
In 2005, I was entertained to lunch at Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and was by now representing Carmel and Yatir Winery. The main memory at lunch was being served Chateau Lafite 1947, because it was the nearest they had to the founding of the State of Israel! It was served with a plain white fish and I never worked out whether the choice of serving fish was out of politeness because we were Jewish or whether it was chosen because it was plain and delicate enough not to impede the wine. The sparkling wine served though, was not made by the Rothschilds, but a private label made especially for them, possibly by Krug. I am not absolutely certain of the source of the wine, but I do remember Baron Eric’s Champagne was not cold enough, so he leaned over picked up two ice cubes in his fingers and plopped them into his glass. I was charmed by the informality and the unpretentiousness of this and was left to ponder how relaxed the truly rich are regarding etiquette, compared with the pedantically correct, more uptight nouveau riche.
One of the Rothschild’s once said “It is easy making wine, it is the first 200 years which is the hardest.” It was a quote I think attributed to Baroness Philippine. Well they started a long time ago. At the end of the 18th century, Amschel Rothschild sent his five sons out of the Frankfurt Ghetto to found banks in the main cities of Europe. The symbolism of the family emblem of five arrows, pointing in different directions, but remaining attached at the center, was clear. He might have had a hope that they would influence the financial world, but he would clearly have had no idea the family would become so involved with the world of wine!
It began in 1853, with the English Rothschilds, when Nathanial Rothschild purchased Chateau Mouton. Nathaniel’s father was Nathan Mayer Rothschild, who incidentally was the business partner, neighbor and brother in law of Sir Moses Montefiore. My distinguished relation was a wine lover, drinking a bottle of wine every day…and he lived into his 101st year. His tipple was Port, but it is quite likely he drank his nephew’s wine.
Today the parent company is called Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA, and it includes Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Clerc Milon, Chateau d’Armaillac from Bordeaux, Opus One from California, Almaviva from Chile and Mouton Cadet, the largest selling Bordeaux brand in the world. Baron Philippe de Rothschild, was in my book the most influential wine figure of the 20th century. He was the first to Chateau bottle, the first to declassify and produce a branded wine (Mouton Cadet). He was one of the first to use the canvas of the label for art & marketing. He also founded the high profile joint venture with Robert Mondavi, resulting in Opus One and the beautiful Wine Art Museum at the Chateau.
In 1868, the French Rothschilds began their foray into wine, when Baron James de Rothschild purchased Chateau Lafite, arguably the most prestigious winery of all. Today the company Domaine Barons Rothschild (Lafite) owns Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Duhart-Milon , Chateau L’Evangile , Chateau Rieussec from Bordeaux, Vina Los Vascos from Chile & Bodegas Caro from Argentina. The most influential person during a key period was arguably Baron Eric de Rothschild. During his wise tenure, Lafite returned to its greatest days and the company DBR grew, expanded and prospered.
From 1882 onwards, Baron Edmond de Rothschild established a modern wine industry in Israel, built the two largest wineries and planted vineyards throughout the country. He also founded Societe Cooperative Vigneronne des Grand Caves, otherwise known as Carmel Winery. In 1957, his son James Rothschild donated Rishon Le Zion & Zichron Ya’acov Cellars to Carmel. To buy Chateau Mouton cost the family 1 million francs. To purchase Chateau Lafite cost 4 million francs. The founding of Carmel with the deep underground cellars cost a monumental 11 million francs. No doubt what was the better investment!
In 1973, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, grandson of the original Baron Edmond, purchased Chateau Clarke. His Companie Vinicole Baron Edmond de Rothschild, now includes Chateau Clarke, Chateau Malmaison, Chateau des Laurets from Bordeaux, Bodegas Macon from Spain, Bodegas Flechas de los Andes from Argentina, Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons from South Africa & Rimapere from New Zealand.
Like all families, the Rothschilds were not always of one mind and for many years there was acrimonious rivalry, particularly in the days when Elie de Rothschild managed Lafite and Philippe de Rothschild managed Mouton. In the classification of 1855, Lafite was made a First Growth (Premier Grand Cru Classe) and Mouton a Second Growth. Nathaniel then uttered the immortal words: “First I cannot be. Second I do not deign to be. I am Mouton.” After years of lobbying that ruffled the feathers of their family neighbors, Mouton became the first and only winery ever promoted to First Growth. Baron Philippe de Rothschild then changed the slogan to: “First I am. Second I was. Mouton does not change!” There were real tensions but certainly in the more recent days of Eric, Philippine and Benjamin, relations were on a more even keel.
So, when Benjamin de Rothschild (Chateau Clarke), son and heir of Baron Edmond, broached the idea of producing a family champagne, Baron Eric de Rothschild (Chateau Lafite Rothschild) and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild (Chateau Mouton Rothschild), daughter of Baron Philippe, swiftly agreed. The project began in 2005.
The Rothschilds aimed high, using the resources of Cave Vertus in Reims and making contact with some of the best growers in the most sought after growing areas in the champagne region. These included the Cote des Blancs for Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for Pinot Noir.
They were walking on egg shells at the beginning. The biggest challenge was sourcing the grapes and building a relationship with the growers. It took five years to find the right growers and five years to build up reserve stocks. The result though was the release of a new series of Champagnes under the Rothschild name.
The Directeur-General of Champagne Barons de Rothschild is the sharp, impressive, dapper Frederic Mairesse. He said: “We knew we want to be a small producer at the premium end. We source from the Cote de Blancs, over 80% of which are grand and premier cru sites.” He has knowledge and experience of winemaking, is intimate with Champagne and also marketing savvy. Always immaculately dressed, he is another key reason for the success of this enterprise. He can be spotted in photos in the company of scantily clad models on one hand or in stylish surroundings like the Ritz on the other. He can even be found surrounded by orthodox Jews with long peyot (sidelocks) at the Kosher Food & Wine Experience, in New York. No matter the backdrop, two things never change. His expression is always the same and he is always touting the Rothschild Champagne!! He is a smooth operator and the absolute professional!
On a recent visit to Chateau Clarke to interview Baroness Ariane de Rothschild, I had the opportunity to taste the non-vintage Champagnes with him. We sat in the beautiful tasting room at Chateau Clarke overlooking the vineyards and I heard the story. The Rothschild Brut is a subtle blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is lively, with small, persistent bubbles. It has a fragrance with aromas of pear, the most delicate white flowers and a hint of yeasty toastiness in the background. It is flavorful, yet refreshing with a long, clean finish.
The Rothschild Rose is a beautiful onion skin color, with a tight, even mousse. It is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, has aromas of delicate berry fruit, with a hint of strawberry & raspberry, and a light, refreshing finish.
The Rothschild Blanc de Blancs is made from some of the finest Chardonnay grapes from the Cotes des Blancs crus. Reserve wines are used for a large proportion of the blend. This is an exquisite wine, which is delicate, creamy and elegant, but with great purity and a citrusy finish. They have now produced prestige and vintage cuvees too.
Today after a changing of the guard, the Rothschild wine businesses are run respectively by Ariane de Rothschild (wife of Benjamin), Saskia de Rothschild (daughter of Eric) and Philippe Sereys de Rothschild (son of Philippine), who acts as chairman of the Champagne Barons de Rothschild board. In discussions agreements by two out three of the partners is not sufficient. There has to be 100% agreement to proceed. Philippe Sereys de Rothschild said: “The Chardonnay is the white truffle of Champagne. It’s the best. In order to put the Rothschild name on it, it had to be the best.” He reminisced how his Grandfather Baron Philippe, was a major shareholder of the Champagne House Ruinart, but sold his stake in the 1950’s. He also had his own label, Reserve Baron Philippe, which he grew up drinking as a teenager. Now the three great Rothschild families of wine have become Champagne producers and produce their own Champagne.
Though the family no longer contribute or invest in Israeli wine, they do continue to support Israel in amazing ways. To their credit, though the new generation are not Jewish, they still show respect to the Jewish community by producing kosher wines. There is a kosher Mouton Cadet, that was not great when I last tasted it, but CVBER / Edmond de Rothschild Heritage since 1986 continues to be a firm, loyal and longstanding producer of quality kosher wines from Bordeaux and Argentina. Now the Rothschild Champagne is also made kosher in the Brut and Rose styles, and the Brut is even made ‘mevushal’ (flash pasteurized) for those Jewish caterers and American kosher restaurants that require it.
The five arrows and three families have now joined forces in a joint venture to make a really high quality Champagne. Up to now the only place Rothschild vast wine interests have been marketed together, is at the beautiful and historic Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England, owned by Lord Jacob Rothschild. The Barons de Rothschild Champagne represents the first time that the different families have made wine togethor. These days, if you fortunate enough to be hosted at any of the Rothschild wineries, at least you know what Champagne you will drinking!
Adam Montefiore has been advancing Israeli wine for over thirty years. He is referred to as the ambassador of Israeli wine and is the wine writer of the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com