Wine Opinion: All manor of styles in Rothschild's lair

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 10:09am

The stone gatehouse, manned by well-spoken National Trust staff, lies a 2.5-kilometre drive from the manor, past rolling countryside, deer parks, stables, an aviary, a rose garden, and immaculate terraces landscaped by 19th-century designer Elie Lainé. Following instructions, we turn left at the fountain, take a few more well-sculpted turns, and come face-to-face with a Loire-style effusion of turrets and spires, set in the rolling Buckinghamshire countryside.

This is Waddesdon Manor in England one of more than 40 Rothschild villas built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is also the only one that remains open to the public with much of its original collection of artwork and furniture intact. It's a monument to the astonishing power of the Rothschilds over the past 200 years, and an essential tour stop for wine lovers, as its cellars, restaurant and wine shop contain about 90 per cent of all Rothschild wines made today, from France, Argentina, Chile, California, South Africa and soon China.

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild built this place in the 1870s. Even its construction was a full-on display of Rothschild financial muscle; powerful Percheron horses - relied upon as trusty war horses from the 1700s onwards - were imported from France to transport the mass of building materials up the steep hill on which the chateau sits. The horses lugged 11 kilometres of copper piping, hundreds of tonnes of brick and lead, and thousands of metres of iron balustrade, all stamped with the same Rothschild family crest that you see today on the capsules of every bottle of Domaine Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) wines, from Los Vascos to Lafite itself.

The napkins on the manor restaurant's tables are in Lafite Rothschild blue, and bottles of Lafite guard the stone flagstones leading down to the wine cellar (pictured), a sign that Lord Jacob Rothschild is also an 8 per cent shareholder in the Pauillac flagship. The cellars were opened in 1994 by Queen Elizabeth II, as part of the centenary restoration, and contain Jacob's 16,000-bottle private wine collection.

His ancestor, Baron Ferdinand, drank no alcohol, so while other Rothschilds of his generation were busy buying up land in Pauillac and creating their now world famous wine properties, Ferdinand chose instead to concentrate on creating a dairy and cattle farm at Waddesdon, and filling the building with paintings by Gainsborough and Romney, classic French Louis XIV furniture, and panelled interiors once owned by Bourbon kings.

He had no interest in a wine cellar, so the vast majority of the cellars were designed and built for Lord Jacob.

In total there are 16,280 bottles here, 12,500 of them Lafite Rothschild. If you visit the Lafite and Mouton properties in Bordeaux, the two sides of the family keep a polite but strictly imposed distance, but here a video plays on continual loop with owners Baron Eric of Lafite and Baroness Philippine of Mouton talking about their estates and how the wines are made.

The first room you come to has maps on the wall of all family vineyard holdings in Pauillac, with Lafite and Duhart-Milon on one side, and Mouton, Armailhac and Clerc Milon on the other.

Behind locked gates are three vaulted rooms with vintages dating back to the 1860s, while a collection of empty bottles dates back to the 1700s.

"In 1996, the value of the wine here was £3 million [K$37 million]," says wine adviser Peter Tompkins. "But with the explosion of prices over the past decade, it will now be perhaps around £20 million."

The teetotal Baron Ferdinand might have frowned at this profusion at his English home, but there is one exhibit in the cellar that should have met with his grim approval. Displayed in the central room is a dark green glass bottle, sealed with thick black wax and engraved with the word "Lafitte" and the letters "Th.J". This is one of the 1787 Lafite bottles supposedly engraved by US president Thomas Jefferson.

The small card beneath says it was given to Lord Jacob Rothschild in 1994 to mark the opening of the Waddesdon cellars by Christie's auctioneer Michael Broadbent on behalf of Hardy Rodenstock - the man later taken to court over the authenticity of the bottles.

It now stands as an historical curiosity of the world's most famous wine forgery.