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Jan. 6, 2021, 12:59 p.m. EST

Worldwise: Vintner Saskia de Rothschild’s Favorite Things

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Since 1868, when Baron James de Rothschild , head of the German banking dynasty’s French branch, purchased the vineyard, Château Lafite Rothschild has been run by six generations of the Rothschild family. Until 2018, all of them were men. That’s when Saskia de Rothschild , now 33, became the youngest head of a first-growth Bordeaux estate and the first female chairwoman of Domaines Barons de Rothschild.

Although she had tended to the vines over the years and always helped to blend the annual vintage, de Rothschild’s career aspirations were not in wine, but investigative journalism. When her father, Baron Éric , who had helmed Château Lafite Rothschild since 1974, was ready to step down, a new path unfolded for the younger de Rothschild. After a deep immersion in viticulture and oenology, she’s now in charge of eight wineries spanning three continents. 

Additionally 2018 marked 150 years since the family’s acquisition of the château, and the newly installed de Rothschild was figuring out how to best commemorate the occasion. “We joked with the winemaking team that we should do a big tasting with 150 wines and we realized that we were only missing eight vintages on the shelf. Knowing we had all these wines that told the history of the estate, I thought we should actually do a book,” de Rothschild says.

That vision led to de Rothschild and Baron Éric’s recently released Château Lafite: The Almanac , a compendium of vintage photographs, tasting notes, and scientific data that chronicle the winery’s outsize legacy. “We came up with the idea of an almanac because it’s a tool for farmers to understand the years to come,” she says. “We looked back at 150 years of climate and viticulture. It was a long but useful process, helping me to understand what Lafite had been for many years.”

Undoubtedly, it has also helped propel her forward. Château Lafite Rothschild produces some of the world’s most prestigious wines, wines that have long been revered—the Louis XV-approved brand was dubbed the “King’s Wine” back in the 18th century—but de Rothschild has no interest in taking that reputation for granted as she takes the wine empire into new directions.

One of the issues she is most passionate about is sustainability, signified by Château Lafite Rothschild’s conversion to 100% organic farming in 2020. Her father had the foresight to treat the site not merely as a vineyard, but as an ecosystem, devoting more than 200 hectares of marshland to nature. She wants to expand upon that ethos, and in the fall announced a competition calling for architects to submit proposals for revamping and extending Château Lafite Rothschild’s 113,000-square-foot winemaking facilities with a respect for biodiversity and natural resources in mind. 

“We have a wonderful cellar that has been around for more than a century, and we have a philosophy that we are not interventionists. The grapes come first,” she says. “But we can have even less impact, and what better way than with good ideas from designers.” 

De Rothschild’s father oversaw technical developments and her grandfather, Baron Elie , restructured the winery after World War II, but she views her role as subtler, “protecting and preserving what came before me and preparing for the person who comes next.” 

During a recent phone interview, Penta chatted with her about her interests and inspirations. 

During the pandemic, I’ve had more time to... connect with simple things using my hands, like cooking and gardening. We just planted some pear trees here, as well as four maple trees in honor of my son’s recent birth.

At home, I like to cook or bake... canelés, which is a thing you do in Bordeaux. It’s an easy pastry recipe, you just need the proper copper molds. I like to prepare them for the vineyard team as a treat. My mother is Italian, so I also make a lot of fresh pasta. 

The things I miss most about “normal” life are... quite simply, I miss restaurants—but I also miss having the chance to visit and work on our wineries abroad. I haven’t been able to go to them for a year.

My favorite thing to drink (that isn’t my wine) right now is... I’ve been drinking a lot of white wine actually, Riesling and bottles from the Loire Valley. I really try to buy wines from various producers so that I can taste them side by side to understand the appellations better.

The thing I love about Bordeaux most is... what is beyond the surface. I think Bordeaux can seem quite plain and conventional if you don’t know it, but there are always these extraordinary characters and elements that you discover.

The first place I want to travel as soon as I can is... to Peralillo, Chile, to where we have our winery, Viña Los Vascos. The area has hundreds and hundreds of hectares of wild nature and it’s incredible to go there and ride a horse around. It’s a very freeing environment. 

If I were to buy a piece of art, it would be... a wave painting by Raymond Pettibon , or an etching of a wave by Victor Hugo .

The best book I’ve read in the last year is...   Fleishman is in Trouble , by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. I thought it was spot-on in its portrayal of New York and human relationships.

A person who inspired me to do what I do is... my dad is the first person to have really shared his love of wine with me. He took great care to get me excited about it in a different way.

If I could have a drink with anybody, anywhere, it would be... Vladimir Nabokov is my absolute idol. I started reading him when I was a teenager, first With Ada, or  Ardor : A Family Chronicle, and then all his short stories and books. I think he’s an absolute master at language. I also love that he wrote in English when he was Russian. It’s an interesting approach. I would have loved to have met him over a glass of Lafite here in Pauillac.

A passion I have that few people know about is... I love to go trekking in the mountains, whether in the Pyrenees or Corsica. I hope that next summer I will be able to take a hiking trip to Mont Blanc, in the Alps.

The thing that gets me up in the morning is... the will to protect nature. It sounds vague, but I really do have the objective every day to help develop a more sustainable environment. 

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