French newspaper La Depeche has reported that a ‘wine war’ is developing over branding and ‘corporate’ identity concerning Chateau Lafite Rothschild. As the paper rightly points out ‘not all Lafites are Rothschilds’ – there are many domaines and chateaux dotted throughout the wine making regions of France that are named ‘Lafite’ or have ‘Lafite’ as part of their name. The name ‘Lafite’ comes from the old French word ‘la hite’ which means small hill and as vineyards are often on hill slopes it’s a fairly common place name and surname. The latest battle (there have been quite a few – and not just between Lafite Rothschild and similarly named chateaux – see What’s In A Name? Branding Battles in Bordeaux – The Attacks on Small Chateaux) has been between Eric Gendre of Chateau Lafite in Fronton and the First Growth Chateau Lafite Rothschild, in Pauillac
Eric Gendre cultivates of 37 acres (15 hectares) of vineyards between Castelnau d’Estrétefonds and Bouloc in the Fronton appellation in Haute Garonne. Fronton is one of the oldest wine regions in France and its believed the Romans planted vines there on land overlooking the valley of the Tarn. There is certainly a lot of archaeological evidence to support this – near Eric’s Chateau Lafite sit the remains of a Gallo Roman villa and lots of finds have been discovered over the years.
Eric Gendre says that his Chateau Lafite in Fronton is probably one of the oldest vineyards in the area and that he can trace it to the beginning of the 17th century. Obviously he can claim historical legitimacy to its name.
However Eric says that the trouble started in 2009 when he found a market for his wines in China. It was at this point that Chateau Lafite Rothschild realised Eric’s chateau had the same name. He was ‘dragged to court in Bordeaux’ and says he was treated as if he ‘had the plague’. He was ‘attacked for counterfeiting and compared to the Chinese traffickers peddling fake Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
To avoid confusion Eric proposed to change his bottles and rename his domaine to Chateau Rose Lafite, Rose being the first name of his mother. But the court in Bordeaux didn’t want to know,
The verdict was severe – Eric can not sell his wines. The position of the owners of Chateau Lafite Rothschild remains intractable. Eric says that his is one of 50 similar disputes between chateaux.
Eric points out that he was never a competitor – his wines sell for 5 euros, unlike those of Chateau Lafite Rothschild which retail for at least 200 euros, with some vintages fetching thousands.
Nor is Fronton on Chateau Lafite Rothschild’s doorstep, it’s 168 miles away. Eric’s wine is not even made from the same grapes as Lafite Rothschild’s and has a completely different character. It’s made predominantly from the rare Négrette grape.
Négrette is almost exclusively grown in Fronton and makes up 50 – 70% of the final blend. There are small pockets of Négrette elsewhere in the world – it made its way to California where it is known as Pinot St George. Wines made from this grape are said to be rich in colour, low in tannins and aromatic with notes of violet, jasmine, blackcurrant and liquorice.
Legend has it that Négrette was brought to Fronton from Cyprus in the 12th century by the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (later the Order of Malta) who owned the vineyards at this point in time. In Cyprus the grape was known as ‘Mavro’ (meaning ‘black’ in Greek) and in the 16th century mention was made of the ‘black wine’ of Gaillac (as opposed to the lighter coloured Clarets of Bordeaux). Gaillac is a neighbouring appellation to Fronton. Over time the Frontonnais adopted the name Négrette for the vine, which has little black grapes.
It seems Eric’s crime was to encroach on the developing and – as yet fairly naive – Chinese market. It’s a difficult situation as the Lafite Rothschilds of this world are worried that estates bearing the same name might damage their reputation if consumers mistake one for the other and are disappointed. However I don’t think it’s right that the little guys should have to give up their ancestral names. They need their markets too and a sudden name change will impact on their sales.