En Primeur 2022: An Interview with Jean-Sébastien Philippe, International Director at Lafite Rothschild

Robert Mathias, Senior Fine Wine Buyer

2 May 2023

As part of En Primeur 2022, we’ve interviewed leaders in the industry in Bordeaux to find out everything there is to know about the Bordeaux 2022 vintage.

Robert Mathias, our Senior Fine Wine Buyer, sat down with Jean-Sébastien Philippe of Château Lafite and Domaines Barons de Rothschild to hear his take on the 2022 vintage, and to find out what we can expect from DBR Lafite’s 2022 release.

Thank you, Jean-Sébastien, for joining us. It would be great if you could first introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a bit about Château Lafite and Domaines Barons de Rothschild.

Thank you, Robert, for the introduction. I’m Jean-Sébastien Philippe and I have the privilege to be the International Director for the Châteaux at DBR Lafite group, including Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Duhart-Milon in Pauillac, the beautiful estate of Château Rieussec in Sauternes and Château L’Evangile in Pomerol.

All these estates give us a very nice understanding of the vintage across the regions. It’s a privilege to be on the different banks, and with the production of whites, red and sweet wines, it gives us a good overview of what a vintage can bring in a region, and how different the vintage can be from one appellation to the other.

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By all accounts so far, 2022 for both Left Bank and Right Bank is lauded as a great vintage for Bordeaux. For the growing season, it seems to be one of the driest in recent years, and not without drama. Perhaps you could start by giving us a recap of the conditions, and outline what key features you thought were most formative of the vintage?

In 2022, it was a marathon, a season that put all the team under very hard work, a lot of questions, and a permanent management of extreme conditions. But to begin with the winter started very cold and dry, it was certainly the coldest, compared to what we had in the past. We had some frost at the end of March and into April, and we had a lot of stress. It was a year where there really was a lot to do. We had to fight collectively against the frost, especially in Pomerol where we had the four nights of warnings. During this time, we have asked all our employees to come and support the team, to make sure we had plenty of people fighting against the frost. From these frosty conditions, we saw very quick and sharp changes, it was suddenly very warm.

Conditions in April and May onwards saw the temperature rise up very quickly. We’ve never had such warm conditions in May, and this is the reason we had very early flowering. Flowering happened around the 20th May, for all grape varieties, which is very early – usually we wouldn’t expect to see this until early June.

It was very warm, and for those visiting Bordeaux at this time, it was very, very hot. Fortunately, and I think many forget this when discussing the 22’ vintage, one of the reasons the vintage was saved is that we got 110 millimetres of rain (at the end of June). So, in addition to those very warm conditions across the month of June, this rainfall gave more water supply enabling the grapes and the vineyards to get through to the end of the season. Following that, we had three big waves of warm weather. Through June, we had very dry winds and warm conditions, then again in July, before another big heatwave in August. The difference in those heatwaves? Compared to 2003, for example, the heatwaves in 2022 were very short. In the Bordeaux vintage 2003, there were no breaks and no possibility for the vineyards to really cool down and have some breaks from the heat. That’s the big difference. We had a warm end of season until the harvest, with very dry conditions. Absolutely no sign of water coming up, which was good as the grapes were absolutely perfect. To round up, it was a stressful season, with some plots suffering due to the frost and then the heat. During harvest and then through vinification we were very selective, only picking the best grapes that maintained that freshness with no sign of maturity and that sweet profile.

That’s really interesting, thank you for outlining that. Another feature, as you mentioned, is the comparison to 2003. You mention the key difference is the more radical shift in the temperature. The nights tended to be quite cool compared to the days, with the nights sometimes going 20°C or below 20°C, is that your experience as well?

Yes, exactly the same thing. We found that particularly on the Left Bank, the differences were higher in Pauillac than in Pomerol. During the heatwave in August, despite the high temperatures, we were getting fresher nights. Not too fresh, 20°C-22°C, but it gave a kind of relief for the vineyards. It enabled us to maintain some freshness and gave the grapes more capacity to reach perfect maturity. So, it was really useful for us.

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Have you now finalised the blend for your 2022 wines? What’s your impression of the wines at this early stage?

Well, the 22 vintage for us (I don’t know how to say this in English perfectly) but it’s like a very romantic and flamboyant poet. You know he sometimes goes to the very extreme of everything. The wines could be described as very expressive and as having many emotions. They’ve got the characteristics of a genius. To get to something perfect, there has to be something difficult to begin with.

These were the difficulties we faced during vinification. First, we had to be very precise on the press. This year it was a very tricky exercise for our team. Never going to the extreme, being very gentle in the press. We had to ensure we were being gentle to manage and balance the tannins, so that we didn’t get too much power. It was very much about being patient.

But as always most of the work was done in the vineyard to get the best fruit possible. On a property like L’Evangile, the work that Juliette Couderc (Technical Manager) and her team have done in dividing plots was tremendous. The l’Evangile team even put the precision level towards harvesting rows several times, like in Sauternes, to only pick the grapes at the most perfect maturity possible.

In Pauillac a similar work was conducted by Louis Caillard (Vineyard Director) and his team to pick and clean, just before the official start of harvest, all berries that has been “blocked” by water shortage or over cooked.

Then, if you do things right in the vineyards and you have the best possible fruits, it is all about precision and attention to details in winemaking to sublime the fruit, not hiding it. To illustrate that point, in Lafite, we made a few shifts to our usual processes as well. We stopped cuvaison time after maybe 17-18 days, while usually at Lafite we would go for 20 days. The amount of press wines was tremendous this year as well. We got up to 17% of press because of the high quality of the wines and because of our work to be gentle and patient. It allowed us to bring some additional layers and a very nice structure to the wine.

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That’s fascinating and it raises an interesting point of tannin management. The development and improvement of tannin management has become much more precise, not just with your wines, but with Bordeaux in general. 2022 is a vintage where you can really show that precision, to balance the juice in the berries.

Yes, and it was very obvious from the beginning! When we were first tasting the tanks, in the very early days, we could see how much colour there was and how there were already rich flavours, aromas and complexity. These early indications were very enlightening and showed us that it was certainly not a vintage for big extraction. That’s one of the big surprises, especially for the Cabernet Sauvignon. On the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon has once again been a king grape for us…despite having the most beautiful Merlots since 2018! The Lafite has ended up being 94% Cabernet due to its success this year. Thus the most of the fantastic Merlots are entering into Carruades de Lafite making it outstanding and distinctive!

The key takeaways on the 2022 vintage seem to be the quality of the wines, the very high level of fruit and tannins and the need for delicate extraction for all this wonderful fruit. What does that mean for the quantity and the yields, on both the Left Bank and the Right Bank?

On the Left Bank, the yields are somewhere around 30 hectolitres per hectare to 32 hectolitres per hectare while on the Right Bank, we are at 28-29 hectolitres per hectare at L’Evangile, so it is of course a bit smaller than what we had last year. It’s between -10-20% depending on the wines. What’s great news, across our Châteaux, is that we have a slightly higher proportion of Grand Vin to what we used to have last year.

That’s great news!
Solar vintages are becoming more and more normal for vine growers in Bordeaux with vintages like 2003, 2009, 2015 and 2018 coming to mind. How has the practice in the vineyard changed over this time to create the most balanced wine possible in a vintage with a lot of heat and not a lot of water?

To be honest, I don’t think it’s one element. I just think there is a collective sense in Bordeaux that vineyard management is key. We don’t want to speak for everyone. We think it’s something a lot of producers of high-quality wines are realising, just how important the management of the vineyards is and how focused Bordeaux is on vineyard management today. We are constantly surprised and impressed by the development of viticulture and how committed the teams are to working more and more on building the quality of the vineyard management. The research, the development, the collective sense, the sharing of knowledge, the capacity to work collectively among appellations and producers and groups of properties, to find new ways to get a better understanding of the terroir, all so we can be more precise and be better at managing our vineyards.

We’re learning from the weather conditions and from the past. Before we were planting 10,000 ft per hectares and now, we are around 8000 ft per hectare, a big difference. Today we are more precise in canopy management. The research on vegetative material, on rootstock, cover crops, on agrosystemic approach…these are also recent developments that are improving the quality of the fruits produced. Harvest management is also hugely important, we are looking at when to pick more closely, depending on the maturity of the grapes – microparcels selections, row per row management, picking based on sun exposure… It’s all these little elements put side by side which are making Bordeaux very advanced in vineyard management and enabling us to produce wines with this level of quality and freshness despite the more extreme conditions.

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It sounds like it’s a continuous process of improvement and attention to detail. Have you found any merit in looking to the New World, areas like Napa Valley, to see how they handle the warmer climates and drought conditions?

We are of course looking to the New World, however for us its less of a focus on Napa Valley due to the difference in the wines we create – and most importantly because we are not expert of the region ! We have the privilege to be producing wines in the South of France, in the Languedoc, and in South America, in Chile and Argentina which have those similar dry conditions and in terms of vineyard management are always very interesting and places where we learn.

Hydric stress particularly is a big topic in the Languedoc, and looking at producers in this area have helped us understand what stress can do to the vines and the fruit, especially when it comes to maturity.

There is also this idea of better understanding from previous warm vintages we had in Bordeaux, and work collectively with other properties, or with specialists, to conduct analysis or put in place some actions. Currently for example, at Lafite, we have a very brilliant team member called Manuela Brando. She’s our Head of Research and Development for the group and, in partnership with the University of Bordeaux, is carrying out a study on Biodynamics. With empirical study and analysis, the objective is to be able to put more tangible data on what Biodynamics can bring to vineyards, positive or negative – especially in the context of more drastic climate changes.

It seems like water usage and conservation is becoming a growing concern for many winemakers around the world. How is your property adapting to this necessity both in the vineyard and in the cellar?

Yes for sure. One of the strong ambitions of Saskia de Rothschild, our executive Chairwoman, is to make DBR Lafite group at the forefront when it comes to corporate social responsibility. Today all of the Châteaux are organically managed or finalising the certification, the same case for most of our wineries abroad. It is not a dogmatic approach as we have a wider ambition behind it – organic is a first step. We have also agro-ecological transformations in place, in addition to all the vineyard restructuration currently conducted. We are also making restorations in our wine making operations, making our energy more efficient for both electricity and for water.

Duhart-Milon was transformed 2 years ago in this direction with superb results. Lafite is going to enter a restructuration phase starting from early 2024. We will discuss it more extensively in due time but key elements like reducing the movements of grapes, simplifying process and work for our team, but also water and energy supply will be key elements of the project.

We have to be responsible for our energy and carbon footprint. The same applies to the social impact also hugely important to us and where we have a lot of initiative.

This all sounds really exciting! We look forward to hearing more.
To move back to En Primeur particularly, how important is the En Primeur release of the wines for you?

We are strong believers in the En Primeur model. For us, it’s one of the best distribution systems in the world, because there is no other opportunity where the wine world focuses on one particular region. The concept is fascinating, and it’s a privilege for us as producers to have the opportunity to meet merchants from all around the world, to taste and for them in turn to be able to share the story and the passion behind our wines to their customers. Our most important pleasure in life is to be able to share the fruit of the work of the team – opening bottles, meeting customers, bringing people to the vineyard, share the passion…! The En-Primeurs model enables us to do so.

We are incredibly lucky and privileged to have high demand for the wines and thus for our customers, the best way to access the wine at more affordable prices remains the En Primeur model.

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What is your strategy for the percentage of wines released onto the market during EP? Are you releasing a more limited quantity than say, 10 years ago?

No, we believe that for the EP moment to remain meaningful it is worth to release at least 70-80% of our production En Primeur. This is very important. The rest we keep for the long run. At Lafite or L’Evangile, we keep the wines for at least 5-7 years after the EP release. We want to wait until the wines have more maturity and are ready to drink, so we won’t release the wine earlier except during En Primeur.

One of our privileges is having the capacity to find the people we want to work with, people like Bordeaux Index, who have expertise, a footprint, a long-time relationship with us and are enabling us through events, communications, tastings to create this emotional links with our final consumers. We want build relations for the long run. It is fantastic for us to create the connection with our wine merchants, with new customers, so that we know who are drinking our wines around the world. That’s part of the beauty in our job, to have this human interaction, which we love. We completely agree! To sum up, I have a final couple of questions. This may be a difficult one, but could you compare the Bordeaux 2022 vintage to any recent or historical vintages?

Well, it is a tough one and I don’t think we have the same answer for all the properties. Strong debate among the team members! Good thing that we have Eric Kohler, Technical Director of our Pauillac properties, celebrating his 27th vintage this year at Château Lafite that has very strong and precise memories of them all!

I will start with Pauillac, with Lafite.

I think for Lafite, I would say one of the closest vintage in terms of balance would be the 2005. The density and definition of tannins? Would be 2010, and finally the length, the precision, the elegance, would be 2016. So, maybe a combination of the three! These are classic great vintages of Lafite, which is very reassuring.

For the Right Bank, in L’Evangile, I would say this vintage might be closer to 2020. A very serious, precise, firm, aristocratic style of Pomerol.

Wow, serious vintages! And finally, if you could sum up the Bordeaux vintage 2022 in three words, what would those be?

A marathon. First word. (with only 1 water break!)

Second word. Precision.

The last word… Genius?

The final outcome might be genius wines, made of precision and the hard from all the fantastic teams through each season, on a season which was a marathon.

Thank you Jean-Sébastien. We can’t wait to try the wines….

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