A closer look at Bordeaux’s First Growths

There’s no doubt that 2020 has been an eventful year. And at times a complete rollercoaster. But part of me can’t believe that it’s almost December, and almost the end of the year. Thinking back of all the wines we’ve had over the last year, I can’t help but think how fortunate we have been, and we are grateful for our health, friends and families.

Many years ago when we got a bit more serious into wine and learning a lot more, I often read the words “First Growth” wines from Bordeaux. The First Growth is considered the benchmark for the highest possible quality in wine. These properties are located on Bordeaux’s Left Bank. They are: Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Margaux.

Let’s have a look at what makes these 5 wineries so special.

Bordeaux Classification of 1855

We have to go back a bit to understand where these came from. In 1855, Napoleon III, emperor of France, wanted the best of wines to be represented at the Exposition Universelle de Paris. And in order to do so, a classification was put in place ranking all Bordeaux wines. These classifications were Premier Cru (first growth), Deuxièmes Crus (second growth), Troisieme Cru (third growth), Quatrieme Cru (fourth growth) and Cinquieme Cru (fifth growth). It included 58 châteaus: 4 first-growths, 12 seconds, 14 thirds, 11 fourths and 17 fifths.

Some ownerships, names, vineyards and even quality have changed since this classification, though the actual rankings have not changed except for one. At the time, there were only four wines considered Premier Cru, but in 1973 Château Mouton-Rothschild got elevated from Deuxièmes Crus to Premier Cru.

Let’s dive into each of the Premier Crus.

Chateau Haut-Brion

Haut-Brion is currently owned by Domaine Clarence Dillon, a family company that also owns some of the most worldwide prestigious estates: Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Château Quintus and Clarendelle. The earliest document indicating cultivation of a parcel of land dates from 1423.

The estate of Haut-Brion dates back to 1525, and after a series of unsuccessful owners during difficult times, Clarence Dillon bought the Chateau Haut-Brion for ₣2,300,000 ($2,753,155).

The grape varieties that is currently grown on Haut-Brion is Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. From these grapes they make their grand vin, and a second wine, Le Clarence de Haut-Brion. Along with these two offerings, you can also find their Haut-Brion Blanc.

According to Wine Searcher, a bottle of 2005 Haut-Brion will, on average, cost you about $877.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild

While the first known reference to Lafite dates to 1234 with a certain Gombaud de Lafite, abbot of the Vertheuil Monastery north of Pauillac, Lafite’s mention as a medieval fief dates to the 14th century. The name Lafite comes from the Gascon language term “la hite”, which means “hillock”.

The vineyard consists of three main areas: the hillsides around the Château, the adjacent Carruades plateau to the west, and 4.5 hectares in neighbouring Saint Estèphe. The vineyard covers 112 hectares and is well-drained and well-exposed, with soil made up of fine deep gravel, mixed with aeolian sand on a subsoil of tertiary limestone. It is well-drained and well-exposed to the sun.

The grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. A lovely bottle of 2005 Chateau Lafite Rothschild will run you around $1,057.

Chateau Mouton Rothschild

In 1853, Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, wishing to serve his own wine to his prestigious guests, buys Château Brane-Mouton at auction. The estate, at Pauillac in the heart of the Médoc, will henceforth bear his name: Château Mouton Rothschild.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Baron Nathaniel’s great-grandson, takes the destiny of the estate in hand in 1922. Two years later he insists that all the wine, hitherto delivered to Bordeaux wine merchants in barrels, should be bottled at the château. Also in 1924, Baron Philippe asks Jean Carlu to design the label but the initiative, ahead of its time, is not repeated.

Currently, Camille Sereys de Rothschild, Philippe Sereys de Rothschild and Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, co-owners of the Château, are likewise perpetuating their mother’s dedication to excellence.

The grape varieties grown on this estate consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. A bottle of 2005 Mouton Rothschild is around $790.

Chateau Margaux

Corinne Mentzelopoulos current runs the prestigious estate. Chateau Margaux dates back to the 16th century, but vines were only planted on the estate in 1572 including a complete restricting of the property. At the end of the 17th century, Château Margaux occupied 265 hectares, land that wouldn’t be divided again. A third of the estate was dedicated to vines, which is still the case today.

The renown of the “first growths” crossed the Atlantic and Thomas Jefferson, United States Ambassador to France, depicted the hierarchy that already reigned among the best Bordeaux wines, with Château Margaux in first place. He placed an order for Margaux 1784 on which he wrote “There couldn’t be a better Bordeaux bottle”.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Bordeaux wines are experiencing unprecedented success. The whole world seems to have their eyes riveted on Bordeaux, where the demand for these great wines never stops growing. This prosperity, as well as the rapid expansion of other regions in the world, has placed Château Margaux in a more competitive climate, and also allowed the underlining of its unique position: that of a First Growth classified in 1855, enjoying a terroir that has been shaped by the passing centuries.

The 82 hectare Chateau Margaux vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc for the red wine grapes. A 2005 Chateau Margaux costs $907 on average.

Chateau Latour

Last but certainly not least, Chateau Latour. Before I dive deeper into the estate and a bit of history, I do want to talk about the Latour and how it inspired this week’s newsletter. For years I’ve dreamed of enjoying one of these wines. The Latour is also featured in one of my favorite movies, Ratatouille.

A few weeks ago my wife told me that, for Christmas, she will buy me a bottle from one of the First Growths for us to enjoy. (So it’s a win-win situation!). Without thinking twice, I immediately jumped to Latour for many reasons. Given that we wanted to enjoy it with a meal this year and our price range, I settled on a 2008 vintage. It was incredible. I talk about this a bit more below, but let’s get back to the estate.

Château Latour has played an important role in the region’s history. The oldest document mentioning Latour dates from 1331 and is an authorization granted to Gaucelme de Castillon by Lord Pons to build a fortified tower in the parish of Saint Maubert. Château Latour then appears in the Jean Froissart’s Chronicles in 1378.

In the years since 1993, under the leadership of François Pinault, significant changes have been made with a view to upholding Château Latour’s pursuit of excellence in the wines that it produces.

The grape varieties grown on the estate consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. A 2005 Latour costs around $971.

Now back to our experience

As mentioned above, my incredible wife offered to buy us a bottle of one of the first growths to enjoy together. I picked a 2008 Chateau Latour. Since she had to work during Thanksgiving, we decided to plan a whole French themed meal to accompany the Latour. And plan we did. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you probably already saw all the photos already.

We ended up making Duck Confit, sweet potato gratin, ratatouille (confit byaldi), salade lyonnaise and freshly baked sourdough bread. This was all started with baked camembert.

I really wish I had the words to explain that bottle of wine. It was a mix of aromas, flavors and emotions. The tannins we’re smooth, we got a lot of oak, vanilla, blackberries and cassis. It’s a blend of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, and 1% Cabernet Franc.

It’s an evening I will never forget and a dinner I will always cherish.

What wine have you had recently?

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