Crème de la crème Bordeaux Wines
Bordeaux first growths are some of the most sought after wines in the world and they command some of the highest prices. When you think about how big Bordeaux is (think nearly 5X that of Napa) and just how few producers achieved this coveted status (only 5), these prices start to make a little more sense.
You can’t start talking about the first growths without first understanding what it is that makes them first growths. The term “First Growth”, comes from the French Premier Crus,which translates to just that. This status was awarded to just four chateaux back in 1855, when Emperor Napoleon III wanted to showcase what Bordeaux had to offer at the Exposition in Paris later that year. In order to highlight the best producers, a group of merchants called the Syndicat of Cortiers was tasked with ranking the châteaux. They came up with a ranking system that was based on the prices that they were able to sell the wines at, with the First Growths being the most expensive and the Fifth Growths being the most affordable of the ranked châteaux. The idea was, the more that people were willing to pay for any given château’s wine, the higher the quality that wine was. Oddly enough, the châteaux that were included in the ranking system were only of those located on the left bank. There was no Saint-Emilion, nor Pomerol producers included.
Of the current five chateaux, only one was not included in the original classification - Château Mouton Rothschild. Notoriously snubbed in the original rankings, the winery spent nearly 120 years proving that it was worthy of a top spot. In 1973 it was finally promoted to First Growth, making it a very small minority of promoted châteaux.
Who are the First Growths?
Château Latour takes its name from the tower that resides on the property. The original tower was built during the hundred years war, to defend the Garrone estuary. The original tower fell in battle, and has since been rebuilt in the same location to house the estate's pigeons. Science the 2012 vintage, Château Latour no longer participates in the perennial En Primeur campaign. The Château has since decided to allow their wines to rest to an appropriate drinking window before releasing them. Château Latour only uses old vines for the ‘Grand Vin’ or top wine. Additionally the château has restricted the source of the grapes to the original footprint of the estate documented in 1759. All the fruit grown outside of the enclos is used for the other two wines ‘Les Fort de Latour’ and ‘Pauillac de Château Latour’.
Château Margaux has a long storied history, one of the owners was even beheaded by guillotine in the French Revolution. The estate is currently in the best shape it has ever been, producing what is probably the best wine it has ever produced. The house even has an onsite cooper that makes all of the barrels used in ageing the wine. Margaux produces three red wines and a single white wine that is sold as a generic Bordeaux AOC because white wine is not permitted within the Margaux appellation. The declassification should not fool you, Château Margaux’s Pavillon Blanc is delicious and costs a pretty penny.
Château Lafite Rothschild
Château Lafite has regularly been listed at the very top of critics list throughout history. It even held a record for the highest priced wine in bordeaux back in the mid 1800’s, due to its commercial success. Much like the other first growths, Lafite has a strict age cut off for the top wine of the château. This gives an average vine age of 45 years in the grand vin, with the oldest plot included being almost 140 years old. The house ferments the grapes as independent lots to provide as much control over the final blend as possible.
Château Haut Brion
Château Haut Brion is unique to the other premier cus in that it lies outside of the Medoc. Haut Brion is in Graves within the Pessac-Léognan appellation, located about 30 minutes west of the city of Bordeaux. The wines produced on this estate were actually one of the first to be imported into the United States. Thomas Jeffereson enjoyed the wine so much he had cases sent back to Monticello. Historically, Haut Brion has been ahead of the curve with improvements in the vineyard and in the château. They were one of the first to include steel fermentation vats, to specify clonal selection in the vineyard and even incorporate electricity into the château.
Château Mouton Rothschild
Château Mouton Rothschild was not originally included in the First Growths of Bordeaux, the estate has spent a large portion of its history making up for that fact. Mouton was the first producer to really take ownership of the entire wine making process in Bordeaux. The château took wine from grapes to bottles starting in 1924. Prior to this estate bottling the châteaux were selling wine to negociants in barrels, leaving lots of room for inconsistency. Mouton also provides some of the prettiest bottles in Bordeaux to look at, with a new artist commissioned for each vintage to design the label art.