French Wine Journeys

Top 75 French Wines to Try Before You Quit Drinking (a non-dump bucket list if you will!)

If you are a wine lover, wine connoisseur, wine aficionado or even if you just like to have a couple of glasses on a Friday night, it soon becomes obvious that there are some wines that are held in a higher esteem in the wine world.  Sometimes, it is because these wines are very rare.  Other times, it’s because the wine has a place in history.   Sometimes it’s because the wine is just that good.  Here is a list of 75 wines from France that make up that category.  A few caveats.  I have not tried every wine on this list.  Some I have and others I hope to.  Many of these wines are rare and hard to find.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the list.  After all, if the opportunity presents itself, go for it. 

Cahors – The French Village Where Malbec Got Its Start

Cahors MapThe Village of Cahors is in the southwestern part of France.  The area is known for its red wines made predominantly from the Malbec grape, the same grape that is being used in Argentina to make some of the most popular wines being sold today.  For those fans of Malbec, it may prove interesting to go back and try some wines from its homeland.

Pétrus – An Unofficial First Growth of Bordeaux's Right Bank

When considering the unofficial lists of “First Growths of the Right Bank” in Bordeaux, Chateau Pétrus must be included.  Pétrus is located in the tiny commune of Pomerol on the right bank of the Gironde River.  The wines of Pomerol have never been classified, but there is no doubt that Pétrus is in the highest echelon of wines produced there.  It is also one of the most expensive wines sold anywhere in the world.  While the name of the estate is Chateau Pétrus, there is no grand Chateau on the premises.  There is a modest two story house on the property.  Perhaps because of that, or perhaps just due to its reputation, the wines are often just referred to as Pétrus.  The name is homage to St. Peter whose picture appears on the label.

Pétrus does not have the long history of many of the great Bordeaux wines.  Thomas Jefferson most likely never drank it.  The estate property was originally owned by the Arnaud family since the mid 1700s.  At that time, the estate was 17 acres.  The name Pétrus can be found in records dating back to 1837.  In 1868 Chateau Pétrus was ranked in quality behind two other Pomerol estates:  Vieux Chateau Certan and Chateau Trotanoy, as listed by Cocks and Fèret, one of the leading Bordeaux reference’s of its day.

Cheval Blanc: The “First Growth” of the Right Bank

When the wines of Bordeaux were classified in 1855 all of the wines were from the Left Bank of the Gironde River.  In fact, with the exception of Haut Brion, which is from Graves, all of the wines classified were from the Medoc.  Since that time, the winemaking areas of Bordeaux have greatly expanded.  Some of the best wines in Bordeaux are now made on the Right Bank including some of the most expensive wines in the entire world. 

While there is no official classification system for all of Bordeaux, there can be no doubt that if such a system was implemented today, at least a few Right Bank wineries would make the list.  Perhaps no winery deserves the mythical first growth of the Right Bank title more than Cheval Blanc.  In fact, the wines of Saint Émilion, a commune on the Right Bank, were ranked in 1955 and Cheval Blanc was one of two that received the highest rank of Premier Grand Cru Classé (A).  Those rankings were redone in 1969, 1986, and 1996 and most recently in 2006 (although that ranking is the subject of an ongoing legal dispute not relevant to Cheval Blanc) and Cheval Blanc has remained a First Growth in every subsequent ranking.

Chateau D’Yquem: Greatest Wine in the World?

In the series on the 1855 Classification of the First Growths, I spoke exclusively about red wines.  In that same year, however, the sweet dessert wines from the Bordeaux communes of Barsac and Sauternes were also classified.  All of the dessert wines listed were rated as either premier cru (first growth) or second growth status.  That is, all but Yquem which was rated Premier Cru Superieur (First Great Growth), a higher rating even than any red wine achieved in their 1855 Classification.  Yquem is quite possibly the greatest wine made anywhere and has a history dating back four hundred years!  While every wine region has its stars, there is probably no other winery that so dominates the quality of a region and has such as a lofty reputation as Chateau Yquem.

What makes these wines so special is that they develop a rot called botrytis cinera also known as Noble Rot.  When certain grapes are attacked they get moldy which, in a wonderful twist of fate, causes the grapes to lose much of their moisture, concentrating the flavors.  The resulting grapes look like moldy shriveled raisins that produce a sweet nectar.

Chateau Mouton – The Most Recent of the Bordeaux First Growths Deserves Its Upgraded Status

In the original 1855 classification, there were four chateaus granted first growth status.  Over the ensuing years there has been one major change.  In 1973, Chateau Mouton Rothschild was granted an upgrade from second to first growth status.  It was a promotion that was deserved for many reasons.  Foremost, of course, the quality of the wine, but Chateau Mouton Rothschild has long been an innovator and leader of Bordeaux.

Chateau Haut Brion – A Bordeaux First Growth Loved by Poets, Philosophers and Presidents for 350 years

My favorite of all of the first growths is Chateau Haut Brion.  Back in 1855, when the first growth classification was created, it was the only chateau that was not located in the Medoc.  Haut Brion at the time was in the commune of Graves.  Since that time, the Pessac-Loegnan appellation was carved out of Graves and is now the AOC home of Haut Brion.  Graves is a bit further south than the Medoc but still on the left bank of the Gironde.  

It is likely grapes have been cultivated on the property since Roman times.  The first records, however, date back “only” as far as 1423.  There was a mansion house located on the property called Aubrion.  After a succession of owners, the property was owned by Jean de Ségur in 1509 whose family would someday own many of the preeminent chateaus including Lafite and Latour.  In 1525 the owner, and the mayor of Libourne, Pierre de Bellon, gave it to Jeanne de Bellon to include as part of her dowry to Jean de Pontac.  The mansion house was built in 1533 and the Chateau in 1549.  The Estate was known briefly as Chateau Pontac.  

In 1649, Lord Arnaud III de Pontac became the owner of what was now undoubtedly called Haut Brion.  This began a new era in which vineyards were acquired and developed.  Around that time, Arnaud Bellon III, a great great grandson of Jean Bellon, took control of the winery.

Chateau Margaux: The Most Elegant of Bordeaux First Growths

Chateau Margaux is in the Bordeaux commune of Margaux on the left bank of the Gironde River.  The wines made in Margaux are some of the most feminine in style of all Bordeaux wines.  Among the wines of Margaux, the wines of Chateau Margaux are the best of all of those.  From their perfumed nose to their lithe complexities, they are wines that reflect their terroir in a most elegant way.

The history of Chateau Margaux can be traced back at least to the twelfth century when it was known as “La Mothe de Margaux” from motte meaning a small rise in the land.  Sometime during the 16th century, the first grape vines were planted under the direction of Pierre de Lastonnac.  Within the next hundred years, Chateau Margaux expanded to cover 654 acres, approximately one-third of that with grape vines.  In the 1700s, an estate manager named Berlon introduced many “new” improvements.  Today, his ideas are common sense, but back then they were radical.  Ideas such as not picking grapes when they were wet and vinifying the red and white grapes separately led to a much higher quality of wine.  The result was evident as by 1771 the wines of Margaux were featured in the catalogues of Christie’s.  Around that time, America’s first wine lover, Thomas Jefferson, rated Chateau Margaux as the top wine in Bordeaux.  His meticulous records document an order he placed in 1784.

Chateau Latour – A Profile of the Remarkably Consistent Bordeaux First Growth

Perhaps the most consistent of the Bordeaux First Growths has been Chateau Latour. While the other four Chateaus have had periods of underperformance, Chateau Latour has been remarkably consistent over the years in making some of the best wine to be found.

Chateau Latour can trace its history back to 1331 when a tower, called Tor à St-Lambert, was built on the site. This tower was used for defense in a battle between the Plantagenets and the French during the Hundred Years Wars. Sometime around 1378, the land, now referred to as “the tower” or Le Tour, was a seigneurie, a sharecropping system of land ownership. In 1453, when the English were finally defeated, the owner of the estate, Sieur de Larsan fled. The property returned to the control of the French and the tower on the site was destroyed. Nothing from it, other than the name, exists today. Sometime in the early 17th century, the the building on the label of the bottle called a dovecot was built on the site of the original tower.

Bordeaux First Growths: Chateau Lafite, First Amongst First Growths

Of all Bordeaux first growths, perhaps none is as well known, both inside and outside of the wine world, as Chateau Lafite Rothschild.  Its name transcends wine, standing as a symbol of luxury.  How did it get this lofty reputation?  And, more importantly is, it deserved?  The answer to the second question is a definite yes.  This article will explore the first question in more detail.

The History:
Records of this estate stretch as far back as 1234 when Gombaud de Lafite, abbot of the Vertheuil Monastery north of Pauillac, owned the property.  The name Lafite comes from "la hite", a Gascon expression meaning "small hill."  Records from the 14th century indicate that it was not a vineyard, but what the French call a seigneurie.   This is an estate run by a lord and others who are effectively sharecroppers.  The manor house was constructed in the 1500s and still standing today.

Read part one of the First Growths Series.

The Ségur family bought the property in the 1600s.  Jacques de Ségur planted the vineyard in 1680 although grapes were no doubt grown before that.  By the early 1700s, thanks to Nicolas-Alexandre, Marquis de Ségur, Chateau Lafite wines were very popular with those wealthy enough to afford them, first in English Society (where it was a favorite of Prime Minster Robert Walpole) and later in French society. 

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