Bordeaux: Articles on France's Bordeaux Wine Region

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.

Top Bordeaux Red Wines

Bordeaux, the world's most famous wine region and France's largest by AOC volume sold[i], produces many of the best-known wines on Earth.  With 60 appellations and over 8,600 growers, Bordeaux exports wines to over 150 countries[ii].  Winemakers around the world strive to emulate the Bordeaux style, carefully blending red wine grapes to produce a wine that reflects the best influences of its terroir.

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. 

Bordeaux First Growths: A True Trophy Wine For Wine Collectors

There is probably no more prestigious wine region in the world than Bordeaux.  The wines of Bordeaux have been considered among France’s best for hundreds of years.

Best Bordeaux Red Wine (For the Money) asked a panel of wine experts for their recommendation for the best Bordeaux Red (for the money):

As Bordeaux classified growths have all hit stratospheric price levels in recent vintages, this becomes more and more of an impossible quest for those of us who still follow the Bordeaux scene—albeit with a lot less of our own money than we used to. The average price of the nearly 10 dozen Bordeaux poured at this year’s Union des Grands Cru Bordeaux event was north of $75—more than most Americans would ever pay for a bottle of wine. I’ve tasted through a great many of the highly touted 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux, and can only really recommend a handful of very relative bargains.

The best price-to-quality performer among the classed growths in 2010 is second growth Château Gruaud Larose, whose delicious offering I rated 94.5 points. Its average U.S. price currently is “only” $97. My very top value pick from the vintage, and one that I grabbed a case of, is Graves-based Château de Chantegrive ($23). Other solid choices for QPR in 2010 are Pomerol’s Château La Pointe ($55); St. Émilion’s Château Grand Mayne ($53) and Château Berliquet ($43). - Richard Jennings, Featured Contributor and the Founder

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