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.
A History of Quality
The history of Bordeaux wine parallels the history of western civilization itself. As early as the first century A. D., Roman writers mentioned wines from Bordeaux. By the 12th century, Bordeaux was exporting wines to England to satisfy the tastes of the Angevin (Plantagenet) rulers and their successors.
The 1855 Classification
Although growth of the Bordeaux wine industry was occasionally interrupted by war and political upheaval, the region's importance never waned. Exports grew during the 19th century, leading Emperor Napoleon III to request that Bordeaux develop a wine classification system. The 1855 Classification designated First, Second, Third and Fourth Growth châteaux in the Médoc, Graves, Sauternes and Barsac. The list of First Growth châteaux has only been changed one time, in 1973, when Château Mouton Rothschild was moved from the Second Growth classification to First Growth status. Other Bordeaux regions developed their own classification systems much later, after France created its AOC system, and some do not classify their wines at all.
Bordeaux Reds Today
Today, the best vintages of the First Growth wines command top prices, as do the highest-quality wines from Bordeaux regions that do not use classification systems (Pomerol's Château Pétrus leaps to mind). Each year, wine experts flock to en primeur tastings to report on the newest Bordeaux reds and buy Bordeaux wine futures.
As we take a closer look at top Bordeaux reds, it is helpful to choose one vintage as a basis for comparison. The 2005 vintage was classified as "exceptional" by the Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux, so we will use it as our comparison vintage.
Top Bordeaux Reds
Dubbed "the world's most expensive wine" by wine critics, Pomerol's Château Pétrus produces only about 30,000 bottles per year. The wine is made with meticulous care. Château Pétrus commands top prices even in less-than-perfect years. Expect to pay $2,700 and up for a bottle of 2005 Château Pétrus.
This Médoc wine estate traces its origins to the 13th century. When the Mentzelopoulos family bought Château Margaux in 1977, their investment in the property and passion for the great wines it can produce led to a resurgence in Château Margaux' quality and popularity. Today you will pay $800 to $2,400 for a bottle of the 2005 Château Margaux.
Château Latour is one of the three First Growth wine estates in Pauillac, a Médoc appellation known for its superb wines. Like many Bordeaux wine estates, Château Latour has witnessed several centuries of growth and change. The estate's signature wine, Grand Vin de Château Latour, is made mainly from cabernet sauvignon grapes, with smaller amounts of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot blended in. All of the grapes come from the wine estate's "L'Enclos" vineyards, which surround the château. A bottle of 2005 Château Latour will set you back $1,000 to $2,500.
Château Lafite Rothschild
Another famed Pauillac wine estate, Château Lafite Rothschild dates back to the 17th century. President Thomas Jefferson fell in love with Château Lafite wines when he visited France – in fact, a bottle of 1787 Château Lafite once owned by the American President fetched $160,000 when it was auctioned in 1985[iii]. The original Château Lafite and its surrounding vineyards were sold to Baron James de Rothschild in 1868, and he naturally affixed his surname to the name of the wine estate. Even before this time, Château Lafite wines were highly regarded by wine critics. Today, under the leadership of Baron Eric de Rothschild, Château Lafite Rothschild holds a special place in the hearts of Bordeaux aficionados.
If you want to try a bottle of the 2005 Château Lafite Rothschild, expect to pay $1,000 to $2,500 for the experience.
Château Cheval Blanc
Château Cheval Blanc is one of the two St.-Emilion wine estates to hold the classification of Premier Grand Cru Classé "A". The wine estate's flagship wine is also famous for its high percentage of cabernet franc, which is blended with a smaller amount of merlot. The 1947 vintage is one of the best-known Bordeaux wines, and commands an extremely high price. Even the 2005 vintage will set you back a bit, with prices ranging from $670 to $1,600 per bottle.
Château Mouton Rothschild
One of the great Pauillac wine estates in the Médoc, Château Mouton Rothschild came under Rothschild family ownership in 1853. The 1855 Classification placed the wine estate on the list of Second Growth properties. Baron Philippe de Rothschild took over management of the estate and its fortunes in 1922 and brought his intense commitment to quality to every aspect of growth and production. It was here in 1924 that Baron Philippe began bottling wine right on his estate – a novelty in Bordeaux – and here that the tradition of commissioning artists to create annual wine labels for Château Mouton Rothschild began. The Baron achieved his ultimate goal, to move his wine estate up to First Growth classification, in 1973, the only time this has happened since the 1855 Classification. The Baron's daughter, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, has run the company since her father's death in 1988.
You'll pay $575 to $1,100 for a bottle of 2005 Château Mouton Rothschild.
Château Haut-Brion got its start in the 16th century, and famed English writer Samuel Pepys extolled its wines just over 100 years later. President Thomas Jefferson visited the wine estate while serving as U. S. Ambassador to France, following in the footsteps of John Locke, who stopped by Château Haut-Brion in 1677[iv]. Under the 1855 Classification, Château Haut-Brion was the only wine estate from Graves to be included on the list of First Growth estates. American financier Clarence Dillon acquired the estate in 1935. His great-grandson, Prince Robert de Luxembourg, now runs Château Haut-Brion.
Expect to pay $745 to $1,600 for a bottle of 2005 Château Haut-Brion.
Château Le Pin
Bordeaux' garagistes, or micro-cuvée winemakers, look to Château Le Pin for inspiration. To them, Château Le Pin was the first "garage wine" made in Bordeaux. The entire vineyard property covers just five acres in Pomerol, and production is typically limited to about 600 bottles per year. Owned and managed by the Thienpont family, Château Le Pin wines achieve top scores year after year, adding to the estate's mystique. As you might expect, a bottle of 2005 Château Le Pin will cost you at least $2,500, with some sellers offering this vintage for as much as $6,000 per bottle.
Along with Château Cheval Blanc, Château Ausone has the distinction of being one of two St.-Emilion wine estates to hold the classification of Premier Grand Cru Classé "A". Just three families have owned the Château Ausone wine estate, which is currently in the capable hands of Alain Vauthier. With a mere 17 acres of vineyards, Vauthier manages to produce some of Bordeaux' best wines. Expect to pay $1,995 to $4,800 for a bottle of 2005 Château Ausone.
[i] Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux." Synopsis of Bordeaux Wines." http://www.bordeaux.com/Data/media/DPCIVBBordeaux2010UK_1EssentialGuide.pdf. Web. Accessed September 6, 2010.
[iii] Passmore, Nick. "World's Most Expensive Wines." Forbes, Forbes.com, Inc. November 19, 2003. http://www.forbes.com/2003/11/19/cx_np_1119feat.html. Web. Accessed September 6, 2010.