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January 30, 2013

The Five Great First Growths

First-Growths4

The five First Growths represent the top five chateaux of Bordeaux and have collectively produced the most memorable wines in history. Originally classified as the top five wines in Napoleon III’s classification of 1855, their ranking still holds true today. Haut Brion, Margaux, Latour, Mouton and Lafite Rothschild have seen increases in value of +12% (CAGR) over the last 30 years as the world has started demanding what used to be the preserve of Europe. The last 18 months have seen a necessary price correction, but this looks to have ended with them beginning 2012 with an increase of 3.5%. The First Growths form the background of all fine wine and wine investment and as such we thought we would explain exactly what makes them great.

Haut Brion

Haut Brion is the only First Growth found outside of the Medoc region, it is located in Graves in central Bordeaux.  As the name suggests the top vineyards in this commune boast abundant gravel and before the marshlands of Bordeaux were drained this was the heart of Bordeaux wine. Today with the city of Bordeaux expanding many chateau are found near or inside the city with Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion found in the city suburbs. These great estates have more sand in the vineyards than the Haut Medoc, accounting for the higher degree of Merlot planted and enhanced harmony and elegance of the wine. In the early 20th century Clarence Dillon, an American banker, acquired Haut Brion. Dillon’s great-grandson Prince Robert of Luxembourg is the current custodian. The Delmas family have headed the wine-making at Haut Brion for the last three generations.

Compared to the other big five, Haut Brion has the highest amount of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and in some years the blend sees more Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon. Most vintages are medium bodied, its richness and power on the palate balance beautifully with its trademark distinctive tobacco flavour common to Graves. Haut Brion is famed for its smoky spice flavours and can be recognised by a distinct aroma of truffles and fine Havana Cigars.

Vineyard: 43 hectares
Grape Variety: 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc
Production: 10,000-12,000 cases per year
The second wine of Haut Brion is le Clarence de Haut Brion

Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux is probably the most beautiful wine chateau in the world, certainly the most iconic. The town itself is found upon a gravel island (peaking at 10-15 m, 35-50ft) and  Margaux and its neighbour Chateau Palmer boast the communes best soil. The gravel here is shallow by comparison to Pauillac with limestone directly underneath. The vines slope down the estuary and it is this poor, shallow soil and good drainage that give these great wines the elegant scent that defines them. It is the most fragrant, graceful of the Bordeaux wines, often described as feminine.

In the late 1970s, Margaux was purchased by the Greek-French entrepreneur Andre Mentzelopoulos. It was ranked number two behind Lafite in the 1855 Classification which has given rise to the saying: ‘If Lafite is the king of clarets Margaux is surely the queen.’ Margaux has a reputation for a perfume of violets, rose petals, cedar and dry ripe fruit.

Vineyard: 82 hectares
Grape Variety: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Production: 12,500 cases a year
The second wine of Margaux is Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux

Latour

A strategically important fort occupied the site of Chateau Latour in the middle ages guarding the river estuary. The original buildings were destroyed in the 1450s by the King of France while expelling the English and all that remains from this time is one of the most recognisable symbols of Bordeaux, the tower. Latour spent 300 years under the control of connected families (directly related or related by marriage) and was finally sold in 1963. The French billionaire Francois Pinault purchased the property in 1993 and the day to day running is handled by Latour’s President Frederic Engerer.

Latour has arguably the best terroir in Pauillac, its famous tower visible as you drive north into Pauillac from the village of St Julien. Latour is surrounded by top Second Growths, with Leoville Las Cases to the south and Pichon Lalande and Pichon Baron to the west; all powerful wines with high percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon. Latour tends to be the biggest of the First Growth wines, with an intense colour, powerful flavours and aromas, firm tannins and intense vitality. Latour is the epitome of left bank Bordeaux.

Vineyard: 82 hectares
Grape Variety: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Production: 12,500 cases per year
The second wine of Latour is Les Forts de Latour

Mouton Rothschild

To the north of Pauillac one finds the most impressive gravel plateau of the Medoc. Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild occupy the peak on this plateau in the north of the Commune at 27m (88ft). This provides further drainage and the best view of the Gironde. The high mounds mean that the roots have to dig deep to find the water basin, struggling and concentrating their energy. The soil contains iron adding an extra minerality and richness to the wine.

Under the vision of Baron Phillipe De Rothschild, who assumed ownership in 1922, Mouton Rothschild flourished and even managed to achieve First Growth status in 1973, the only Chateau to ever gain a promotion in the 1855 Classification at First Growth level. By 1924 he had also introduced Chateau bottling for his entire crop which revolutionised wine making practises in Bordeaux, it also ferments in huge oak casks which explains the balanced flavours of cedar. Mouton commission a different artist every year to design their labels; artists include Francis Bacon,  Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Mouton Rothschild has exotic and powerful aromas with pronounced minerality and red fruit tones. Mouton is often described as extravagant and in the finest of the Bordeaux vintages, it makes truly great wine.

Vineyard: 80 Hectares
Grape Variety: 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot
Production: 18,000 cases per year
The second wine of Mouton Rothschild is Le Petit Mouton Rothschild

Lafite Rothschild

Lafite Rothschild is a powerhouse in terms of brand and reputation and presently commands the highest prices amongst its First Growth peers. Lafite is the largest of the First Growths both in area and production and occupies the northern tip of Pauillac close to the border with St Estephe in the Medoc. Evidence of the existence of wine-making on the site of Lafite dates from the 14th century and records of the wine itself date from 1641. In 1868 Lafite was purchased by Baron James de Rothschild, a member of the famous banking family and has been presided over by Eric de Rothschild since 1974.

Within the Pauillac appellation, Lafite is often considered the most elegant, feminine wine when compared to the masculine Latour and the exotic fruitiness of Mouton Rothschild. Since the 1980s, Lafite has produced great vintages on a regular basis and has become the favourite wine of Asia.

Vineyard: 100 hectares
Grape Variety: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot
Production: 25,000 cases per year
The second wine of Lafite is Carruades de Lafite