Left Bank Icons – the First Growths

This week we look at Bordeaux’s most iconic producers of the Left Bank, the five First Growths: Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. We identify the common traits they share that go some way to explaining their iconic status, but we also look at what makes each of them unique. 

The History

Whilst the terroir plays an essential role, their historic legacy is also a key factor, most notably the 1855 classification that officially confirmed their Grand Cru status. However, their top reputation predates the 1855 classification. Apart from the more recent rise of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, these First Growth Chateaux all share a long history as some of the oldest and most prestigious properties in the region dating back to the 16thcentury. 

The Terroir

When it comes to the terroir the most obvious trait they all share is the fact that all their vineyards are located on elevated ground. Despite the reputation of Bordeaux’s Left Bank being seemingly flat, these top sites are effectively little gravel mounds which, due to better drainage and more complex soils, have the potential to produce wines with greater depth, structure and complexity than their neighbours. 

With global warming largely having a positive effect on the region (for now), allied with greater investment in the winery, intra-plot vinification and more technical understanding of wine production, Bordeaux is experiencing a real golden era, with a number of sensational vintages in the last twenty years most notably 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016 and 2018. During this era the five First Growths have retained their iconic status and remain the most expensive and collectable wines on the Left Bank. 

Chateau Haut-Brion (& Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion)

Whilst Chateau Haut Brion is the only classified growth in Pessac Leognan, we have also sneaked in the neighbouring La Mission Haut Brion onto the icon page as whilst not being classified, it remains one of the top iconic properties on the Left Bank and in the modern era intrinsically linked to Chateau Haut Brion. Since 1983 the properties have been under the same ownership of the Dillon family. The Dillon family purchased Chateau Haut-Brion in 1935 and La Mission Haut-Brion 48 years later.

The History

Chateau Haut Brion is the oldest known estate in Bordeaux to bottle and label its wine as a Grand Cru of Bordeaux and bearing its name and terroir. The first records of Chateau Haut Brion wine were found in the wine cellar ledger of the English King, Charles II, showing 169 bottles of the wine “Hobriono” were served to guests at the royal table in 1660. In 1663 Samuel Pepys also referenced Haut Brion having tasted it at the Royal Oak tavern in London on the 10thApril 1663 stating: “There I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan (sic) that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with”.

Chateau Haut Brion was the only Chateau in Pessac to be included in the 1855 classification and given its reputation and global distribution prior to the classification, it was unsurprisingly declared as one of the four original First Growths. (Mouton Rothschild was only classified a First Growth in 1973.) However, La Mission Haut-Brion was not classified in the 1855 classification despite at the time being sold for more money than Latour, Margaux and Lafite and only cheaper than its neighbouring Haut Brion. La Mission Haut Brion has retained this reputation despite never being upgraded and today is one of the region’s most highly acclaimed wines receiving more 100 points scores from Wine Advocate than any other First Growth apart from its neighbour Chateau Haut Brion. It is therefore worthy of inclusion in this icon series. 

The Terroir

Amazingly even the two varying styles of Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mission Haut Brion were attributed to their variations in soil and terroir by the English philosopher John Locke whilst visiting Bordeaux in 1677. The terroir of Chateau Haut Brion consists of two raised hills of (Gunzian) gravel, dominated by white quartz pebbles that sit 12 to 15 metres above the surrounding land. Whilst Chateau La Mission Haut Brion neigbours Chateau Haut Brion in Pessac, the majority of the vineyards are based in the Talance province (close to Les Carmes Haut Brion). They are planted on another gravel hill that reaches 25 metres in elevation and the planting density is considerably higher than that of Haut Brion. This provides a distinct terroir for the property that tends to be more tannic, austere and structural, compared to more rounded, incredibly rich yet elegant style of Haut Brion. 

Top Modern Vintages

Chateau Haut Brion: 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009,2005, 1989

Chateau La Mission Haut Brion: 2009, 2005, 2000, 1989

Chateau Latour

The History

The history of Chateau Latour stretches back almost as far as Haut Brion with evidence of vines on the property since the 14thcentury. Amazingly the property had an unbroken lineage of family ownership from 1670 right up until 1963! In 1993 the current owner, Francois Pinault bought the estate for £86 million from the Segur family. Since taking over, significant investments were made at the property including a total renovation of the winery, vat room and wine making facilities under the guidance of Frederic Engerer who has since been credited as being behind some of the finest wines ever made at the property.

The Terroir

Chateau Latour sits on the most southern part of the Pauillac appellation, neighbouring Saint Julien’s Chateau Leoville Las Cases to the south. Its unique terroir is characterized by undulating small mounds made up of gravel but also deep clay slate of different colors: blue, red, grey. It is this particularly soil type that gives Chateau Latour its unique structural framework and power.

The original prime plot of vineyards that surrounds the property is known as “L’Enclos” and is entirely responsible for the grapes that go into the Grand Vin. Being the closest site to the Gironde it benefits from the moderating influence of the river, which cools the temperature allowing for longer, slower ripening of the grapes and protects against the risk of frost. This terroir makes Chateau Latour arguably the most consistent performer out of the First Growths often producing the best wine in the Left Bank in cooler vintages.

True to the Pauillac style, Chateau Latour has a structural tannic framework allied with incredible intensity and is arguably the most powerful wine in the Medoc. The blend is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon making up typically 90% of the blend. The wine is incredibly long lived and benefits from at least 15 years of ageing and will typically age 50+ years.

Top Modern Vintages

2016, 2010, 2009, 2003

Chateau Margaux

Whilst Chateau Haut Brion takes the mantle for being the first of the First Growths to be mentioned in historical literature, it was Margaux land owner’s decision to abandon cereal growing in favour of vineyards in 1572 that played the most important role in the complete restructuring of the Medoc. The first record of Chateau Margaux being sold at auction was in the London Gazette in 1705.

The History

Classified as a First Growth in the 1855 classification and the only Chateau to receive twenty points out of twenty during the process, Chateau Margaux’s iconic status was well and truly cemented. Like much of Europe, with the development of the vine diseases of mildew, oidium and phylloxera that swept through Bordeaux in the late 1800s, the property continued a rocky path throughout the 19thand 20thcenturies before being bought by Andre Mentzelopoulos, a Greek entrepreneur, in 1977. At a time when Bordeaux was emerging from a serious economic and qualitative crisis, Andre was proactive in the region, investing heavily into improving the vineyards (implementing drainage systems and replanting programs), as well as employing renowned oenologist Emile Peynaud who introduced new oak barrels to the élevage process at Margaux. 

Sadly, Andre Mentzelopoulos died just 3 years later, but his legacy lives on under the current owner, his daughter Corinne Mentzelopoulos. Chateau Margaux has enjoyed a fantastic period of success in the past 30 years under the Managing Directorship of Paul Pontalier, who is recognized as a true legend of the modern era of Bordeaux behind some of the greatest wines ever made at the property before his unexpected death in 2016. His legacy continues under the current director Phillipe Bascaules. 

The Terroir

The terroir of Margaux is distinct due to its much finer granules of gravel compared to appellations north of Saint Julien, Pauillac and Saint Estephe. The wines of Chateau Margaux are completely unique producing a Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blend characterized by an elegance and finesse yet retaining incredible depth, not replicated anywhere else in the world.  

Top modern vintages

2018, 2015, 2010, 2000

Chateau Lafite Rothschild

Lafite Rothschild is one of the most famous wines in Bordeaux, if not the world. It has captured the attention and imagination of wine lovers everywhere for its finesse and style. Being one of the three of the five First Growths situated in the Pauillac appellation, Chateau Lafite sits at the far north of the appellation bordering Saint Estephe and the vineyards of Chateau Cos d’Estournel with Chateau Mouton Rothschild to its south. It is undoubtedly today’s most famous and collectable of the First Growths due to an avid following of collectors from all over the world. Its popularity in the Far East has only escalated its collectability and its prime status.

The History

Jacques de Ségur was credited with the planting of the Lafite vineyard in the 1670s and 80s. In 1695, Jacques de Ségur’s heir, Alexandre, married the heiress of Château Latour, who gave birth to Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur. This linked the fortunes of the two Chateaux for the next 100 years, until they were devolved to separate heirs in 1785. Less than 100 years later, Lafite was linked indelibly with the Rothschilds when it was bought by Baron James de Rothschild – the brother of the owners of neighbouring Mouton-Rothschild. Some have claimed that the decision to buy Lafite was the result of one-upmanship, since at the time Mouton was still a Second Growth. 

Lafite’s origins stretch back to medieval times – the name Lafite comes from the old Gascon term “la hite”, meaning “hillock”. The Chateau covers an impressive 112 hectares of land on the Northern edge of Pauillac with the vineyard comprising of 71% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot. The balance of the vineyard is made up by Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Approximately, 20,000 cases of the grand vin are made each year.

The Terroir

Visiting Chateau Lafite, you can immediately see that it is a unique site for the Left Bank. The Chateau sits on a distinct hill that rises up above the winery. This hillside vineyards produce the core of the Grand Vin with a small additional 4.5 hectare plot neighbouring Saint Estephe. The gravel is much finer and aelion sand soil on a subsoil of limestone gives the wine a distinct finesse and silkier tannins than its Pauillac counterparts such as Mouton Rothschild and Latour.

Top Modern Vintages

2018, 2017, 2016, 2010, 2003

Chateau Mouton Rothschild

Chateau Mouton Rothschild is the youngest of the First Growths. The Chateau was established in 1853 when Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild bought and renamed Chateau Brane Mouton. It is also the youngest of the First Growths (upgraded in 1973). Prior to this, it was the first Chateau in Bordeaux to bottle its wine on the property. This ensured the quality of the wine was not lost during transportation. A decision that saw the other top Chateaux soon follow suit.

The History

A temporary decline in quality in the 1840s saw it narrowly miss out on a classification as a First Growth in 1855. However, under the Rothschild ownership the restoration of its reputation began. Mouton-Rothschild was confiscated during World War II when Baron Philippe escaped to London. Unfortunately his wife died in a concentration camp. Baron Philippe de Rothschild introduced changing labels for each vintage to celebrate the end of the war and the liberation of France, . Starting in 1945, This continues to add to the collectable nature of these wines today. 

His lobbying, campaigning and improvements in quality saw the château upgraded to First Growth status in 1973. This was the only Bordeaux property ever to achieve this. The estate produces around 20,000 cases per year of what is, without question, one of the world’s most sought-after wines.

On 28 September, at an auction organised by Christie’s in Beverly Hills, a lot of twelve bottles of Mouton Rothschild 1945 was sold for $290,000. At the same auction, a lot of six magnums of the same vintage was sold for $345,000. Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 becomes Bordeaux’s most expensive wine.

The Terroir

The Pauillac property’s original name Brane-Mouton was a reference to the small hill on which it sits; the “Mouton Plateau” consisting of deep gravel over limestone. Similar to Chateau Latour the Mouton vineyards are made up of a series of hillocks raising no higher than 40 metres above sea level (in fact Mouton Rothschild boasts the highest hillocks in Pauillac). This elevated ground plays a vital role in the vineyards’ drainage as well as providing a complex composite of soils predominantly gravel and sand atop a clay-limestone sub soil.

The Pauillac terroir is home to three of the five First Growths. It’s gravel rich soils produce the most structured and powerful wines in the Medoc where the graphite minerality typical of Bordeaux is most pronounced. The top terroir in the region produce some of the longest-lived wines in Bordeaux and world, which in good vintages can last over 100 years.

Top Modern Vintages

2018, 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009