Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Bordeaux: the First Growths

In 1855 the wine producers in the Medoc region of Bordeaux were classified based on the quality and market price of their wines. This five-class ranking system (first growth, second growth, etc.) remains in place today, with the exception of the notable elevation of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in 1973 to premier cru status. The other first growth, or premier cru producers, are Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and Chateau Latour. Bordeaux has long been the focus of the worlds wine palate and the 1855 classification unequivocally labeled these wineries the best of the best.

It is remarkable that even today, after many changes in ownership and 150 years later, the wines from these top chateaus still demand the prices and esteem that led to their initial ranking. Although there are other chateaus in the Bordeaux region that produce wines of equal stature and quality, such as Chateau Ausone, Chateau Lafleur, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Petrus, and Chateau Le Pin, the first growths remain some of the most famed wines in the world.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild

Chateau Lafite Rothschild is located in the Pauillac area of Bordeaux. After a long, and sometimes bloody history (a previous owner was guillotined during the French Revolution), it was purchased in 1868 by the Rothschild family. Some of the best vintages for this chateau include 1953, 1982, 1986, 1996, and 2000. Lafite received 100 point scores from Robert Parker for these vintage years designating the wines as “perfect.” One could easily spend anywhere from $350 - $1000 for a bottle. Not to mention waiting to drink the wine for another 20 years when it is considered mature. To spend less and to try a Lafite that is ready now, consider some other vintage years that tend to be over shadowed. Try a 1983 Lafite (93 points) or 1988 Lafite (94 points) vintage – you could probably purchase both bottles for the price of a 2000 and even be able to drink them now as they are in early maturity. Or the 1998 Lafite. It received 98 points, an awesome score, and will be ready to drink in a couple years.

Here’s what Robert Parker says about the 1998 Chateau Lafite: “... in a less than perfect Medoc vintage, it has been spectacular since birth, putting on more weight and flesh over the last year. This opaque purple-colored 1998 is close to perfection. The spectacular nose of lead pencil, smoky, mineral, and black currant fruit soars majestically from the glass. The wine is elegant yet profoundly rich, revealing the essence of Lafite's character. The tannin is sweet, and the wine is spectacularly layered yet never heavy. The finish is sweet, super-rich, yet impeccably balanced and long (50+ seconds). Anticipated maturity: 2007-2035.”

Chateau Haut Brion

Located in Pessac, Graves, Chateau Haut Brion has a history dating back to 1525. Marked by an illustrious series of owners, from archbishops to ambassadors, Haut Brion is currently American owned. It is notable that in an area steeped in tradition, this chateau was one of the first to adopt stainless steel fermentation vats. Chateau Haut Brion's top vintages include 1945, 1961, 1989, 1990 and 2000. Again, try some of the less famous vintages such as the 1995 Haut Brion (96 points) or the 1998 Haut Brion (96 points) for substantial savings. The ’95 in particular is also drinking well young.

Here’s what Robert Parker says about the 1990 Haut Brion: “Haut-Brion has been the most consistent first-growth over the last decade, producing top-notch wines, even in such tough years as 1987, 1993, and 1994. I have had a tendency to forget just how exceptional the 1990 Haut-Brion is because of the huge shadow cast by the 1989...the 1990 proved itself to be a great wine. Its price has not risen nearly as much as one might expect given its quality. The 1990 is a decadently ripe wine with much more evolution to its fragrant cassis, mineral, smoked-herb, hot rocks, tobacco, sweet, toasty nose. Fat, rich, and medium to full-bodied, this superbly-concentrated, forward, awesomely-endowed wine requires 4-6 years of cellaring; it is capable of lasting for 20-25+ years. It is an unheralded, underrated 1990 that deserves more attention.”

Chateau Mouton Rothschild

Like all the first growths, Chateau Mouton Rothschild has an impressive history. Originally know as Chateau Brane-Mouton, it was purchased in 1853 by the Rothschild family and renamed Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. It is the only chateau in the 1855 classification to be elevated to premier cru status. Some of the best vintages include 1945, 1959, 1982, 1986, and 2000. Try the 1989 Mouton (90 points) or 1995 Mouton (95 points) as wines that are drinkable now and cost significantly less than the more famous vintages.

Here is what Parker says about the 1995 Mouton: “Bottled in June, 1997, this profound Mouton is more accessible than the more muscular 1996. A blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 19% Merlot, it reveals an opaque purple color, and reluctant aromas of cassis, truffles, coffee, licorice, and spice. In the mouth, the wine is "great stuff," with superb density, a full-bodied personality, rich mid-palate, and a layered, profound finish that lasts for 40+ seconds. There is outstanding purity and high tannin, but my instincts suggest this wine is lower in acidity and slightly fleshier than the brawnier, bigger 1996. Both are great efforts from Mouton-Rothschild. Anticipated maturity: 2004-2030.”

Chateau Latour

Originally built as a medieval fortress to repel pirates, Chateau Latour has obviously come a long way. By 1670 most of the estate was dedicated to wine production. Latour reached legendary status by the mid 1800’s and has retained its reputation to this day. Some of its greatest vintages include the 1961 and 1982, although the 2000, 1996, 1949, and 1899 come in a close second according to Robert Parker. Give the 1988 Latour (91 points) a try for something to drink now or pick up a bottle of the 1994 Latour (94 points) to keep in your cellar for a few years. Although the 1988 and 1994 are not the highest rated wines they are less expensive and still show the distinct qualities that define the Latour experience.

Here is what Parker has to say about the 1994 Latour: “This is an interesting as well as great vintage for exhibits an opaque dark ruby/purple color, and a backward, intense textbook nose of walnut and cassis scents complemented by smoky pain grille notes that build in the glass. This full-bodied, powerful, layered Latour reveals high tannin, but no bitterness or astringency. The superb purity, fabulous precision, and remarkable length should ensure 35-40 years of longevity. Readers will find more fat, flesh, and glycerin than usual for a young Latour (save for such great vintages as 1982 and 1990), but don't be deceived, this wine requires 8-10 years of cellaring. Anticipated maturity: 2005-2035. “

Chateau Margaux

In keeping with the rest of the first growth fraternity, Chateau Margaux’s history is lengthy and elaborate. Founded in the 1400, the chateau changed hands many times, even once being the residence of the King of England, finally settling down in the 1970’s with its current owners, the Mentzelopoulos family. Some of the best vintages include the 1900, 1986, 1990, 1996 and 2000. Margaux’s wines tend to mature a little earlier than other first growths. For value and drinkability, try the 1994 Margaux (94 points) or even the 1999 Margaux (94 points).

Parker has this to say about the 1999 Margaux: “The sexy, dark plum/purple-colored 1999 Margaux is already revealing complex aromatics. This surprisingly charming and round offering is reminiscent of a vintage such as 1985. Although neither a blockbuster nor a heavyweight, it grows in the mouth revealing tremendous length as well as purity. Administrator Paul Pontallier prefers it to the more austere 1998, as do I. This is an archetypical Chateau Margaux of richness, finesse, balance, and symmetry. It can be drunk young, but promises to age nicely for two decades...”