Why First Growths Are First


I didn’t even see it. All I saw was a bottle of Penfolds Grange walk in the door with my dear friend Clif (yes, it’s how he spells his name, the cool way). And there was some other dirty, trashed looking bottle that I didn’t pay much attention too initially. Clif waited patiently until I stopped gushing over the Grange and turned my attention to the second bottle he brought.

Most wine aficionados know about First Growth Bordeaux but the expense of them can be a barrier to actually drinking them, at least on a casual basis. I’ve been so very fortunate to have had many vintages of, not only First Growth, but nearly all classified Bordeaux. Yet there is no doubt in my mind why each of the five châteaux classified as First Growth deserve to be where they are and are ranked at the very highest possible classification (for red Bordeaux). Also know that nearly any vintage of Château Latour is all but guaranteed to be a spectacular wine unless it’s over the hill.

I have enjoyed multiple wines from every decade from the 1920s through the latest releases and going back through older vintages can certainly be hit and miss in terms of quality and how they might be drinking today. A few major influences on the outcome of drinking older wines have much to do with how well they were made to begin with, how they were subsequently stored over the years, and the vintage.

Bordeaux is one of the few places that one can go back easily more than a hundred years to find information about how a particular year was in terms of weather, crop yield, and other wine related issues. Also, I don’t doubt that records are buried deep within the offices of négociants, brokers, and courtiers in the Chartron district of Bordeaux (sometimes referred to as La Place de Bordeaux, which, incidentally, is not actually a physical building) where one could uncover centuries of information about Bordeaux quality, prices, weather, and so on. After all, this is the home of wine trade firms since the early 1600s and most all of them kept fastidious records over the years that significantly contributed to what we know about the development of this storied wine region and, how the Classification of 1855 was arrived at by direction of Napoleon III. To see all the wines from the Left Bank of Bordeaux that are ranked in the Classification of 1855, click here.

There is something amazing, really almost intangible, about First Growth Bordeaux, unlike anything else. There is no question that other classified châteaux have approached the quality of First Growth but certainly not on a consistent basis and, more often only in vintages that were considered excellent. These are the vintages that winemakers always say, “The wine made itself – we didn’t have to do much of anything”, although to make such a statement is certainly suspect in terms of exaggeration and perhaps humbleness; clearly it takes a lot of work, and some luck, to make a great wine in any vintage. But what they mean is that, in such circumstances, the growing season was a perfect confluence of meteorological, harvest, and winemaking conditions that resulted in high quality wine for the vast majority of châteaux. Where the river parts between a First Growth château and other châteaux is what happens in lesser vintages like 1971 and it was a toss up whether or not the 1971 Latour would be very enjoyable and, maybe it wouldn’t even be drinkable considering its 45 years of age.

In the glass, the wine was imbued with an appropriately brick-colored meniscus, a hue of which over the years I have learned to become both enamored and fearful of in equal measure (enamored with the anticipation of a great older wine, fearful that maybe the wine has already turned the corner into oblivion). Immediately classic Bordeaux aromas began wafting into the room with a few twists of the wrist while clutching a stem of nice crystal. As one would expect, on the palate the tannins were very soft but the fruit in the wine was simply amazing with mostly black and dark red fruit tones but solid, with lots of tertiary notes both aromatically and on the palate, and on through the long, expressive, silky finish. Wow! I could only wish this to be a bottomless bottle but sadly, it’s never the way it works.

This didactic experience for me, once again, is a reminder that it’s unwise to underestimate the ability of a First Growth to come though in a less-than-average vintage with éclat, while other wines simply fade into the spit bucket that no one used on this particular evening. In 1971, the yields were low due to a cool spring that arrested flowering. Rains followed all the way through to veraison and then turned on its heel to dryer than normal weather until harvest was completed. Based on the quality of wines made that year, virtually all critics wrote off the vintage as below average. Against all odds, well respected and renowned Master of Wine and wine writer Jancis Robinson, in 2011, rated this wine 20 points out of 20 – in other words a 100 point wine by Robert Parker’s more ubiquitous system.

Very few wines, if any, from 1971 Bordeaux have aged as well or are as compelling as Château Latour and this is what sets First Growths apart from lesser classified Bordeaux. I’m not the only one, or even the first one, to realize how fine this wine is. At a 2011 Christie’s Fine Wine Auction, a double magnum bottle (3 liters) of ’71 Latour was estimated to sell from $2324 to $2840 USD according to the auction catalog. The successful bidder paid, instead, the sum of $10,066 for the bottle. Clif may not have known that, but it wouldn’t have mattered to him anyhow. That’s just the kind of guy he is – la vie est belle mon ami!

David Boyer


Photo: 1971 Château Latour