Decanter’s Bordeaux correspondent, Jane Anson, followed the five estates for a year, enjoying privileged access to compile the first ever book on their history and modus operandi. Here, she gives a unique insight into the ties that bind these legendary châteaux.
The invitation that landed in my letterbox sometime in March came from a new sommelier school to be opened later this year by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) of Bordeaux. It was to a dinner, which was being held to officially announce the new school, at the Salon Bleu, in the 18th century headquarters of the CCI on Place de la Bourse in the town centre.
The name would have meant nothing to most of the invitees, but I was at the end of an 18-month period spent researching and writing about the 1855 first growth châteaux. I had a feeling that the Salon Bleu was at the heart of their story.
I went back to my notes and called the CCI, which confirmed that the Salon Bleu was the ornate but rarely used room on the top floor of the Chamber of Commerce where the 1855 classification had first been drawn up by a small group of key local figures. Then, 118 years later in June 1973, a jury of five men met here to rubberstamp the promotion of Château Mouton Rothschild to first growth status.
I had first heard about the Salon Bleu more than a year earlier, when I visited the courtier house of Tastet-Lawton to interview its 81-year-old owner, Daniel Lawton, and to go through the firm’s archives of first growth prices dating back to the 17th century – perhaps the most complete in the region. Lawton is the last surviving member of the 1973 jury and holds rare memories of one of the most politically charged events in 20th century wine.
This was a few months into the research period, but it gave me the chance to bring the five disparate stories of the first growth châteaux together through one family, the Lawtons, which had witnessed the rise of them all. Daniel was the seventh generation in Bordeaux, a descendant of Abraham Lawton, who arrived in the region in 1739, aged 23, fresh off the boat from Cork, Ireland.
The Irish connection
His brothers in Ireland were wine merchants, and Abraham’s first shipment of wine, in 1740, was sent back home to them (and to other Irish merchants, such as the Mitchells, the Dillons, the Bartons, the Kirwans and the MacCarthys, many of whom left their own imprint on Bordeaux). Within two years, however, he was refocusing his career to become a wine broker, or courtier.
Abraham Lawton and his family were witness to key events throughout the first growths story. As courtiers, the family has been responsible for finding buyers for the wines for close to 300 years. Abraham’s great great grandfather, Jean-Edouard Lawton, was part of the selection process for the initial ranking in 1855. Daniel’s father (also Daniel) took eventual owner Clarence Dillon to visit Château Haut-Brion for the first time in the 1930s. And Daniel was integral in the Mouton promotion – saying of its eventual success, ‘Baron Philippe de Rothschild did so much for the Médoc, and he never gave up on his dream. He deserved it. And so did his wine’.
Once I thought of writing a book on the first growths, I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been written before. Google searches, Amazon listings, enquiries around Bordeaux all turned up nothing. There was no book that told the story of Châteaux Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild. These are the most talked about wine estates in the world, which have been at the heart of Bordeaux for centuries and which – certainly at the time of my starting the research, in September 2010 – were seeing the prices of their wines shoot up higher with every passing week.
I had no publisher in mind at first, and no advance, but I knew it was the right time to write this book. The first person I approached was Paul Pontallier, director of Château Margaux. We met, as we usually did, in the calm, smartly upholstered salon in the main building of the estate. I had no idea what he would say.
‘I would like to follow all five first growths for the next year, from harvest 2010 to harvest 2011, to understand what it means to be a first growth and what it takes to keep the estates at the top of their game,’ I opened. Pontallier asked what the other châteaux had said (a question that all five of them asked me, and would do for all key questions during the research). ‘You’re the first one I’ve asked,’ I replied. He didn’t hesitate for long: ‘We have no secrets here, there is nothing to hide.’
As the weeks progressed – next up Jean-Philippe Delmas at Haut-Brion, then Hervé Berland at Mouton (now at Montrose), Charles Chevallier at Lafite and finally Jean Garandeau, marketing director of Latour – I started to realise why perhaps the book had not been written before.
Written by Jane Anson
Inside the First Growths: Part 2
Power in unity
I did not want to write a standard history of the estates, in which each was treated separately. I wanted to write an overview linking all five, to understand the moments when they became more powerful by working together and to trace some of the more difficult moments in their histories. It was going to be a delicate political dance.
I considered including all first growths of Bordeaux – which means also Châteaux d’Yquem, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Pétrus – but the book would have become unwieldy in terms of size, and the stories of the other châteaux were not linked in the same way. Until the 19th century, Left Bank and Right Bank Bordeaux were different worlds, without even a bridge across the Garonne in Bordeaux city to allow for easy access between the two. Yquem, however, was tough to leave out, because it was crowned in the same ranking as the reds – and famously placed one ranking higher than them. But I decided Sauternes had its own, very different story, and the book needed to be focused if it was going to work. All nine are in the book, because they have a joint research and development club, mainly led by the châteaux’s technical directors, working with oenology students at the University of Bordeaux. But the heart of the story is the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant reds of the Left Bank.
It quickly became clear that following them for a year, looking at what it takes to run a first growth, would only work if it was put within the context of how they became what they are. To really understand them, I had to follow the whole sweeping saga, from their early days as Seigneuries owned by some of France’s most powerful families, to the dramas of the French Revolution, where three of the châteaux’s owners would lose their heads on the scaffold. And a key part of the book would be a retelling of the events leading up to the 1855 exhibition in Paris, where four of the five were crowned as first growths, and the determined efforts which resulted in Mouton-Rothschild joining them more than a century later.
I hit the archives in the châteaux themselves, in the Bordeaux municipal archives, and headed to London, where so much of their history is found, to Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses, to the historic wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd, and even the Royal Society – the fellowship of science, engineering and medicine which plays a significant role in the early years of Haut-Brion. And, inevitably, I headed to Hong Kong and China, where so much of their modern history is being written.
I spoke to the owners and directors, but also the staff working in the cellars and vineyards, and to former directors, from Jean Bernard Delmas of Haut-Brion to Jean-Paul Gardère of Latour and Patrick Léon of Mouton. Some of my warmest insights came from the men who had spent so much of their lives at the heart of these estates, and who keenly conveyed to me the sense of pride and humility that comes with the job of maintaining them. Gardère, in particular, demonstrated that it is not just about success, but about staying true to the spirit of the first growths during difficult years. He lived through the privations of World War II and the years that followed, when supplies were scarce and the wine could barely be sold even at rock-bottom prices.
Christophe Salin at Lafite echoed the same words you hear from staff, directors and owners at all five first growths, past and present: ‘Beyond everything else, there are the estates. They were here before us, they will be here long after us. You become a better person by working with them, but you are always aware that you are just passing through. These pieces of land will outlive us all, just as they should.’
One of the most striking things I learned was just how much these five properties have played a role in the creation of Bordeaux as it is today. Haut-Brion began the revolution by creating New French Claret, the first truly ageworthy style of wine. The four original 1855 first growths led the way into the English market, the most important of the 17th and 18th century world, and so established Bordeaux as a wine to be sought out by the most powerful drinkers of each generation. The owner of Mouton in the 17th century, Jean-Louis de Nogaret de la Valette, was key to the growth of viticulture in the Médoc, asking Dutch hydraulic engineer Jan Leeghwater to draw up plans for draining the marshes that had submerged the fine gravel soils of the peninsula. A later owner of Mouton, Baron de Branne, was largely responsible for introducing the widespread planting of Cabernet Sauvignon to the Médoc. And the five estates worked together to introduce château-bottling, an initiative which transformed the wine world by assuring stability of quality and control over adulteration of wines. Time and again, where the first growths led, other estates would follow shortly after.
Inside the First Growths: Part 3
A lasting legacy
All five histories are finely intertwined. At key moments in their development, a handful of owners controlled them. For almost the entire 18th century, just two families – the Ségurs and Pontacs (and later Fumels) – owned all four original first growths. And for two years, from 1718 to 1720, when de Ségur also bought Mouton, all five châteaux had their fates, and their commercial directions, dictated by these two key dynasties.
The role that politics played in their ascendancy became clear, but it is their geographical position, their terroir and their obsessional detail that really set them apart. Lafite stands at the highest point of Pauillac, with some of the deepest gravel of the appellation. Latour has some of the most exceptional terroir in all of Bordeaux within its 47 hectares of the walled L’Enclos. Mouton was the site of some of the great leaps forward for Bordeaux wine over the past four centuries, and its owner, Baron Philippe, brought the wines of Bordeaux to the world’s attention. Margaux has an elegance and perfume to its wine that can be recognised instantly, and its château building is easily among the treasures of France. Haut-Brion stands as sentinel to the creation of fine wine. They are clearly exceptional, extraordinary places on their own. But together they are something more.
Doug Rumsam of Bordeaux Index in Hong Kong gave me one of the best insights into why this is still true. ‘There are certain things that collectors and enthusiasts are attracted to in the world of wine, and it is usually numerical. If wine collectors are not discussing whether 1982 is better than 1983, then they are discussing the value and accuracy of the 100-points system, comparing scores of different estates in different vintages and deciding if they agree. The 1855 classification is the epitome of this – five levels, 61 châteaux in total, only five estates at the top. The logic is clear; because it was written down that these are the best, they are the best. And that logic becomes self-sustaining – the knowledge that they are the best means they do all that they can to remain so.’
Read an exclusive extract from Jane’s book Bordeaux Legends tomorrow, only on Decanter.com
Bordeaux Legends: The 1855 First Growth Wines
Gentlemen’s agreements between the famous five (an edited excerpt from Liquid Legends: The 1855 First Growths of Bordeaux)
Today, all five châteaux are reaping the benefits of stable ownership by some of the most powerful figures in the wine world. But the relationship between them has inevitably changed from the days when marriages and politics bound them closely together.
Until the late 19th century, things were unashamedly collaborative. An 1820 letter from Pierre Lamothe at Château Latour, written to the winemaker at Lafite, says, ‘Today I have begun harvesting at Latour, my dear Eymeric, and as I am not possessed of an innate knowledge, I appeal to your experience for guidance in a chemical operation you have witnessed and that your good judgment has surely grasped in all its detail. Accordingly, I write to ask for a little instruction regarding a test that I would like to make to strengthen the wine, considered rarely firm enough by our buyers. These are the details…’
Even Mouton and Lafite were happy to swap plots of vines without payment in 1927, not long after Baron Philippe had taken over. The transaction was signed on 4 July 1927, by a notaire in Paris, François Burthe, and details how Baron Robert de Rothschild at Lafite was exchanging five rows of vines referred to as Les Massères, in the commune of Pauillac, representing four ares and three centiares (about 0.2 hectares). In exchange, Baron Henri de Rothschild at Mouton (Philippe’s father, who was still officially owner at the time, although the deal would have been instigated by his son) offered seven rows of vines in the area known as Les Pommeries, also in Pauillac, and covering four ares, 41 centiares. Lafite was 38 centiares up on the deal, but it was Mouton that had asked for the exchange.
This was not the first time they had undertaken a joint project. In the 1880s, Alphonse, Gustave and Edmond de Rothschild at Lafite and James Edouard de Rothschild at Mouton built a primary school in Mousset to teach – free of charge – the children of their staff and those of local villagers. The editor of the 1886 Cocks et Feret vineyard guide writes, ‘We cannot speak of the estate without mentioning the intelligence and generosity of this act’. The school still stands today, has 164 students and is overseen by the Académie de Bordeaux.
Most of the directors admit that until the 1970s, cosy lunches discussing pricing of the most recent vintage were far from unusual – something that would have observers today rushing to the European fair trade association. In the past 30 years, they have managed just a handful of joint tastings – one in London in November 2010, at the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter, and two in New York, one in the 1980s, the other in 2011.
The château-bottling revolution
Historically, the best-known example of the five estates working together – and an essential step in Mouton- Rothschild becoming identified as a first Growth – happened just after Baron Philippe de Rothschild became the director of Mouton, aged 20, in October 1922.
Determined to raise the status of his wine to what it had been in former years, he took control of the bottling, pointing out in his autobiography, Milady Vine, that wines intended for the chateau’s consumption were matured for three years in the cellars at Mouton. ‘Why then… were we shipping the wines we were selling to Bordeaux at the most critical moment of their lives? Anything might become of them in the wine merchant’s sheds. Three years’ maturation in a strange environment, the very time when we should be responsible for nursing the precious juice? It wasn’t good enough.’ Before putting his plan into action, he ‘had to put it right with the neighbours: Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour and Lafite’.
Although Baron Philippe was displaying his innate talent for self-promotion, Mouton was not the first to do
this. It had long been standard to put a part of the wine in bottles at the estate, and you see bottle purchases regularly in the Lawton ledgers from the early 1800s (although most often re-sales from négociants).
Even earlier than this, discussions had begun. Haut-Brion has a letter written from Count Joseph de Fumel to Mr Servat, a representative of the city of Bordeaux living in Paris. In the letter, dated 27 December
1783, Fumel writes of selling his wine for 55 ‘sols’ (copper coins) per bottle to Monsieur l’Abbe d’Hargicourt,
‘including glass, wooden case, cork, wax and the right to sell’. He also talks of selling consignments of 250 bottles and discusses Paris merchants who don’t know how to leave the wine to settle before opening the bottles. ‘Often, they spoil them, a fact of great annoyance to the château owner.’
Continuing Fumel’s early interest, a label at Haut-Brion dating from 1850 clearly mentions estate-bottling. And in 1890 Lafite caused a minor uproar by bottling at the estate and sending it directly to Ehrmann Brothers wine merchants in London. There is correspondence in Lafite’s archives concerning full estate bottling for the 1906 harvest, when manager Louis Mortier, on behalf of the Barons de Rothschild, has written to a Bordeaux merchant, Rosenheim et Fils, requesting that at least 50% of its wine be bottled on the estate each year and 100% in the best years. He requests that the merchant pays an extra €150 per tonneau for the wines bottled at château (even though the merchants would be carrying out the bottling) and wants to agree to that price for at least half of the harvest each year.
Lafite experimented with bottling after its reputation suffered in the early 1900s thanks to unscrupulous merchants, particularly in Russia, who put any red wine into bottles and sold it under the Lafite name. For a few years, Lafite became almost a word for generic red wine in Russia, and its price suffered as a result. But the power of the merchants in the 1910s – together with issues over wine spoilage that had damaged some of their estatebottled wine in the 1890s – persuaded Lafite to forgo the initiative and may explain the reluctance of Baron Edouard to agree to Baron Philippe’s suggestion in the 1920s. Eventually, however, all five estates got behind the idea. To cement the matter, Baron Philippe organised a dinner on neutral ground, at Bordeaux restaurant Le Chapon Fin. The table was booked in the name of ‘The Five’.
Bordeaux Legends: The 1855 First Growth Wines, by Jane Anson, is published on 18 October 2012 by Editions de La Martiniere in Paris, and by Abrams in New York in Spring 2013.
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