Inside the First Growths: Part 2

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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.

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