Inside the First Growths: Part 3

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Bordeaux first growths 1855

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



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