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Inside the First Growths: Part 1

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

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