Wine column for week of January 7

The “first growth” wines of Bordeaux have sustained an aura about them for more than 150 years. That aura seems to justify very high prices, especially in vintages when Robert Parker and other noted critics score the wines highly.
Given this column aims to be as much about wine education as wine appreciation, it’s worth reflecting on these prestigious wines. A chance to taste a range of “first growth” reds occurred in Hong Kong, courtesy of the Bordeaux Wine Investment company.
Where did the term “first growth” come from? France was scheduled to host a major world’s fair, or “exposition universelle,” in Paris in 1855. Visitors were expected from around the world and Emperor Napoleon III wanted to showcase the best French wine.
He requested a classification system for France’s best Bordeaux wines, so in 1855 a list of the top-ranked wines, named the grand crus classés or great classified growths appeared.
Several thousand different wine houses (chateaux) were producing wine in Bordeaux, so to be classified in this group would be highly prestigious.
Wines were ranked in importance from first to fifth growths (crus). The best of the best were given the highest rank of premier cru, or first growth.
Only four wines — Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux and Château Haut-Brion — were named as first growths.
This 1855 list of the best of the best remained unchanged for more than a 100 years until Mouton Rothschild was included in 1973, after decades of relentless lobbying by its powerful owner, Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
My tasting began with a 2001 Mouton Rothschild. It smelled of raspberries and cherries and had soft tannins, with good length. This is a wine that creates joy in one’s mouth.
Next was a 1992 Latour, a wine one should rejoice about in having the chance to taste. It smelled of high quality soy sauce and had soft, slightly chalky tannins, and soft fruit.
A 1982 Haut-Brion was the highlight of the evening. That year was an exceptional vintage. This wine had aromas of thyme and rosemary, and tasted of tobacco, ripe plums and leather. In the mouth it had an ethereal quality that created a sense of bliss. Easily one of the finest wines I have ever tasted.
The 1982 Margaux that followed was disappointing, probably because of a slight taint caused by a faulty cork. The wine, though ripe, tasted slightly sour. While still attractive, it had a blowsy quality one sees in an over-dressed person of mature years trying to look young.
It was a sad experience after the bliss of the previous wine.
A 1988 Lafite completed the group. It has intense aromas of ripe black fruit like blackberries and looked like dark cherry in the glass. The tannins were still apparent, suggesting this wine needs more time before it peaks.
We had a 1996 Chateau d’Yquem with dessert. In the world of dessert wines d’Yquem is considered the equivalent of a “first growth”.
Indeed, in the 1855 classification of dessert wines, d’Yquem was considered so great it was granted a special premier cru supérieur classification all of its own.
This d’Yquem was gold in colour, and tasted rich and luxurious, yet it also had a mineral and lean feeling in the mouth, like watching an Olympic distance runner perform.
With these wines it is difficult to describe their glory in words. These are wines that need to be tasted to be truly appreciated.
Disclaimer: The author paid for all the wines he tasted via a system where each person brought a “first growth” wine to the restaurant to share with the other guests. The author took the 1996 d’Yquem. The restaurant, Amuse Bouche, matched foods with each wine.
* Published 10 January 2013. Find a link here. Also published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine, April-May 2013, page 34, under the headline “PREMIER CRUS: The best of the best”

About squinn33

Writer and wine lover
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