Great Grapes: First Growth Bordeaux (Debbie Barker ’80)

Debbie Barker ’80 describes the value, history, and rare pleasure of “first growth wine.”

So you’re out with wine loving friends, and one of them brags about a first growth wine she recently tasted. You know that the wine must be pretty good, but what, really, is a “first growth?” First, she’s talking about a red wine from France, from a chateau in the Medoc region of Bordeaux. A chateau, by French law, is a house with vineyards and both winemaking and storage facilities. Second, the wine was made in the French style, from a blend of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. Finally, as there are only five first growths, you’ve narrowed your search down to just five wines.

In 1855, Napoleon III asked local wine brokers to choose the best wines to represent France in the International Exposition of 1855 in Paris. In the classification of 1855, 61 chateaux were reviewed and given the designation “Grand Cru Classé.” The wines were assigned to five categories-first growth (premier cru) to fifth growth (cinquième cru), using price as a proxy for quality.

Debbie Barker '80

At that time only four wines made the first growth list: Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut Brion. In 1920, when Baron Philipe de Rothschild took over at Chateau Mouton Rothschild, he was angry that his chateau had been classified a second growth. His comment was “First I cannot be. Second, I do not deign to be. I am Mouton.” Over half a century later, in 1973, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was recategorized as a first growth-the only significant change ever made to the 1855 classification. The Baron’s new motto is “First I am, second I was. Mouton does not change.”

These five wines are among the most highly rated, longest lived, and most expensive in the world. For example, the 2003 Lafite is rated 100 (on a scale of 100) by Robert Parker, costs $1,200 at market today and is expected to mature between now and the year 2050! There are many wonderful wines made in Bordeaux, most of which never were included in the 1855 classification. But, if you ever have the opportunity to try one of the five incredible first growths wines, do so-preferably on someone else’s tab! It is sure to be a memorable experience.

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