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September 21, 2017

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Bordeaux's expensive 'first growth' wines enjoy long-term aura

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 classe's 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 — Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau 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.


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