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Bordeaux's Big Five

Published in Man's World Magazine | November 2011

I HAVE THE UNIQUE Distinction of sitting with the most well connected man in all of Bordeaux. Philippe Dufrenoy , 60 years of age, has agreed to be my guide in a region where most gates stay closed. As anyone connected with the wine world will tell you, the most exclusive wine makers do not meet you without an appointment. In fact, they do not meet you even after they have given you an appointment.

Dufrenoy was an unemployed engineer who had a brief fling with art. Then one day, sitting in a Bordeaux café, having ordered the plat du jour and a glass of table wine, Dufrenoy got his Eureka moment. He would paint subjects, any subject, with wine instead of paint. A decade later, it would be hard to find anyone of consequence whose visage has not been immortalised in paint by Dufrenoy.

In my quest to explore Bordeaux’s five first-growths that set the standards for red wines globally, the redoubtable Philippe Dufrenoy not just opened relevant doors but also regaled me with stories of the wine world’s idiosyncrasies.

CHATEAU HAUT-BRION

Even way back in 1663 people were singing praises of this wine. Writer and diarist Samuel Pepys is supposed to have remarked “Ho Bryan is rather a splendid drop of red.” Neither time nor change of proprietors has dimmed the global value of Chateau Haut-Brion, officially Bordeaux’s original first-growth name, which has been making wines for nearly six centuries. In the late 18th century, then American ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson (who later became President) visited the property and ordered cases not just for his Parisian home but also for the cellar at his American mansion.

When the current managing director Robert De Luxemburg’s great grandfather, American banker Clarence Dillon, bought the chateau in 1935, Haut-Brion belonged to the appellation of Graves (60 km south of Bordeaux). In 1987, it was decided to separate northern vineyards from the lower quality land in the south. Haut- Brion got moved into the new appellation of Pessac-Leognan (named after the two communes of Pessac and Leognan). So here’s the paradox. Bordeaux’s oldest first-growth, is in Bordeaux’s youngest appellation.

Once Haut-Brion (which uses equal quantities of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) assumes its mature identity (anywhere from 12 to 15 years, depending upon vintage), this first-growth demonstrates its superb depth of fruit and character. The tannins have mellowed by then and the wine with its tobacco and spices undertones will grab you. The average production is about 11,000 cases, which means only 1,32,000 bottles are available every year. So you known why it costs an arm and a leg.

 

CHATEAU LAFITE ROTHSCHILD

Who says bankers are not creative? Eric de Rothschild may run a private bank in Paris, but every evening he puts his nose to one of the world’s most expensive and sought-after wines. His own. The first-growth Lafite from Bordeaux’s Pauillac appellation that he owns. His holding company Domanies Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) owns other Bordeaux estates too. But its Lafite that he is passionate about and are served at his legendary parties for Parisian cognoscenti. The chateau is grand, the landscaped gardens verdant and the wine to die for.

The Lafite vineyards actually date back to 1670, when a nobleman called Jacques de Segur planted the first vines. The French Republic seized the estate during the revolution. In 1868, the French branch of the Rothschild family bought the property at a government auction. Just a decade earlier, their cousins twice removed had bought what became Mouton-Rothschild. The rivalry is as strong today as it was then. Experts say it is slow developing wine, taking up to two decades to mature and shed its tannin and reveal its full richness. Lafite-Rothschild’s average annual production of 28,000 cases sells out without much effort. That’s 336,000 bottles.

 

CHATEAU MOUTON-ROTSCHILD

What’s a grey haired perfectly coiffed matron with a penchant for chunky gold necklaces doing in one of the five first-growth chateaux? Baroness Philippine de Rothschild not only owns the property but also runs it with steely determination and is respected as a vintner. She used to be a successful stage actress, so is no stranger to high drama.

Mouton-Rothschild was actually the last of the Big Five, being upgraded to first-growth only in 1973. Mouton’s wines are about 80 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 8 per cent Merlot and 10 per cent Cabernet Franc. Their wines tend to be on the bolder side. A poetic critic called them fullbodied female figures like those in Renaissance paintings rather than size-zero mannequins on fashion ramp shows.

Chateau Mouton Rothschild is a largish building, rather like an Italianate monument situated in (just like Lafite Rothschild) perfectly landscaped gardens. Inside there’s an art museum with paintings related to wine, sculptures and a gift shop. Mouton produces about 20,000 cases of its first-growth every year. That’s about 240,000 bottles in the international market.

 

CHATEAU LATOUR

Owner Francois Pinault is better known around the world for his stable of prestigious fashion brands like Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Converse, Puma and Samsonite. But in the rarefied world of sommeliers and wine lovers he is envied for the ownership of Chateau Latour which be bought in 1993. Of course, Latour’s wines have seen outstanding vintages going back to 1863. The river is only about 200 yards away from the vineyards creating a gravelly soil that provides the perfect environment for the fruits.

The typical blend of Chateau Latour’s first wine is about 80 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 per cent Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc. Pinault’s approach to his wines is best illustrated by his words: “I once asked a painter which was his greatest painting, and he answered with a smile that it was certainly the one that he would paint tomorrow. It’s the same for Latour-the best harvests will be the ones we will have in the coming years.” The average production is about 14,000 cases which means every year 1,68,000 bottles are on the market.

 

CHATEAU MARGAUX

After Chateau Haut-Brion, Margaux’s vineyards are the second oldest of the first-growths. Its reputation had been established by the early 1700s and the spectacular neoclassical chateau symbolises the Bordeaux identity built in 1811. The only appellation in Bordeaux to take its wine from its finest estate, Margaux has always been a difficult region to keep proving its worth. That’s because the soil is free draining and the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes can produce wines which are dull. This of course is not the case with Chateau Margaux, whose wines are consistently brilliant. How? Thank the winemaker for this. In fact, in each of the above five examples, it’s the winemaker who should get the maximum applause, since its his genius that year after year derives the maximum benefit out of grapes that can be capricious.

Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Chateau Margaux has no embarrassment about asking for advise from outsiders. Every five years she sends out surveys to the world’s most knowledgeable wine traders, soliciting feedback so that her wines remain in the top five. A typical blend of first wine will have 75 to 85 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, seven to 18 per cent Merlot and the rest Petit Verdot. The average production is about 12,500 cases, i.e., 1,50,000 bottles are on the market.