Since its classification in 1855, the first shoots of the Bordeaux Médoc and the graves on the pile are the monarchs of all the monasteries that have studied them. Other locks, no matter how good they are, might try to reach the top of these five (originally four), but never seem to get there.
Château Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Margot and Upper Brion : What makes them different? What magical stardust was sprinkled on them to give them such a strong status?
Alpha and Omega, that’s terroir. They all have five major vineyards. The richness of the gravel and clay makes Cabernet Sauvignon a natural habitat for all five. The owners may have come and gone, but these vineyards are still valuable.
For decades the soil and vines were observed, stirred and analysed almost too much. Every wrinkle is known and understood more and more. This attention to detail has shifted to the cellar and the wine.
Climate change has increased the need for monitoring. The first Medoca seedlings, stuck between the estuary of the Gironde and the Atlantic Ocean, remained virtually unchanged. Indeed, at Mouton and Lafite they are famous for their more mature Cabernet Sauvignon and its higher proportion in the mixture.
But these Titans also have plans for the future. At Château Margot, the vines are now oriented away from the sun during transplanting and the Merlot has been replaced by Cabernet Franck.
It’s a million-dollar business. They sell the wines at a higher price than the market price and advertise them with style and without much effort. But they owe their success to what goes into the ground and what comes out. Read on to learn more about how they preserve their heritage.
Château Lafite Rothschild / Photo by François Poanse
Iron wrist in velvet glove
When you are in the courtyard of Château Lafite-Rothschild, you must turn your back on the building to see one of the most spectacular vineyards in the world. Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon vines rise up fresh in the majestic bend known as the Dom. They climb the plateau that forms the heart of the Grand Vin Lafite, his first wine.
Of the 276 hectares of vines that make up the estate, 172 hectares contain the heart of the Grand Vin Château Lafitte-Rothschild.
It has a very special composition, explains Eric Kohler, technical director since 2015. It lies on a plateau, deep gravel mixed with clay. This mix provides a water balance when needed in summer.
The vineyard has remained unchanged since the French branch of the Rothschild family bought the estate in 1868.
Although we have expanded the cellar for our second wine, Carroudas, the Grand Vin is very stable, with many vines more than 50 years old, says Kohler.
He arrived in 1992. Since then, he said, 75% of the changes have taken place in the vineyard, with drainage and better control of the vineyard.
We’re really organic now, even if we don’t want to be certified, Kohler says. In 2019 and 2020 we were fully organic.
Every year Lafite is the expression of his terroir, a wine that survives even if the youngest glasses seemed more accessible in their youth.
The wine is a subtle combination of strength and sweetness, he says. It would be easy to make a strong wine, but we need sweetness with strength in the background.
As Merlot’s share of the Grand Vin blend decreases, currently no more than 8%, the need to control Cabernet Sauvignon’s natural strength increases.
The alcohol content of Lafite is always modest. This year, the final mixture is likely to be 13% alcohol by volume (abv). This modesty stems from the same goal. Lafite is a wine that has strength but still retains sweetness.
Château Mouton Rothschild / Photo by François Poanse
Château Mouton Rothschild
Granulation and tanning of velvet
Château Mouton Rothschild is the sunniest of the first branches, the most lush and richest. He always has been, sometimes exaggerated. Today it’s more restrained and juicy.
Of course, up to the 200-hectare gravel vineyard which in some places reaches up to 3 metres deep, with chalk litter.
It is the highest point of Poyaca (all 80 feet above sea level) with two wine plateaus, one of which is called Le Grand Plateau near the castle and the other Le Plateau des Carruades. A small dip between the two gives a break in this intensity of grapes and gravel.
Mouton Rothschild was not among the first four seedlings in the 1855 rankings. After decades of lobbying by its owner, Philippe de Rothschild, it experienced its first growth in 1973. It’s easy to wonder why it’s not classified as first height. Don’t forget that the classification was based on the selling price and not on the quality of the wine.
Mouton’s secret is that the vineyard has remained the same since the Rothschild family bought it in 1853, explains Philip Dalluin, the outgoing director, who will hand it over to Emmanuel Dunjoy, the technical director. The great plateau is premature. It gives sweet and fruity tannins.
Like all the first shoots of the Médoc, the Mouton is a Cabernet Sauvignon. It could make up more than 90% of the mix.
With our terroir, the Cabernet gives these intense but velvety tannins and a richness that is visible only two days after the start of fermentation, says Dunjoy. The result is the smell, the refinement and the fragrances that come out of each barrel in the cellar during the harvest.
It is the ultimate example of a happy marriage between gravel and Cabernet Sauvignon that produces a powerful wine.
Château de Latour / Photo : François Poinche
Power, precision and purity
Among the top four Medok grape varieties, Château Latour is the most remote biological and biodynamic method in the world. The Pinault family, which has owned the Kering luxury empire since 1993 (a group that runs Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Saint-Laurent, etc.), has obtained organic certification for the entire 229 hectares over the past two years.
The heart and pearl of the vineyard are the 113 hectares of fortified L’Enclo, source of the famous Grand Vin Latour. This unit is currently biodynamic, one of the largest biodynamic areas in Bordeaux.
We notice more intensity in the fruit, perhaps more energy in the wine, says Jean Garando, Latour’s sales and marketing director, who answers the question of how biodynamics affect the vineyard. We are very satisfied with the results in terms of the health of the vineyard.
L’Enclos, at the southern tip of Pawyak, dates from at least the 17th century. The proximity of the vineyard at the mouth of the Gironde, less than half a mile away and clearly visible, makes it an important place for Latour wine. This creates a microclimate in which winter temperatures are two to three degrees warmer than in the rest of the vineyard.
Which, since the 18th century… Gravel and clay dried in the last century make Cabernet Sauvignon an ideal location, says Garando. Cabernet today represents at least 90% of the Grand Vin.
The Latour style is characterized by three elements: the precise quality of the tannins, the aromatic purity resulting from the transparency between the soil and the wine, and the strength in length and complexity.
Sometimes it’s difficult at first, but as you get older, it gets deeper. The style of Latour has always contributed to aging. The combination of the Enclos vineyard and biodynamics has allowed us to refine and define this essential character of the wine for future generations.
Château Margot / Photo by François Poinçais
Slim and elegant
Continuity and attention to detail keep Château Margaux at the top of the hierarchy.
The southernmost of the first four Médoc forests is known for its majestic classical castle, a breathtaking view at the end of a long tree-lined driveway. Located in Bordeaux, it is the home of the owner of Château de Margot Corinna Mencelopoulos.
The castle is located in the heart of a 654 hectare country house, consisting of woods and fields. About 252 acres are under the vine. The vineyard, whose archives date back to the 16th century. It’s the same today as it was then. The Merlot vines are born when the fields along the Gironde start to tilt.
North of the castle is a walled vineyard in the heart of the Grand Vin, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon. According to Philippe Bascoles, director of Château Margot since 2016, it is the perfect wine and produces at least 70% of the Grand Vin.
Both in the vineyard and in the cellar Bascaules describes an almost fanatical attention to detail.
We have divided the original packages into four, and each micropackage has its own character, he says.
As a result, there are now 95 tanks in the basement and another 30 are under construction. In the new cellar, designed by architect Norman Foster, the rows of tanks seem to stretch out in the distance.
We want to edit each microplot separately, he says. We observe our vineyard over the long term. We’ve got time.
The wine of this old vineyard has always been known for its elegance. New approaches using as many organic practices as possible have led to a clearer definition of wine. Everything is in balance, Mr. Baskawls said. Not the intensity of this or that element, but the combination that makes Château Margot and its perfume, the softness of the tannins in the heart.
The increased use of Cabernet Sauvignon in the mixture has not changed the primary character of Château Margot. The tannins can be slightly more intense, but at the same time they can be fragrant and velvety, harmonious and delicately concentrated.
Château Upper Brion / Photo by François Poinçais
Upper Brion Castle
Among the top five grape varieties, Château Haut-Brion is a maverick. It is the first vineyard planted in the Bordeaux region. The vineyards are an oasis of greenery against a backdrop of suburbs of universities, hospitals and houses, and not in the countryside near the mouth of the Gironde. The mixture contains more Merlot than the other first seedlings.
It also has the longest history. Local documents date back to the 16th century. For centuries. The wooden library that houses the castle’s archives was created by the current president of the domain, Prince Robert of Luxembourg, grandson of the American Clarence Dillon, who bought the castle in 1935.
A coin from the first century of Emperor Claudius found in a vineyard suggests that it may have been planted for the first time by the Romans, who made wine in Bordeaux, according to Jean-Philippe Delmas, deputy director-general working in Haut-Brion since 2003.
Haut-Brion has an ecosystem based on its history, he said.
We also have an exceptional continuity, with only five owners over the last five centuries. I’m the third generation of my family to run the estate on behalf of the Dillon family.
The ecosystem in question is the alchemy of the soil, subsoil and climate. The company studies soil microbiology and how it affects the various plots of land.
The magic of Upper Brion lies in the fact that we have this large, centuries-old terroir, which means we don’t have to get involved in the winemaking process, Delmas explains.
The slopes of the vineyards move gently to the south, with gravel on large boulders. The terroir is reflected in the wine, which is hard in its youth and has a strong tannic structure. Delma describes the complexity of the aromas while the wine is still in the barrel. He says you can always find skin, coffee and toast in young wine.
With the first shoots, it is always easy to select Haut-Brion because of its high Merlot content during a blind tasting session. Grapes represent 40% of the vineyard. The Merlot gives the wine its richness and generosity from the moment it matures, and continues the line of history that surrounds this old country house.
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