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BEGINNINGS Chapter 1


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THIS PAGE Château Haut-Brion. OPPOSITE Vineyard worker,

Château Haut-Brion.

or lost during World War II, while next door at Lafite there are some fine documents. It took the Rothschilds’ English arm at Waddesdon Manor to head over to Bordeaux and instill some order to the dusty archive room back in 2001. Château Margaux has some excellent records, kept in lines of box folders in the elegant library that overlooks the extensive gardens at the rear of the estate. Some of the earliest records of feudal Bordeaux are here, but the collection suffered losses from a fire in the 1960s. It falls to Latour and Haut-Brion to house the most extensive collections, with documents

stretching from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries kept in well-ordered, air-conditioned rooms, and Puginier is rightly proud of the part he has played in bringing them to light. “Haut-Brion can truly be seen as the first of the five to lay the foundations for all the fame and adulation that came later,” says Puginier, who came to the estate after completing his master’s degree in medieval history at the local Michel de Montaigne University, and who has been there ever since.

THE EARLIEST VINES Château Haut-Brion has always stood out from its fellow First Growths. It is the only one of the five estates to be found outside of the Médoc, meaning a host of subtle differences, from choice of grape variety planted in its fields (more Merlot) to selection of harvest date (earlier). It is officially in the Pessac-Léognan appellation—the northern part of the Graves— and is the closest of the First Growths to the center of Bordeaux. If you are driving from

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              y the time the French Revolution swept into Bordeaux, the First Growths were well established as serious forces guiding the local wine market, and their owners found much of the eighteenth century a profitable and enjoyable place to be. Their status as nobles, however, meant that inevitably they were directly in the firing line of the huge social changes that rocked France, and three of the five estates would find themselves minus their owners by the time the dust had settled. Bordeaux suffered one of the harshest reprisals of any French city during the Revolution, mainly because of its association with the political faction known as Les Girondins, who had initially been enthusiastic supporters of the 1789 uprising, but who were seen as enemies of the revolutionary forces by the early 1790s. Even though most of the parliamentarians in the city had no connection to them at all, they were damned by association. Of the 800 families that comprised the Bordeaux nobility, about half were to disappear by the early nineteenth century. In total, 79 Bordeaux nobles, including 36 members of parliament, were beheaded. A further 408 people chose exile, most heading to Spain, and those who remained behind were

stripped of their titles and taxed so harshly as to threaten all remnants of their former existence. The last years of the Ancien Régime, in contrast, were both prosperous and successful, and all five First Growths reaped the benefits. Over in England, the Pontack’s Head remained in business until 1780, by which time FrançoisAuguste had long since passed away (nearly ninety years earlier, in 1694, with his job title in the National Dictionary of Biography given as “Tavern Keeper”). His reputation as a generous and flamboyant host held true to the end, perhaps indicating why he died with no shortage of debts but a distinct shortage of children. The renown of his Bordeaux château, however, was firmly established, and it continued to grow under the joint ownership of his niece Therèse de Pontac (and so the Lestonnac family at Château Margaux), and one of his nephews, Louis-Arnaud le Comte. Meanwhile at Lafite and Latour things were going from strength to strength. The only son of Alexandre and Marie-Thérèse, NicolasAlexandre de  Ségur was born in Bordeaux on October 20, 1697. When his father died in 1716, he inherited at the tender age of nineteen not only his father’s post as président à

OPPOSITE Picture of

Nicolas-Alexandre de Segur. From the collection of Château Latour.

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and China has become a major purchaser from all five estates. Doug Rumsam of Bordeaux Index Ltd. in Hong Kong is clear as to why: “It is largely a factor of history and who has been drinking them in the past. When royalty and world leaders go to Bordeaux, they are served the Firsts, and that has been happening for centuries. Each generation reinforces their image and strengthens them for the next one. The Super Seconds are doing some brilliant marketing and are moving fast over in Asia, but they will never reach the Firsts.” Nicholas Pegna at Berry Bros. agrees. “The First Growths are nothing if not smart operators—and they understand that for those who want to drink the world’s most desirable wines, the more expensive a wine gets, the more desirable it becomes.”

THE ROLE OF FRANCE There is of course one country that shouldn’t be forgotten in all this—France. Inevitably, the First Growths’ home country was among the early adopters. Lafite and Latour were feted at the Royal Court in the eighteenth century, and when Talleyrand owned Haut-Brion, the foreign affairs minister for Napoléon Bonaparte and future Napoleon I employed the service of Marie-Antoine Carême, “king of chefs and the chef of kings” for twelve years. He entertained

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many of the world’s princes, sovereigns, and heads of state, serving them Carême’s food and the wines of Haut-Brion. He was known for saying, “it is through my casseroles and my cuisine that my diplomacy achieves its aims,” and his wine was served at the Congress of Vienna on November 1, 1814. Haut-Brion continues to play a part in French politics—hosting French foreign minister (and Bordeaux mayor) Alain Juppé and his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, in July 2011. The two ministers were taken on a tour of Haut-Brion and La Mission, shown engravings by sixteenth-century German artist Albrecht Dürer, then served lunch, accompanied by the 1990 Haut-Brion Blanc, from the year of German reunification, and from the 1989 Haut-Brion, the year the Berlin wall came down. French consumption of these wines continued to represent a small but steady trade until very recently, when high prices have meant that the habit of a country doctor or lawyer taking out a First Growth for his Sunday lunch has all but died away, even while the wines continue to find their market with the country’s elite. “These wines are part of the heritage of France,” says Frédéric Engerer at Latour, speaking at a tasting in London in 2010. “We should be proud to have the top wines of Bordeaux considered among the most desirable products of France, alongside Hermès, Airbus, or Gucci.”

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trading will commence. Our primeur business is dead. Our old buyers have disappeared, the great châteaux have become storehouses for the trade.”

MODERN TIMES The postwar years were difficult for everyone, although nature lent a hand with the wonderful 1945, 1947, and 1949 vintages, which did eventually begin moving out of the châteaux cellars, particularly from 1950 onward, as economies stirred back into life after the war. There were hiccups—1956, for example, saw the worst frost of the twentieth century—but the 1960s saw the second golden age of the Médoc, as the Americans became interested in Bordeaux wines in a serious way and prices began to rise. This economic relief no doubt helps explain why the 1960s also saw leaps forward in technology. Fittingly, given its history with the New French Claret, Haut-Brion was the first in Bordeaux to introduce stainless steel tanks for vinifying the wines, and also one of the very first to have an onsite oenology laboratory. Latour followed just a few years later, putting in nineteen stainless steel vats in 1964 (Jean-Paul Gardère remembers his neighbors asking, “[W]hat are you going to put in there? Petrol?”). Corinne at Château Margaux allowed the installation of twelve stainless steel tanks in 1983, something her father had been staunchly set against. Mouton and Lafite had also innovated with their own cellars—stage designer Charles Siclis had

provided the Médoc with its first truly dramatic, floodlit cellar at Mouton way back in 1926, while Lafite unveiled its own dramatically circular barrel cellar by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill in the mid-1970s. And Baron Philippe continued to lavish care and attention on his wine—by the time of his death in 1988, he had personally overseen sixty-six vintages of his wine, a record for the Médoc. Prices crashed down again with the Oil Crisis of 1973, but it was the recovery from this that really took the First Growths to their current form. The final steps toward modernity happened in the 1980s, with the introduction of modern techniques, temperature control in the vats, ever more precise methods in the vines and cellars, and an increasingly stable and wideranging market. “I congratulated Engerer for his great luck a few years ago,” says Gardère in his warm and open manner. “He arrived at Latour in the late 1990s. Ever since then, nature has given him great vintages and great quality wine that has come on to a market that is prepared to buy it at good prices. I don’t believe the First Growths have enjoyed such a run of good luck since the 1860s.”

PAGES 176–177 Barrel cellars, Château Mouton Rothschild. OPPOSITE The circular cellar at Château Lafite Rothschild.

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Bordeaux Legends by Jane Anson, foreword by -Frances Ford Coppola - STC