mouton rothschild

2013 Bordeaux: That’s Why They Call Them The First Growths

Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux

Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux pontificates on the 2013 vintage

The first growths are so designated because they are considered to have the best terroirs in the Haut-Medoc. (I say this knowing that the Right Bank and Pessac are excluded here.) The argument here is that the land speaks more than the winemaker’s hand.

Over the past few years with Bordeaux consistently churning out some incredible wines, the riding tide of quality that comes from a great vintage compresses the distance between the first growths and other top notch estates of the Haut-Medoc. Witness the astounding Pontet-Canets from 2009 and 2010 which arguably give the first growths a run for the money.

But what happens in the more difficult years? Do the supposedly superior terroirs actually allow the first growths to produce wines better than their neighbors? Or has the new money that has modernized so many wineries in combination with whipsmart winemakers closed the gap between the first growths and their upstarts? With some of the worst weather in decades, the wines from 2013 would provide a good platform to answer these questions.

Luckily, our schedule was constructed to visit all of the Haut-Medoc first growths in succession. Now let’s acknowledge that from a purely hedonistic point of view, this was going to be a pretty awesome experience. We consider ourselves quite lucky to have a morning where we can indulge in some of Bordeaux’s best wines, one after the other. This all notwithstanding, we had some work ahead of us!!

Tasting the 2013 Chateau Latour

Tasting the 2013 Chateau Latour

Fortunately, this morning also followed a couple of days going through many of the wines that comprise the other four classes of the 1855 classification. Domaines like Pontet-Canet, Cos d’Estournel and Palmer are among the 10-20 or so estates that can easily challenge the first growths as one of the best wines of the vintage. Would any of these wines surpass the quality of the first growths in 2013?

A visit to Chateau Margaux showed that 2013was a test the winery passed successfully. As winemaker Paul Pontallier observed, “We feel we are quite privileged to have the means to make great wine. But also it is true that in vintages like 2013, great terroirs show their supremacy.” Parceling much of their merlot into the domaine’s other cuvees, this year’s grand vin had 94% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cab franc and 1% petit verdot and showed graceful power with good length. This vintage shows a richness of fruit that is tempered by Margaux’s trademark finesse and was a success for the vintage.

Focusing again on a first growth that possesses a finessed palette, Lafite Rothschild showcased it’s prettier fruit expression clearly in 2013. Like Margaux, Lafite depended on cabernet sauvignon (98% in this case) to provide the power and foundation of the grand vin. One trait of the 2013’s is a fresh and vibrant red fruit expression with a crisp and crunchy texture that slowly gives way to more depth and concentration with some air. The wine’s fine grained tannins were in balance with the fruit weight keeping the sleek structure that Lafite is known for.

When it comes to power, Mouton Rothschild and Latour traditionally show the full-bodied texture and intensity of flavor that is a foil to Margaux and Lafite’s elegance. Once again, these two properties stayed true to their identities pouring 13’s that were as good if not better than last year’s wines. Depth and concentration abounded, not only in their top cuvees but also in the second wines. Already looking like complete wines, layers of blackfruits peeled away to reveal even more nuance and complexity. Just the right amount of acidity added vibrancy and precision to the flavors while the integrated tannins added support contributing to the wine’s overall balance. These were thrilling examples that stayed true to the pedigree of each estate. At the same time, these wines proved that excellent wines could be found in this difficult year.

The setup at Lafite-Rothschild

The setup at Lafite-Rothschild

Compared with the wines of the Haut-Medoc tasted during the previous two days, the first growths clearly stole the show. Their 2013s were what you would expect of a first growth, maybe without the potential to age 25+ years, but they were no slouches. The other top chateaux of the Haut-Medoc clearly showed more variability among them with successes mixed with others where the challenges of the harvest proved difficult to overcome.

In the end, it seems that in 2013, the great terroirs of the first growths added that something special to make wines of greater quality than what we found in all the Haut-Medoc wines encountered beforehand. The technical talent and equipment available to Bordeaux’s best estates is relatively equal so perhaps it is the terroirs that speak with a stronger voice in challenging years. Why? Who’s to say. As those at Chateau Margaux say themselves, “The genius of great terroirs is difficult to fathom.” But in 2013, the terroirs of the top estates clearly showed why they are called “The First Growths of the Medoc”.

First Growths First: Harbingers of the Vintage

First Growths First: Harbingers of the Vintage

Post by Chuck Hayward | April 3rd, 2012

Mouton-Rothschild Tour "Bus" (who's that dashing fellow in the front?)

Let the madness begin! Save for the elite critics who arrived in Bordeaux one or two weeks ahead, en primeur week officially opened on Monday. We arrive early enough to get acclimated and rested up, as that first day offers an important opportunity get a sense of the vintage before later diving into the really big tastings hosted by negociants and the Union des Grand Crus (UGC).

So with schedules in hand and cars revved up, we headed north on the Route du Chateau (after a slow slog through downtown Bordeaux’s unfailing traffic jams), to make the most of our fresh, day one palates by tasting the First Growths. Sampling the crème de la crème of Bordeaux first is helpful, as it usually sets the standard for the wines tasted throughout the rest of the week. (more…)

Taking it from the Top: Day 1 starts at Lafite

Taking it from the Top: Day 1 Starts at Lafite

Post by Chuck Hayward | April 5th, 2011

On Monday Team JJB dove head first into in EP 2010. Racing up and down the D2, the main drag which runs the length of the Left Bank, gravel flew as our caravan tore in and out of parking lots. Like a Brooks Brothers-clad A-Team, we jumped out of vans, sprinted across impeccably manicured lawns, took steps two at a time in our suits and ties to make our appointments.

With a radically different itinerary from last year, our first intensive look at the vintage was through the prism of the Premier Grand Crus, the

Latour vista

First Growths of the upper Medoc. The “Big Five”, as they are often referred to, generally attract the most attention each year and it’s not often one gets the chance to taste these wines, either from the barrel or from the bottle. So smoothing hair and straightening jackets, we entered the quiet salon at our first stop, Chateau Lafite. Then we dashed over the hill and south to Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, followed by Chateau Latour, and on to Chateau Margaux. Visits to Cos d’Estournel, Palmer, and Leoville-Las Cases were also on the packed Day One itinerary, as well as a tasting of 2007 and 2008 Bordeaux at the warehouse of a top negoce. Before the sun hit the horizon, it was already a full day.

As might be expected, conversation among the team revolved around the favorites of the four Big Chateaux visited that day (Haut Brion would come on Tuesday). Our conversation turned to (more…)

First Impressions of the Big Five

First Impressions of the Big Five

Post by Chuck Hayward | Monday, March 29th

They are called the Premier Grand Crus, the First Growths— a Bordeaux Best of the Best, designated as such by the famed Classification of 1855 (with a certain exception made in 1973). These five revered wineries— Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild— produce some of the most sought after and coveted wines by enthusiasts and collectors from across the globe. And I was about to taste them all!

There has been much debate about the 1855 Classification and whether it’s

The JJB Team at Chateau Margaux

still valid today. Many wineries further down in the classification are now producing wines that are considered superior to those made by the Premiers— and you can be assured that the JJ Buckley staff have been hacking away at that old chestnut over the course of our visit! But this is not the time nor place to rehash the argument. I can say, though, that these wines are something special.

Interestingly, however, the ways these grand estates present themselves and their en primeur wines is sometimes anything other than grand. In the case of Chateau Haut Brion, we tasted the new wines in a beautiful salon. For Lafite it was an unadorned conference room and at Latour, we tasted quietly in a lab.

Whatever the setting, the wines from the “big five” were exceptional, each with its own, unique personality. Margaux stood out for its almost rustic qualities. Lafite impressed me with its restraint and elegance, while at the same time avoiding any unripe qualities or a sense of dilution.

For those who favor power, Latour, Mouton, and Haut Brion will be at the center of the First Growth conversation in this vintage. All three offered up rich, mouthfilling flavors that never ended. These are big wines but do not become cloying or ponderous thanks to fully integrated acids and the barest of tannins to support the thick fruit.

The key observation for all the Premier Grand Crus is that each wine, while being fully expressive, seems to offer a sense of restraint and the feeling that there is much, much more to come down the road. Tasting them young is like being in a boxing ring, knowing that my opponent is holding something in reserve that’s later going to put me on the ropes.

Well, if it’s going to be a Premier Grand Cru that clocks me, then just ring my bell.