There are five first growths: Lafite, Mouton, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion. Read: Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini & Porsche. Maybe not in that order: it’s about status, class and pedigree. These wines are the best, and they (the chateaux) have established themselves as such. And they cost a few quid. Here’s something I prepared earlier on whether or not they are worth it.
So, to carry on with this analogy, tasting – or even better, drinking – a first growth should be special, more than special. It should be like being driven to the airport in a Roller, or spanking a 911 around a track. You should know that you are mixing with the best. The experience should be unmatchable.
Latour is the King of the first growths, the Silverback, as previously discussed. Margaux the Queen? Not sure: at its best Margaux is ethereal, at its worst it’s just boring. Not even shite, just boring. Haut-Brion is the connoisseurs’ first growth: ask anyone lucky enough to have drunk a lot at this level and they will almost invariably pick Haut-Brion as their favourite. Mouton is the unreliable Prince, though looks to be getting better. Mouton has produced some blinders in the past, though generally just once a decade, and they have also produced some distinctly average wines in the past twenty years. Lafite is the would-be-King. Lafite is managed by Simon Cowell. Lafite is the hot one and, despite producing at least three iconic wines in the last decade (Bob thinks four, and might be right), it’s still not quite up there with Latour and Haut-Brion as far as I’m concerned.
To find out, or at least to examine, you need a level playing field: a vintage. For the past few years I’ve done this from barrel but this field is a long way from level. You need to do it from bottle. I’ve done this twice. Once, in 2005, with the 1996 vintage. Latour my winner (breeding), Margaux tying with Lafite for second (though 1996 Lafite is truly something else, an almost tangible bouquet, and would be the 1996 of choice for most), Mouton flashy and simple, Haut-Brion pure and lifted.
Second time was the 1959 vintage. Now this gets a little more interesting. Old-fashioned winemaking, for good and/or bad. Which also means old-fashioned bottle variation. An exceptional vintage and, at fifty years old, these wines should be just about right.
Wine 1: The Margaux was simply very old and seriously good wine. A leatheriness, a ripeness, a regal “rottiness” that only seriously good, seriously mature claret can achieve. Seriously, seriously good, but fifth place for me.
Wine 3: The Lafite was much more youthful, with a piercing mintiness to it. This was remarkably alive for something made from grapes picked 50 years ago. These wines had a lot to battle with in terms of what had been previously tasted, hence the conservatism. But we moved up a gear.
Wine 5: Our first bottle of Mouton was, to use a translated technical term, “foutu”. There was the leathery maturity, and the mintiness of the Lafite, but not all was here. “Volatile” and “xxxxed” said one of the more professional pros on my table.
The second was better, but still not all there. Not a car crash, but certainly sideways on an icy road. We moved on.
Wine 2: I picked this as Haut-Brion, I called it. Which is to say I guessed what it was. This wasn’t just youthful, it had muscle, weight. Character. And class, which was behind my guess. In terms of character this had it all. I can still taste it. This is the wine that I would want to drink.
Wine 4: Wine of the night for me was the Latour. From Marie-Jeanne, which is a 2.5 litre bottle. And these were the last two in the cellar. Glass One, from Marie-Jeanne One, was so youthful that is was even a little closed on the nose: your girlfriend not wanting to take her clothes off (whereas at fifty we don’t give a shit). From Marie-Jeanne two it was even better. Youth again, and a purity, an intensity, a class. That my notes are short is a sign of (a) my ineptitude but, and most relevantly (b) the beauty, the perfection, of what was in my glass. Good wines don’t need long notes.
I caught a sniff, and a sip, of the best bottle of Mouton. This could have taken the Latour on. But sadly I just tasted it; I didn’t drink it.
My second favourite pastime is sitting outside the pub in the sunshine. My favourite pastime is drinking seriously good wine. This was an unmatchable experience. These were the firsts. They did their job.