2011 New York Wine Experience: The 5 First-Growths of Bordeaux

10 compelling vintages and five charismatic individuals explore the region’s terroir and history
Oct 26, 2011

To wrap up the 30th anniversary Wine Experience seminars, guests were treated to an in-depth look at the legendary first-growth châteaus of Bordeaux: Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild. The event was billed as “Time, Terroir and Character.”

The "time" component was addressed with two different vintages from each château. These included Latour’s recently released, approachable 2008, Haut-Brion’s structured 2005, Lafite’s pure and focused 1995 vintage, a beautifully aromatic 1989 from Margaux, all the way back to Mouton’s powerful and still vibrant 1986. (See full list below.)

Senior editor James Molesworth, Wine Spectator’s lead taster for the wines of Bordeaux, likened tasting Margaux’s sensual 1989 to being a man walking into an elevator alone with Salma Hayek, while Mouton’s masculine 1986 was how a woman must feel in an elevator with George Clooney. This earned him a kiss on the cheek from Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of Mouton, and it’s not clear if it was for the thought of finding herself in an elevator with Clooney or the compliment to her wine.

The "terroir" aspect of the seminar required more thought. As Molesworth pointed out, “Bordeaux sometimes gets knocked for not having terroir,” because the region lacks the small lieux-dits of Burgundy or the dramatic slopes of Germany’s Mosel region, for example. But Molesworth offered that Bordeaux’s terroir could be understood in context, by taking a look at the wines of the region as a whole, then examining different estates within an appellation, followed by further analysis of different vintages from one estate.

The wines and their terroir were further highlighted by the "character," or heritage, aspect of the seminar. As Molesworth quipped, “As for character, that’s quite easy, we have five characters on stage.” Haut-Brion’s Prince Robert de Luxembourg was both serious and humble, while Lafite Rothschild’s Baron Eric de Rothschild was affable and charming. Baron Eric pointed out how much the wine industry has evolved, since the other three château owners are women: Latour’s soft-spoken and elegant Florence Rogers-Pinault, Margaux’s high-spirited and dynamic Corinne Mentzelopoulos and, of course, Mouton-Rothschild’s dramatic Baroness Philippine de Rothschild.

Each château was introduced with a gorgeous, high-definition aerial video (watch them below), and then each panelist spoke about their wines, going beyond the individual bottling’s attributes, elaborating on the general character of different vintages, the blends, the soil where the grapes are grown and their viticultural practices. “You treat this vineyard like a garden, with all the care that you can,” said Rogers-Pinault of Latour, which is experimenting with organic viticulture and has returned to using horses, rather than tractors, in the vineyards.

Given the storied past of Bordeaux, it wasn’t a surprise that each owner also described the history of their estate. But with a nod to the here and now (as well as to the future), each panelist also spoke of their respect and appreciation for the people who help to continue their château’s tradition, from the general director who oversees production to the pickers who participate in harvest every vintage.

Although these châteaus have a coveted place at the top of the wine world’s food chain, it’s clear that they don't plan to rest on their laurels. They focus on the details and strive for continued success each year. Prince Robert de Luxembourg expressed this sentiment best, saying, “We have to be worthy every year of the potential, to make sure we live up to what we've inherited.”

Photograph by Jon Moe.

The five first-growth owners: Prince Robert de Luxembourg of Haut-Brion, Florence Rogers-Pinault of Latour, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of Mouton-Rothschild, Corinne Mentzelopoulos of Margaux and Baron Eric de Rothschild of Lafite Rothschild.

Wines in Order of Tasting

WS Events Wine Experience France Bordeaux NY Wine Experience 2011