The Prince of Vines

The story of the man who owned and guided Lafite, Latour, Mouton and many other top estates into the dawn of modern Bordeaux
May 24, 2012

If one man acquired Châteaus Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Pontet-Canet, d'Armailhac, Montrose and Calon-Ségur today, an aggrieved cry of "C'est un scandale!" would ring out in bistros throughout France and, indeed, the world—not fair! Yet for a brief but crucial moment in history, one man did indeed call all these crus his. King Louis XV called him the "Prince of Vines."

The story of the man who would rule the Médoc when the Bordeaux we know today began to take shape—Nicolas-Alexandre, the Marquis de Ségur—starts during a period of enormous turmoil in Europe. Nicolas-Alexandre was born in 1697, a few years after his parents married. The Nine Years' War, which pitted England against France, had reached year nine, but the War of Spanish Succession, which pitted England against France, would begin four years later, in 1701.

These conditions were not ideal for anyone in Bordeaux looking to make a buck: England had traditionally provided the most lucrative market for the region's wines, going back to the days when Aquitaine was an independent English territory. Bordeaux only became French in 1453, following the Hundred Years' War (which had pitted England against France). By the close of the 17th century, the English were waging a customs war alongside the war-war against the French, and taxes were set too prohibitively high for Londoners to drink Bordeaux.

There were workarounds, sometimes. Bazin de Bezons, a Bordelaise administrator, wrote in 1698, "During the war you sanctioned putting French wine in Spanish casks, in order to send it to England. This was successful and the wine gained entry every year. The English were aware of this." But by 1700, the English had cracked down and, in the following years, they developed a taste for stronger wines, like Port and Sherry, instead.

Once hostilities had fizzled, the first English ship arrived at Bordeaux in 1712, "coming with a Royal order to load [it] with wines said to be to provision the household of the Queen of England," wrote Bordeaux's Director of Taxes. "All Bordeaux ran out to see this ship with its English flag." The director did note the captain and crew drinking "Canary wine" but tried not to take it personally. (These excerpts appear in the highly comprehensive Château Latour: The History of a Great Vineyard, 1331-1992, which is the size of a dictionary, runs 572 pages and finally answers the perennial holiday question of what to get for the man who already has every vintage of Latour.)

Nicolas-Alexandre's mother, Marie-Thérèse, happened to own Château Latour; it was her dowry at marriage. Alexandre de Ségur, father of Nicolas-Alexandre, purchased Château Lafite shortly before his death in 1716. So the teenaged Nicolas-Alexandre suddenly presided over two of the top estates in the Médoc at just the moment trade relations with the British (England and Scotland had fused into Britain in 1707) were normalizing.

Around 1718, Nicolas-Alexandre married Jean de Gasq, also from a moneyed Bordeaux family. She brought some vine land with her too: the giant Calon property, which would later evolve into the third-growth Calon-Ségur, second-growth Montrose and at least parts of other present-day St.-Estèphe estates.

And finally, around this time, Nicolas-Alexandre acquired Mouton, which had not yet established a reputation on footing with Latour and Lafite. (But that is quite another story.) It's not known how developed the viticulture was on that property, but Nicolas-Alexandre sold it off sometime before 1740; it fragmented into today's Mouton-Rothschild, Pontet-Canet and d'Armailhac.

For those keeping score at home, that's three first-growths, a second-growth, a third-growth and two fifth-growths. (See the 1855 Bordeaux Classification.)

By 1729, the future first-growths commanded 13 times the price of "regular" Bordeaux. Though Latour was remarked to be "one of the gold mines of the Haut-Médoc" in his time, Nicolas-Alexandre acknowledged late in his life that he needed "to restore the too-long neglected administration of this vast property" and made scant mention of it in his will. "Latour's potential as a vineyard was not fully exploited," as the History delicately puts it.

That's because if Latour was a gold mine, Lafite was practically a mint for the Marquis. The wine did not necessarily fetch higher prices, but the estate was larger and its production higher, with vineyards and facilities expanded and upgraded under Nicolas-Alexandre. Perhaps most impressively, it became a wine of choice among royalty in both Britain and France.

Top Bordeaux always had a place at the table of the English elite, and the esteemed prime minister Robert Walpole is known to have purchased a barrel of Lafite every three months in the years 1732-33. But at Versailles, the King more often drank Burgundy, or even local—in those days, vineyards, not suburbs, surrounded Paris. Louis XV, however, took to Lafite, probably under the recommendation of his friend the Maréchal de Richelieu, an accomplished hedonist. At one point, Richelieu returned from Bordeaux and the King remarked, "Maréchal, you look 25 years younger than you did when you left for Guyenne!" To which the Maréchal responded, "Does his Majesty not yet know that I've at long last found the Fountain of Youth? I have found that Château Lafite wines make invigorating cordials: They are as delicious as the ambrosia of the Gods of Olympus." In no time, Lafite was on everyone's lips.

Despite this, the most famous sound bite attributed to the Marquis is: "I make my wine at Lafite and Latour but my heart is in Calon," and with that, Calon-Ségur's became the first of many, many wine labels decorated with a heart.

Thanks in no small part to the Marquis, in these years we see the seedlings of the Bordeaux we know today, in all its glory and madness. The top estates each had a rich owner (who typically split his time between Paris and a country estate, infrequently making the arduous trip to Bordeaux), a régisseur (general manager, essentially), and a number of vignerons, whose job description hasn't changed much in the intervening centuries.

Throughout the year, the vignerons (there were 14 at Latour at the time of the Marquis' death, plus a head vigneron) conducted tasks such as pruning, selecting cuttings for new vineyards and directing the harvest, for which hundreds of migrant laborers from the Right Bank were hired. The vigernons' wives worked right alongside them.

The régisseurs took no chances with harvest: There were guards, and they had guns. Wines were vinified much as they are today, in oak vats, but fermentation lasted only a week or so; the régisseur did not want the wines to pick up too much tannins, as the grapes were vinified in whole clusters, on their stalks. Wines were put into 228-liter new oak barriques.

And then, the wine was sold, as quickly as possible. At the high end, almost all of it went to British and Irish merchants whose role evolved into today's négociant houses. The merchants tasted the wines en primeur, and decided to buy or not, as early as December of the vintage. If March came and the wine remained unsold, the châteaus grew nervous; now they had to fine and rack the wines, two costly technologies invented around the time the Marquis' reign began, and top up the barrels.

If the wine remained unsold by summer, spoilage and evaporation would eat it up: Only the merchants in London, and later Chartrons, had the cellar capacity to hold the stuff properly. When Nicolas-Alexandre refused an offer of 1,800 silver livres per tonneau (four barriques) for his 1736 Latour vintage—a seemingly excellent price for the time, double the average that the top wines sold for in many years and in keeping with prices for great vintages mid-century—he lost the gamble of money against time and had to dump that wine on the market later at 260 livres.

Bordelaise attitudes toward the merchants sharpened as the stakes in fine wine grew. At the start of the 1700s, the Bordeaux Council of Commerce praised the English for their honor in doing business. By the end of the century, however, one slightly hysterical Latour régisseur wrote of merchants like Lawton, Johnston and Merman as "matadors," "cruel" and "our fleecers." (And he was just complaining about doing business, not of the merchants’ practice of blending the Bordeaux wines with Hermitage or Benicarlo/Bobal from southeastern Spain to bolster their firmness.)

But Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur made it a living. The King bestowed the honorific Marquis on him late in life, and he died in 1755 the richest man in Bordeaux. What became of his vinous kingdom after his death?

Latour fared best. It was split between his four daughters; the generation that owned it during the Revolution held fast to it, with the exception of one heir who fled, so the Republic helped itself to his portion. The rest of the estate was shepherded right on down the Ségur descendency until 1963.

Calon seems to have been de-facto bequeathed to the Nicolas-Alexandre's eldest daughter and her husband well before the Marquis' death; their young son, under their guardianship, also inherited Lafite. That boy, Nicolas-Marie-Alexandre, managed his considerable patrimony in the time-honored fashion of only-child scions from generations of money: A "joueur incorrigible," as the Calon-Ségur literature scolds, he had lost Calon by 1778 and Lafite by 1784, so in debt that he fled the country.

But Lafite stayed in Ségur hands, as a powerful cousin bought it. He'd lose it only a decade later, along with his head, during the Reign of Terror. His crime: helping his daughter escape the enflamed nation. Morbidly apropos, then, that of all the owners of Nicolas-Alexandre's former estates, the one that made "the King's wine" should be sent to the guillotine.

France Bordeaux Bordeaux's Left Bank

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