What is a "first-growth" wine?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What is a "first-growth" wine?

—Dean, Toronto

Dear Dean,

When most people talk about "first-growths," they're talking about Bordeaux, but before we get into that, let's address the French terminology that "first-growth" is translated from, because it's used in other regions as well. "First-growth" is the English translation of "premier cru," and that designation is used in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and elsewhere; you're probably familiar with "grand cru" as well, which is the top vineyard designation in Burgundy.

Most of the time when wine folks are talking about first-growths, they're talking about the top level of the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, which graded châteaus based on their quality, price and reputation, as requested by Emperor Napoleon III, ranking them into crus, or "growths," from first down to fifth. Amazingly, that 163-year-old classification has stuck, and it’s still a very big deal to be considered a first-growth—nowadays they cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars a bottle.

So which châteaus earned the top designation of "first-growth"? There were originally just four: Lafite Rothschild and Latour in Pauillac, Margaux in … Margaux (that one's easy to remember!) and Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan. Pauillac's Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to first-growth status in 1973, bringing the total number to five. But while first-growth status is still an indication of prestige, there are plenty of other châteaus with lesser classifications (or none at all) that earn scores just as high (and some of them sell for as much or even more).

—Dr. Vinny

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