When the Rothschilds waged a claret class war

Mouton is now classed as a first growth, though some oenophiles — and not only from Lafite — still dispute this claim

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

Claret has a commercial advantage over Burgundy. Thanks to the grandes lignes of châteaux and vintages, you know where you are. A mature and well-kept claret from a good year is unlikely to disappoint. That is why new wine drinkers, seeking certainty, are drawn to Bordeaux. Burgundy is much more complicated. Like the railway lines of the southern region, it is a cat’s cradle of cuvées, domaines and growers.

For the natives, there can be advantages. Old Alphonse has half an acre next to Vosne-Romanée. Instead of putting the grapes in with his Bourgogne rouge, he bottles them separately for family and friends. Lucky them. In 1981, covering the French elections, I went to La Rôtisserie du Chambertin (now, alas, closed) with a friend who understood the French left. Given the location, the red was an easy choice: a 1969 Chambertin-Clos de Bèze: one of the best wines I have ever drunk. To avoid excessive punishment of the expenses, I asked the proprietor for a half of modestly priced white. A half bottle arrived, without a label. Tasting like a middle-weight Meursault, it was a perfect pathway towards Parnassus. Yet it would only have been sellable as Bourgogne blanc.

At least in the Médoc, claret is also assisted by its equivalent of Wisden. In 1855, the wines were classified in a hierarchy, stretching from first growths — Test class — to the humbler pleasures of village cricket. Naturally, the selectors were criticised, especially by the Rothschilds of Mouton. They were a mere second growth, below their cousins at Lafite. For nearly 120 years, the Moutons sulked. The Coldstream Guards, the second-oldest Foot Guards regiment, repudiate any slight to their standing by their motto: Nulli Secundus. The Rothschilds of Mouton used similar tactics. Finally, the authorities yielded to pressure. For the past 30 years, Mouton has been a first growth, though some oenophiles — not only in Lafite — still dispute its claims.

There are occasional calls for a general reassessment. That would be more likely to lead to a civil war than a consensus. Certainly, there are anomalies. Palmer is still technically a third growth. It is usually priced up with the super-seconds. Recent years have also seen the emergence of the super-fifths, Lynch-Bages and Pontet-Canet. Both used to be bargains: not any more. It is worth taking every opportunity to drink Grand-Puy-Lacoste, another fifth, still under-rated, still relatively cheap — with the stress on relatively.

Back in 1855, there was another overlooked contender for first-growth status: Rauzan-Ségla. Unlike the Mouton Rothschilds, its owners accepted their fate and the château went to sleep. It is not among the second growths whose prices appear in Decanter, to chronicle the increasing impossibility of affording serious claret. But the sleeper has awakened. Twenty years ago, the château was bought by the Wertheimer family, who own Chanel; the production processes are entirely distinct. They brought in John Kolasa, a Scot trained at Latour. They were all planning and investing for the long term: they are succeeding.

I recently tasted a range of Rauzan-Séglas. En magnum, straight from the château: the conditions were ideal and the wines lived up to them. The ’99, ’06 and ’07 could all do with more time. The ’01 was in perfect drinking condition, as was an ’05 Ségla, the château’s second wine. They all had fruit, structure, length and Margaux finesse. There was also an ’86 from the previous regime, with more cabernet sauvignon. I would have taken it for a Pauillac, and it was still backward, more so than an ’86 Lafite which I drank two years ago.

It was altogether a magnificent evening. The château is working on its claims to super-second-hood. In the interim, it is good value, inasmuch as that concept still applies to Bordeaux. Take every opportunity to drink it.

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