As one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson left an indelible mark on history through his political leadership and contribution to the American republic. However, few people are aware of Jefferson’s other great passion: wine. Throughout his five years as American minister to France, Jefferson extensively toured the country’s wine regions and amassed copious notes evaluating the vineyards and ranking the wines. His writings provide invaluable insight into 18th-century viticulture in France and demonstrate remarkable foresight in identifying what would become some of the most prized wines in the world.

The First Growth Bordeaux wines hold an elevated status, denoting the finest red wines from the Bordeaux region based on their terroir, reputation, and price. While the ranking was not made official until the famous 1855 Classification, Jefferson’s earlier notes praised several estates that would later be classified as First Growths. Through his discerning palate and observations of Bordeaux’s terroir during his visits in 1787, Jefferson proved himself a visionary in identifying the superb potential of the vineyards that today produce some of the world’s greatest wines.

art Thomas Jefferson

Figure 1. Thomas Jefferson Art

Background Information

Bordeaux has a long history of wine production, with vineyards planted since Roman times. By the 12th century Bordeaux wines were being exported to England, establishing an enduring link between the regions. Over the next centuries Bordeaux cemented its identity built on red grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Médoc subregion in particular, situated along the left bank of the Gironde estuary, demonstrated an ideal terroir for producing complex wines that age beautifully.

In 1855, Napoleon III requested a ranking of the best Bordeaux wines to be displayed at the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Bordeaux wine brokers created a classification system organizing the leading red wine estates into a five-tiered hierarchy, with First Growths representing the very best. The properties granted First Growth status – Château Lafite, Château Latour, Château Margaux, and Château Haut-Brion – continue to command premium prices and a mythical reputation.

As the United States minister to France, Thomas Jefferson developed an appreciation for fine French wines. During trips across the country’s wine regions, he kept detailed notes evaluating vineyards and vintages. Jefferson’s opinions on Bordeaux hold particular gravity given his stature and the region’s ascendancy during his time.

Thomas Jefferson’s Visits to Bordeaux Vineyards

Jefferson made several extended trips to French wine country, but he had a special fondness for Bordeaux. In May 1787 he embarked on a two-month excursion devoted specifically to touring Bordeaux vineyards and documenting his observations. Jefferson was deeply impressed with the châteaux of the Médoc, praising the region’s gravelly soil, sloping terrain, and access to the Gironde river for ideal drainage and moderate temperatures.

The future president toured estates that would come to define Bordeaux’s elite. At Château Haut-Brion, he remarked on the “very good” quality. At Château Margaux, he noted the “excellent” wine. Jefferson visited Château Latour at least three times, describing it as “of the first quality” and “truly distinguished.” Château Lafite also earned effusive praise, with Jefferson ranking it among the “four vineyards of first quality.” His notes provide an invaluable record of these estates in the 18th century, capturing first-hand impressions before they achieved global recognition.

Thomas Jefferson’s Predictions

In addition to describing the wines he tasted, Jefferson projected rankings of the top Bordeaux estates. He classified just four vineyards as “first quality”: Latour, Lafite, Margaux, and Haut-Brion. Several others were labeled “second quality,” while additional estates received notes like “third quality” or “good.” Jefferson’s designations aligned remarkably with the 1855 classifications. All four of his “first quality” vineyards were later ranked as First Growths.

Furthermore, Jefferson successfully identified the elite châteaux despite Latour and Lafite’s more humble reputations at the time. His recognition of these vineyards’ potential demonstrated his perceptiveness in assessing wines based on the land rather than contemporary popularity. Tellingly, estates Jefferson designated as “second quality,” like Château Mouton and Château Rauzan-Ségla, went on to earn Second Growth status in 1855. His rankings provide evidence that the 1855 classification did not appear out of nowhere, but formed more gradually through the observations of knowledgeable wine enthusiasts like Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson Plague of the Wall of the US Consulate in Bordeaux

Reasons Behind Thomas Jefferson’s Predictions

As a longtime connoisseur, Jefferson developed criteria for identifying high-quality wines rooted in Enlightenment values of rationality and science. He placed enormous weight on terroir, believing a vineyard’s soil composition and microclimate were the keys to producing great Bordeaux. Jefferson studied viticulture treatises to understand Bordeaux’s grape varieties, climate patterns, and approaches to winemaking. His background allowed Jefferson to determine which regions and estates showed the greatest potential.

Additionally, Jefferson socialized with French aristocrats who shaped the country’s wine culture and etiquette. Men like the Marquis de Lafayette and Count de Lur-Saluces, owner of Château d’Yquem, provided Jefferson with insider access to refine his palate and knowledge. He consulted wine merchants like his frequent travel companion, Monsieur de Tournai, on the reputations of various châteaux. Jefferson synthesized his own tasting observations with input from France’s wine elite to compile nuanced evaluations of Bordeaux’s best vineyards.

The Official 1855 Classification

The 1855 Classification condensed centuries of accumulated wisdom designating Bordeaux’s finest wines. Under Napoleon III, organizers ranked the top producers into five classes: First Growths, Second Growths, Third Growths, Fourth Growths, and Fifth Growths. The four châteaux Jefferson singled out as “first quality” – Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion – were granted First Growth status. In total, Jefferson’s “first quality” and “second quality” predictions accounted for seven of the 10 First Growths and Second Growths.

However, the classification was not an exact science, and some of Jefferson’s favorites did not make the cut. Château Léoville, described by Jefferson as “first quality,” was classified as a Second rather than First Growth. His “second quality” Château Rauzan-Ségla vineyard was left out of the First and Second Growth rankings entirely. The 1855 classifications acknowledged historical reputation in addition to terroir, which impacted the final results. Nevertheless, the significant overlap between Jefferson’s rankings and the official classifications speaks to the lasting wisdom of Jefferson’s predictions.

Modern Perspectives

Did you know? Over 150 years later, the 1855 Classification retains outsized importance in shaping perceptions of Bordeaux wines.

The top ranked First Growths still command the highest prices at auction and exude an aura of exclusivity and luxury. However, some critics argue the 19th century rankings do not necessarily represent today’s reality. Châteaux implied to be “inferior” based on their Second, Third, or Fourth Growth status now produce wines rivaling the Firsts, with improved winemaking and evolving terroir.

Interestingly, one château has overcome its initial 1855 ranking thanks in part to Jefferson’s notes. In 1973, Château Mouton Rothschild was promoted from Second to First Growth, the only change ever made to the original classifications. The château’s owners lobbied for an upgrade for decades, citing historic praise from Jefferson as evidence it deserved recognition alongside its Médoc neighbors. Jefferson’s detailed evaluations legitimized the argument that the 1855 status failed to capture Mouton’s quality potential.

More broadly, Jefferson’s 18th century trip notes are prized for preserving a rare snapshot of Bordeaux’s greatest vineyards before they skyrocketed to fame. It grants unique insight into how connoisseurs discerned quality wines based on land characteristics and winemaking methods rather than reputation alone. Jefferson’s views remind us that superb vineyards do not emerge overnight, but reflect long legacies of fine winemaking shaped by discernment and tradition.

Conclusion

Thomas Jefferson’s classifications of Bordeaux vineyards stand as an astonishing feat of prediction and expert discernment. His identification of Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion as the pinnacle of “first quality” anticipated the châteaux that came to epitomize the First Growth designation still revered today. Jefferson foresaw the potential of these estates when they remained obscure on the global stage, cementing his place as a visionary authority on Bordeaux wines.

The alignment between Jefferson’s ratings and the subsequent 1855 Classification demonstrates that his opinions carried lasting weight, not just ephemeral musings. Bordeaux’s greatest vineyards earned their reputations over centuries, with contributions from knowledgeable enthusiasts like Jefferson in each era. His early recognition of terroir’s primacy and scientific approach to evaluating wines influenced generations of vintners and connoisseurs. Over 200 years later, Jefferson’s predictions and insights continue to shape our conception of Bordeaux’s benchmark châteaux and the pinnacle of wine excellence.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: September 16, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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