The Bordeaux Wine Experience provided me with an extensive experience of drinking First Growth Bordeaux wines in one week. Some were from lesser vintages, but I enjoyed some of these vintages. I also discovered some less known Chateaux, and some were excellent, which raises the question, how did the First Growths manage to defend their position for 160 years, and all of them?
One answer would be 'superior quality'. This would be an easy explanation, but I think the answer is more complex and a bit sinister. In my view there are four dimensions to the answer.
1) Regulation. Regulation is covering pretty much every aspect of winemaking in Bordeaux. For example, Pauillac would be an excellent terroir for Shiraz, in my opinion, but of course this is not allowed. Regulation promotes the status quo. Where this is most significant, is volume. The chateaux cannot expand. This leads to an imbalance between demand and supply, as the number of wealthy people, and people being interested in wine, increases. This leads to higher
2) Prices. Not only do the prices increase much more than inflation, but there is also discussion between producers before each 'opening prices season'. I know this. This is so that nobody upsets the apple cart. The status quo is maintained, and the First Growths in particular get very rich.
3) What happens with these funds? No doubt, a significant proportion gets invested in quality, in the vineyards and the winery. Some of the electronic wizzardry is expensive and cannot be duplicated by others. But a significant proportion is also invested in the brand. Mouton is perhaps the best example. Beautifully installed art rooms, new barrell rooms with exquisite lighting etc. the brand reinforces superiority.
4) But the biggest factor is the ratings system. While I do not pretend to fully understand it, I know you do not get invited back if you dare to mark one of these Chateaux down significantly. If there is agreement about a weaker vintage, points can come down, as long as they stay above the 'lesser' producers. The elephant in the room is that there is no independence. There is no blind tasting of the First Growth wines.
So, these are the reasons the First Growths stay in front. Are the wines bad? Not at all, but maybe not always superior - and personal preference is another thing altogether.