• In 1855, the French emperor Napoleon III requested during the Exposition Universelle de Paris to formulate a classification system for France‘s best  Bordeaux wines that were to be on display for visitors from around the world. The university arranged an exposition titled  “Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855” and invited wine experts and traders from all the wine-loving regions of the world. Experts from the wine culture classified the wines from around the world according to a château‘s reputation and trading price, which at that time was directly related to the quality of the wine.
  • After tasting wines from the Bordeaux region, the wine experts ranked them and concluded that the top wines were from the Medoc. At that time, Bordeaux wine from the Medoc, especially Pauillac, was considered the best by consumers worldwide.
  • Interestingly, the wine quality parameters have changed considerably with time, and modern-day consumers might not recognize or at least appreciate Bordeaux wine which was ranked the topmost at the time of the classification. For example, in 1855, most of the top Bordeaux wines were often stored and allowed to ferment in French oak casks for 3-5 years before bottling. Currently, a few wines are aged long enough to produce secondary characteristics that were desired at that time. Even the best wines are most often enjoyed after a long ageing in the bottle.
  • This ranking was aimed to distinguish and promote Bordeaux wine to local and international wine lovers. The classification advertised to the consumers which wines were the best and suitable for them to buy. Additionally, it guided the buyer on how much to pay for a particular wine and informed them what expensive and inexpensive wine options were available for them.
  • The wines were ranked based on quality and associated with the appellation. They were ranked from firstto fifth growths – with the first as the best. All of the red wines that succeeded in getting a position on the list of the first growth came from the Médoc region except for one: Château Haut-Brion from Graves. The white wines, then considered to be of much lesser quality and importance than red wine, were classified separately and mostly sweet varieties of  Barsac and Sauternes and were ranked in the superior first growth and second growth.
  • Modification to the Classification: The classification has passed the test of time, and each type of category and various châteaux are ranked in order of quality and remain unchanged. In more than 160 years, classification has approved only two significant changes: first when in 1856, château Cantemerle was added as a fifth growth (having either been omitted initially by oversight or added as an afterthought, depending on which of the conflicting accounts is correct); Second and, more significant change was approved in1973, Château Mouton Rothschild was elevated from a second growth to a first growth vineyard after decades of intense lobbying by the powerful Philippe de Rothschild. Apart from the two significant changes, the classification approved some insignificant changes, such as the removal of Château Dubignon, a third growth from Margaux that was absorbed into the estate Château Malescot St. Exupéry.[1] [1]

A superficial change is that since 1855, only five of the vineyards were allowed to use the word “château” in their name. Currently, most Bordeaux wine estates use this terminology.[2] [2]

  • Although, the classification was based on the expert opinions of the time and matched the consumers’ views about the quality of the ranked wines. It is essential to keep in mind, nowadays, several quality wines like PetrusChevalBlanc, and other famed wines from Pomerol and Saint Emilion vineyards were either not yet producing wine, or they were still considered simple types of wines at that time.
  • Another criticism of the ranking is that several quality wines could not participate in the event due to difficulty in getting those wines to the Bordeaux merchants or the failure of wine to be tasted by many wine experts at the event. For instance, the shipping-related issues of the time had a lot to do with why Bordeaux wines became popular in Belgium and other European countries long before more established Bordeaux wine markets like London.
  • Transportation has a significant impact on wine’s ranking, and price tag as some of the top Right Bankwines are highly ranked in the classification and have a higher price tag than even the First Growths.
  • The classification of Bordeaux proved to be an instant international marketing success for the wine industry. It was the first of its kind and quickly increased demand and prices for the best and most excellent classified Bordeaux wines. Like today, the wealthiest wine buyers were willing to pay the most money for the best wines from the Bordeaux
  • And now, due to the official classification, not only would the buyers know they were purchasing the best wines, but their friends were aware they were being treated to the best wines when they were brought to the table. The 1855 classification proved to be worth its weight in diamonds!
  • It was not only the 1855 classification that placed the Bordeaux region into the position of the world’s most desirable wine; it was also the intelligence and smart marketing techniques of the negociants who developed their unique system of selling the wines in the international market. Back then, the negociants acted as a bank for many Bordeaux estates. Later on, the merchants owned several of the most prominent chateaux as well and controlled the entire wine industry of the region.
  • The 1855 classification could not have come at a better time for Bordeaux wine. Many of the popular and most famous vintages from the 19th century were produced shortly after, 1865, 1870, and other vintages are among the most sought after today. This was pre-Phylloxera and before odium and other diseases struck the vines. Overall, Bordeaux enjoyed a stunning period of unparalleled prosperity which began to attract bankers and other business people to the business of Bordeaux.

Medoc Classification 1855

The Red Wines of the Gironde

 First Growths (Premiers Crus)

Second Growths (Deuxièmes Crus)

Third Growths (Troisièmes Crus)

Fourth Growths (Quatrièmes Crus)

Fifth Growths (Cinquièmes Crus)

The White Wines of the Gironde

Superior First Growth (Premier Cru Supérieur)

First Growths (Premier Crus)

Second Growths (Deuxième Crus)

Several proposals have been made for changes to the classification, and a bid for a revision was unsuccessfully attempted in 1960.

  • Alexis Lichine, a member of the 1960 revision panel, launched a campaign to implement changes that lasted over thirty years, in the process publishing several editions of his unofficial classificationand the Alexis Lichine’s Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France,[4] [6] in which he devoted a chapter to the subject. In support of his argument, Lichine cited the case of Chateau Lynch-Bages, the Pauillac Fifth Growth that, through good management and by patiently collecting the best parcels as they come on the market, makes wine that, in his view are, worthy of a much higher classification.[5] [4]
  • Conversely, poor management can result in a significant decline in quality, as the example of Chateau Margaux shows—the wines it made in the 1960s and 1970s are widely regarded as far below what’s expected of a First Growth.[6] [7][7][8]
  • Other critics have followed a similar suit, including Robert Parker, who published a top 100 Bordeaux estates in 1985, and L’histoire de la Vigne & du Vin(English: The History of Wine and the Vine) by Bernard and Henri Enjalbert in 1989, as well as efforts made by Clive Coates (MW) and David Peppercorn (MW). [8] [9]  [10][1][9][10] Ultimately nothing has come of them; the likely negative impact on prices for any downgraded châteaux and the 1855 establishment’s political muscle are considered among the reasons.[11] [11]
  • Many of the leading estates from the Médoc appellationthat were not included in the 1855 classification are classified as Cru Bourgeois, a classification system that has been updated regularly since 1932, banned in 2007,[12] [14] but reinstated in 2010.[13]  [14][15][16]
  • In March 2009, the British wine exchange Liv-exreleased The Liv-ex Bordeaux Classification, a modern re-calculation of the 1855 classification, intending to apply the original method to the contemporary economic context. [15] [16] [12][13]

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1855: A History Of The Bordeaux Classification

Reference

[1] Peppercorn, David (2003). Bordeaux. London: Mitchell Beazley. p. 83. ISBN 1-84000-927-6.

[2]Jump up to:a b Stevenson, Tom (2005). The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia (4th ed.). London: Dorling Kindersley. pp. 64ISBN 0-7566-1324-8.

[3] ^ Prial, Frank J. The New York Times (1989-08-20). “The Battle of 1855”.

[4] ^ Alexis Lichine’s Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France

[5] Lichine, Alexis (May 1989). Alexis Lichine’s Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France. Alfred A Knopf.

[6] ^ Alexis Lichine’s Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France

[7] ^ Parker, Robert (2013). Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines (Fourth revised ed.). Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781476727134

[8] ^ Jenster, Per V. (2008). The Business of Wine: A Global Perspective. Copenhagen Business School Press. p. 163. ISBN 9788763002011.

[9] Prial, Frank J. The New York Times (1988-02-17). “Wine Talk”.

[10] ^ Prial, Frank J. The New York Times (1991-09-25). “Wine Talk”.

[11] ^ Goldberg, Howard G., Wine News. “Dusting off the 1855 debate”. Archived from the original on 2008-01-23.

[12] ^ Liv-ex Fine Wine Market blog (March 10, 2009). The Liv-ex Bordeaux Classification

[13] ^ Lechmere, Adam, Decanter.com (March 6, 2009). “Liv-ex creates new 1855 Classification”.

[14] ^ Anson, Jane, Decanter.com (2007-07-10). “Cru Bourgeois classification officially over”. Archived from the original on December 27, 2007.

[15] ^ Anson, Jane, Decanter.com (2008-02-26). “Cru Bourgeois revived”. Archived from the original on March 2, 2008.

[16] ^ Lechmere, Adam, Decanter.com (September 23, 2010). “Cru Bourgeois: new listing launched”.

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