In 1855, during the Exposition Universelle de Paris, the French Emperor Napoleon III requested a classification system be made for France‘s best Bordeaux wines. The top wines would then be put 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 to help rate the wines.
After tasting Bordeaux’s wines, the wine experts concluded that the top wines were from the Medoc, a subregion of Bordeaux. At that time, Bordeaux wine from the Medoc, especially Pauillac, was considered the best by consumers worldwide. Experts then began to classify wines from the Medoc subregion according to the château‘s reputation and trading price, which at that time was directly related to the quality of the wine.
This ranking’s goal was to promote Bordeaux wine to local and international wine lovers. The classification system created an easier way for consumers to know which wines were the best and most 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 to them.
The Ranking System
The wines were ranked from first to 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.
The classification has passed the test of time, and each type of category and various châteaux are ranked in order of quality and have remained relatively unchanged. In more than 160 years, classification has approved only two significant changes. First 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). The second and, more significant change was approved in 1973, when Château Mouton Rothschild was elevated from a second growth to a first growth 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.
One superficial change is that in 1855, only five of the vineyards were allowed to use the word “château” in their name. Currently, most Bordeaux wine estates use this terminology.
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 Petrus, Cheval Blanc, and other famed wines from Pomerol and Saint Emilion vineyards were either not yet producing wine, or were making lower quality wine at the time.
Another criticism is that several quality wines could not participate in the event due to difficulty getting those wines to the Bordeaux merchants or the failure of wine to be tasted by many wine experts at the event.
Successes of the Classification
The classification of Bordeaux proved to be an instant international marketing success for the Bordeaux wine industry. It was the first of its kind and it quickly increased demand and prices for the best classified Bordeaux wines. Like today, the wealthiest wine buyers were willing to pay the most money for the best wines from the Bordeaux
And after the invention of the classification, not only would the buyers know they were purchasing the best wines, but their friends were also aware they were being treated to the best wines. 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 Bordeaux 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. Many of the popular and most famous vintages from the 19th century were produced shortly after. Overall, Bordeaux enjoyed a stunning period of unparalleled prosperity which began to attract bankers and other business people to the business of Bordeaux.
Many wine critics have argued that the 1855 Classification has become outdated and is no longer an accurate guide of the quality of the wines being made on each estate.
Alexis Lichine, a member of the 1960 revision panel, launched a campaign to implement changes that lasted over thirty years. In the process he published several editions of his unofficial classification and the Alexis Lichine’s Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France, 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.
Conversely, poor management can result in a significant decline in quality, as Chateau Margaux shows—the wines they made in the 1960s and 1970s are widely regarded as far below what’s expected of a First Growth.
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.
Many of the leading estates from the Médoc appellation that 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, but reinstated in 2010.