Topic of the Week 11/6/17 - Introductory and Certified

Thank you  and  for your input last week on Thomas Volney Munson !  

This week:French History

What is the 1855 Classification and its significance? How is it different or similar to other classifications in France?

  • The classification of Bordeaux wines in 1855 was prompted by Napoleon III for the Paris Worlds Fair. He wanted to showcase the best of the best in Bordeaux. The classification or grading system comprised of first (being the best), second, third ,fourth and fifth growths. Four Chateaus were graded as First Growths= La Tour, Margaux, Lafite and Haut-Brion.  Mouton-Rothschild was later upgraded from second to first in 1973. These were actually classified in regards to their current price not quality and the Right Bank Bordeaux were left out of the ranking. It is still very significant as it is a part of history and the brands have the expectations to live up to . The Right bank have Grand Cru and Premier Cru classification which they can apply for every ten years. They can be either moved up or down in regards to quality whereas the Left Bank classification is solidified. As for other growing regions in France, none are classified in tiers as are the Left Bank bordeaux. In Burgundy, vineyards are classified at Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Village. In Champagne, whole villages can be Grand Cru. The 1855 classification is quite unique and is specific to the brand not by the vine. It still is quite significant to consumers and sets the standard for other wines of the world. Please correct, add and criticize as I'm here to learn and chiming in to do so!! Thank you :) 

  •  The 1855 Bordeaux Classification was the specific vehicle meant to showcase the best wines of France for The Exposition Universelle de Paris. The Exposition Universelle de Paris was the perfect opportunity for France to place on display the best it had to offer in a myriad of categories for the entire world to see. In 1855, Napoléon III set forth events to accomplish this goal.

    On April 5, 1855, the Gironde Chamber of Commerce headed by the president, Duffour-Dubergier, ordered an official classification to accompany the now famous wines of the Bordeaux appellation. The chateaux chosen were all located in the Left Bank, with Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, Saint Estephe and the Haut Medoc. They allowed the Wine Brokers’ Union of Bordeaux to develop the plan. The brokers, or what we refer to as negociants, knew the wines, the terroir and soils of the vineyard, the chateau and the owners better than anyone. In truth, the more established negociants had been classifying Bordeaux wines unofficially since the 1600’s. It took the negociants less than 2 weeks to create the official 1855 Bordeaux Classification. It was completed April 18, 1855.

    The 1855 Bordeaux Classification stands as the single most important and famous classification of any wine region in the world. Over 160 years later, this classification continues as originally drafted, with almost no changes.

    Since 1855, the official classification of Bordeaux wines from the Medoc has only allowed two modifications in over 160 years. In 1856, Chateau Cantermerle was added for the simple reason that it was left off by accident in 1855. The more important and historic change came when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted from Second Growth to First Growth status, after decades of relentless lobbying by Baron Philippe de Rothschild. That took place June 21,1973.

    The 1855 Bordeaux classification came up with a ranking of the best Bordeaux wines in five, unique classes for the red wines. The wines included were all from Medoc, except for the already legendary Chateau Haut Brion from Graves, which had to be included, due to its world-wide fame and the fact that it sold for as much, or more than the other First Growth wines of the Medoc.

    In all, a total of 61 Bordeaux chateaux are included in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification for producers of red wine.

    This breaks down to:

    • 5 First Growths (Originally 4 – Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to First Growth Status from Second Growth in 1973).
    • 14 Second Growths (Originally 15 - Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to First Growth Status from Second Growth in 1973).
    • 14 Third Growths
    • 10 Fourth Growths
    • 18 Fifth Growths (Originally 17 - Chateau Cantermerle was accidentally omitted in 1855 and added in 1856).

    When the official rankings for the 1855 classification were produced, the average selling price covering the period of 1815 to 1855 was the most heavily considered factor. The organization as such produced the following results:

    • First Growth Bordeaux – Prices over 3,000 French Francs per barrel.
    • Second Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 2,500 and 2700 French Francs per barrel.
    • Third Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 2,100 and 2,400 French Francs per barrel.
    • Fourth Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 1,800 and 2,100 French Francs per barrel.
    • Fifth Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 1,400 and 1,600 French Francs per barrel.

    There are many changes in the pricing structure today - with  some Second Growths (Chateau Cos D'Estournel, for instance) and Third Growths (Chateau Palmer is a good example) commanding as much money as some First Growths, but the classification remains intact.

  • Included in the classification of 1855, was the classification of Sauternes and Barsac. However, while the red wines from the Medoc were classed into 5 levels, the sweet white Bordeaux wines were classed into only three levels:

    • Premier Cru Supérieur, which was reserved solely for Chateau d’Yquem.
    • Premier Cru, which is essentially a First Growth.
    • Deuxièmes Crus, which are Second Growth.

    It should be noted that the lowest level of wine able to use the term Sauternes is Haut Sauternes, a term which is most often used to identify Negociant wines. This level is equivalent to “Grand Vin du Bordeaux" in red wines.

    As is the case with the Red Wine Classification as well, even among the First Growths, there is ongoing debate regarding which estate makes the best wine in the different Growths, and some lower ranked wines command the same or better prices than higher ranked wines. However, there is an exception to this in the case of Chateau d’Yquem. Sauternes is the world’s only important wine region where one single wine is considered without peer, and owns a special ranking. Chateau d’Yquem continues to remain in a class that is above all other Sweet Bordeaux wines.

  • Thank you everyone for the awesome responses!

    It's also important to consider on a basic level the idea of "Brand versus Land" - Classification of an estate and anything they own in Bordeaux versus the "Grand Cru" and "Premier Cru" classifications of vineyards in Burgundy, Alsace, etc, and having multiple owners within each. 

    A few other notes that were touched on, but consider the Saint-Emilion and Graves classifications; how often they've been classified and how they were classified. The lack of classification in Pomerol is of worthy note, too!