There is probably no more prestigious wine region in the world than Bordeaux. The wines of Bordeaux have been considered among France’s best for hundreds of years.
In 1855, the Exposition Universelle (a sort of World’s Fair of its Day) was held in Paris to showcase all that was good in France. Emperor Napoleon III requested the leading Bordeaux merchants to rank the best wines into five categories. The merchants, reluctantly, created the 1855 Classification which divides the red wines into five groups or classified growths. This classification was based on market price which provided a good approximation of quality.
In all, 58 properties were classified in the five levels. All of the wines were from the left bank and all but one from the communes forming the Medoc. There were no wines from the right bank at that time, the right bank was considered inferior for wine production. Compared to the region today, the properties were from a limited area of Bordeaux.
The top classification is known as a Premier Cru or First Growths. Four wines achieved this lofty designation.
The Medoc Chateaux receiving First Growth status were Lafite, Margaux, and Latour.
A lone non-Medoc wine, Haut Brion, received First Growth status based on its reputation which, even at that time, dated back several hundred years.
Although the 1855 Classification was never intended to be permanent, it remains in use today with only a few modifications.
The most famous modification involves Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Chateau Brane Mouton had been purchased in 1853 by Nathaniel de Rothschild and renamed as Mouton Rothschild. The combination of the recent change in ownership and the new owner being an English Jew, probably had something to do with the estate being classified as a Second Growth. That was “corrected” in 1973 with the estate being elevated to First Growth status. (This will be further discussed later in our series.)
In other changes, there have been three estates which have been divided; Leoville, Pichon and Batailley. Two estates combined to create Chateau Pouget-Lassale. Chateau Dubignon was absorbed into Malescot-St. Exupery. Furthermore, the owners of the Chateaux have changed hands many times since the classification.
It also must be remembered that unlike Burgundy and many other areas of France, it was not the vineyards of Bordeaux that were rated, it was the Chateau. For example, in Burgundy, Clos Vougeout is a very famous vineyard. Around eighty different wineries make wine from this Grand Cru vineyard. No matter who makes wine, however, it is the vineyard that carries the classification.
Some producers make excellent wines while other make wines that are substantially less in quality. In Bordeaux, however, the producer can expand, retract or change their source of grapes, without changing their 1855 Classification.
It is surprising that the classification is still in use today, however, there are many reasons for that. First, it is a great marketing tool; Chateaux that were granted classified status like to publicize the fact. The second reason has to do with the French psyche. The French accept the notion, much more than other countries, that they are privileged/limited by their terroir.
In the past, wineries with exalted terroirs may have underperformed, but seldom was it acknowledged that a winery could consistently over perform their terroir. That notion is changing as younger people take over wineries and the knowledge of how to make better wines is being applied.
First Growths are neither rare wines nor are they particularly hard to obtain. All you need is the money. They can command prices of $1,000 a bottle in the best vintages and a few hundred dollars in the lesser vintages. So, what makes them so special?
Over the years, the quality of many of these wines has ebbed and flowed. There were times when, for reasons ranging from weather to idleness, these Chateaux did not produce wines justifying their cost. Yet, they continued to sell because of their reputation. The First Growths became a luxury brand that the wealthy wanted to hold in their cellars and pour for their friends.
Today, all of these Chateaux are making great wines in all vintages. Are they making the best wine in all of Bordeaux? Probably not each and every year, but over a string of vintages, arguably yes. Are their wines twice as good as those that cost half? Probably not.
First Growths still carry an element of prestige that people want to own. They are a luxury good like a yacht or fine jewelry. The wines of Chateau Lafite have become a darling of the emerging Chinese market resulting in skyrocketing prices especially for older bottles.
In the following parts of this series, the five First Growths and Chateau d’Yquem will be discussed individually. The sweet wines of Bordeaux were also classified in 1855. While nine sweet wines received First Growth status, one wine, Chateau d’Yquem was granted Premier Cru Superieur classification. In the meantime, if you get the chance to sample one of these First Growth wines, consider yourself blessed. I would love to know what you think.