"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety."
That’s what Shakespeare said about Cleopatra and while I never knew Cleopatra, you could say pretty much the same about the wines of Bordeaux. There are a lot of them. In fact, the infinite variety can be downright confusing. How to sort out all the subregions of Bordeaux into some sensible framework would confuse Einstein, who concerned himself with simpler stuff like the theory of relativity. But that didn’t stop the French.
Let’s go way back. All the way back to France in 1855. Napoleon III was running France in those days, if you can imagine anyone running France. For some reason, he got the bright idea (probably after a second bottle of wine) to have the winemakers of Bordeaux rate their wines from top to bottom. Think of this. The winemakers have to meet, decide amongst themselves whose wines were best, second best, and so on. Those meetings must have been insane. And since they all were winemakers, I’m pretty certain they were drinking during the meetings, too. There must have been a more sensible way to accomplish wine rankings, but history tells us they never found it.
What did they come up with? You will be incredibly sorry you asked that question because there is no straightforward, logical way to explain the whole mess. But we’re going to try anyway.
To keep this manageable, we’re only going to look at one part of Bordeaux, the Médoc. The Médoc is the best known subregion in Bordeaux. Four appellations in Médoc (and this part of Médoc is called the Haut Médoc) are the most famous and most important: Margaux; St.-Julien; Paulliac; and St.-Estèphe. There are other subregions in Bordeaux and many other appellations, but the 1885 Classification (as it came to be known) concerned these four in Médoc and the subregions of Sauternes and Barsac. Completely ignored in the 1855 Classification were subregions such as St.-Emilion, Pomerol, and quite a few others. Some of these other subregions developed their own classifications much later. Are you beginning to see how confusing this is?
Back to the Médoc. The winemakers of 1855 sorted through 200 or so chateaux and ranked them according to who had the best terroir (terroir means the combination of land, climate, and physical characteristics of a given chateaux). The top chateaux were designated First Growths, or Premier Crus. Next were Second Growths (Deuxièmes Crus), Third Growths (Troisièmes Crus), Fourth Growths (Quatrièmes Crus), and Fifth Growths (Cinquièmes Crus). These Crus were supposed to be an indication of wine quality and generally that is the case. However, and this is a big “however”, things have changed since 1855 (no kidding?) and the quality of Cru Bordeaux changes from year to year. Here’s the bottomline. The top Crus command the top dollars. But there are many fantastic Third Growths and Fifth Growths that cost a lot less. For that matter there are many fantastic Bordeaux’s that don’t even fall into the 1855 Classification and cost even less.
To get the Premier Cru wines (and there are only five chateaux designated Premier Cru), you will have to purchase what are called Bordeaux futures. Here’s how it works. Right now, you can purchase futures for 2006 Bordeaux’s. That means you have never seen or tasted the wine, but are relying on the opinion of a few experts who have tasted it. Robert Parker is the big name here and his opinion can drive Bordeaux prices up or down in any given year. So you purchase your 2006 Bordeaux futures and in 2008, you’ll actually get the wine, and since these wines really must be cellared, you won’t be tasting it until 2011 at the very earliest and most likely much later. Obviously, patience is a virtue here, but not a virtue many young wine drinkers possess (in my opinion, anyway).
Last December, I drank a 1995 Chateaux Kirwan (Third Growth) that was stellar. No, it wasn’t a Premier Cru, but then again I gave $60 or $70 retail for it, instead of $100 or $200 or more for a Premier. I enjoyed it with one of the best French meals I’d ever had and, more importantly, I was with my favorite person in the whole world. It was one of the most pleasant evenings I ever spent. Which all goes to prove that wine, as important as it is, is at its best with good food and a good friend.