Different quality classifications apply in various districts of Bordeaux. The most famous is the 1855 classification of the wines of the Médoc. Also applying to the Médoc is the Cru Bourgeois classification, introduced in 1932. The classification of the Graves was introduced in 1953, and the châteaux of Saint-Émilion were first classified in 1955. The structure and terminology of classification is unique to each region. Pomerol, which is responsible for some of the most iconic and sought after Bordeaux of our time, has no quality classification at all.
1855 classification of the wines of the Médoc
This classification was prepared for the great exposition of Paris in 1855. It was a ranking of châteaux, produced by the brokers and merchants of the time, based on selling prices for their wine. It was a measure of market opinion from which quality was inferred. There are separate classifications for red and white wines.
The 1855 Classification has its flaws. Every Bordeaux lover can point to fifth growths which are today as good as or better than many ‘superior’ growths (take a bow, Pontet-Canet). A criticism of the Bordeaux 1855 Classification is that it is not revised. (With two exceptions: Cantemerle was admitted as a fifth growth in 1856, and Mouton Rothschild was promoted from second to first growth in the 1970s.) That it remains relevant today is down to two factors. For one thing, the terroir will out. The attributes of the vineyards of the successful properties can be seen, even today, to be those consistent with high quality. For another, the classification set up a virtuous (or vicious) circle, in which the most highly classified châteaux command higher prices, and can afford to make the long term investments for continued quality.
An interesting characteristic of classifications in the Médoc is that classification is for the châteaux, and is not a demarcation of vineyards. Châteaux can add to their vineyards and, so long as they’re within the appellation boundaries, increase their production without affecting their classification. Margaux second growth Lascombes is one (very acquisitive) example, as is Pauillac first growth Latour. Results can be outstanding, or disappointing.
Given the almighty and corrosive row that consumed the Cru Bourgeois system for years when an overhaul was attempted in 2003, you can understand the desire to let the sleeping dog of any 1855 update lie.
The 1855 classification showcased the stars of the Médoc. The wonderfully named Cru Bourgeois – authentic, dependable and comfortably affordable – was introduced after the First World War to increase awareness of and demand for the best of the less glamorous châteaux of the wider region. Many Cru Bourgeois are in less favoured appellations, such as Moulis, Listrac and the Haut-Médoc.
Saint-Estèphe has many good Cru Bourgeois. From 2008 onwards, the Cru Bourgeois classification applies to the wine only, and not to the property. It is awarded with every new vintage, based on tastings of the wines, and visits to the vineyard.
Wines labelled ‘Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel’ and ‘Cru Bourgeois Supérieur’ were released between 2003 and 2007 after the ill-fated overhaul of 2003 and you may well come across them. They include some excellent properties.
In 1953 sixteen châteaux were awarded the classification ‘Cru Classé de Graves’. All are in the appellation of Pessac-Léognan, a sub-region of the larger Graves appellation. Six châteaux are awarded for their red wines, three for their white wine, and seven for both red and white. Haut-Brion is also a First Growth in the Médoc classification of 1855.
This classification has three tiers, in order of descending quality:
Premier Grand Cru Classé A
Premier Grand Cru Classé B
Grand Cru Classé
The Saint-Émilion classification was established in 1955 with revisions taking place in 1968; 1985; 1997 and 2007 – this latter having sparked major debate and resulting legal challenges. In a key difference to the system in the Médoc, classification in Saint-Émilion was awarded to the vineyards and terroir of a château, and not to the château as a producing company.
During these 10-yearly revisions, châteaux may be, and have been, demoted or promoted on the basis of tastings and a review of actual performance by an expert panel.
However, Saint-Émilion has recently emerged from years of dispute after the revision of 2006. Legal challenges from a number of châteaux demoted in that revision led to the classification being suspended, and the terms above becoming illegal.
Agreement has, at least in theory, now been reached, although the process for reviewing the classification has been substantially altered. A notable change is a move to relax the rules on increasing vineyards without affecting classification.
Somewhat confusingly, the term ‘Grand Cru’ on a bottle of Saint-Émilion is no indication of special quality. Every producer is permitted to use the term as part of the standard appellation title. Still, some good, albeit unclassified, wines bear the modest ‘Saint-Émilion Grand Cru’ label.
Bordeaux classifications do not attempt the impossible: a qualitative ranking of producers across this large and disparate region. Rather, they sharpen the broad view of Bordeaux’s appellations. The quality potential and distinctive characters of Bordeaux’s different terroirs have been assessed, empirically and scientifically, for generations. It is the job of the Appellation Controlée system to trace these terroirs and broad personalities.
Classifications have evolved, sometimes messily, within the most significant appellations, and each ranks a community of peers. The shortcomings of quality classifications are undeniable, because the quality potential of a terroir relies upon unpredictable humans for realisation. Even a high classification cannot save a reputation if a producer is making average or uninspiring wine. In the end, the market decides, and that depends on quality alone. Empowering your own judgment and preferences is the most rewarding solution.
This is the only Bordeaux appellation that has no classification whatsoever. Yet Pomerol produces wines that are in huge demand and they are some of the most expensive and iconic wines produced in the world. Wines such as:
Petrus; Le Pin; L’Eglise Clinet; Vieux Chateau Certan Lafleur amongst the leaders.
The key with this tiny appellation is the reliance on the Merlot grape and the interaction with Cabernet Franc to create their style of wines.