The Classifications of Bordeaux
The Médoc Classification of 1855
The 1855 Classification of the Medoc and the wines of Sauternes was originally compiled for the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1855 by order of Emperor Napoleon III. The Exhibition was intended to showcase the best of all things French, so it was presumed and natural to include the great wines of Bordeaux. It was left to the merchants in Bordeaux to assemble the list. Being businessmen they chose to categorise by the prices achieved over past vintages. For one reason or another and because of the power shift to the grand Chateaux (who had a considerable vested interest), the classification has remained and has never been amended except for the promotion of Mouton Rothschild in 1973 and the rather late entry of Cantemerle. In many ways it is still a very valid and relevant classification. The first growths command a huge premium over the lesser growths; however, if the Medoc were to be reclassified, surely the likes of Lynch Bages and Pontet Canet, as example, would be promoted at the expense of some over-elevated Margaux Chateaux.
Sauternes & Barsac Classification
Again, the merchants of Bordeaux were entrusted with classifying Sauternes and Barsac for the Universelle de Paris of 1855. This is a more streamlined version than the Medoc classification, with essentially two tiers: the Premiers Crus and the Deuxièmes Crus, although Chateau Yquem was awarded the special accolade of Premier Cru Supérieur.
Classification of Saint-Émilion
Exactly 100 years after the 1855 Classification, the Syndicat Viticole and the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine published the first classification of St Emilion. There are two divisions: Premier Grand Cru Classé, which itself is split into A and B, and Grand Cru Classé. Unlike the 1855 classification where market price was the main criteria, Chateaux were graded according to a ten vintage tasting. Significantly, the St Emilion Classification was never intended to be an unchangeable list; the intention was always to allow promotion and relegation according to performance. In theory a wonderfully fair system, in practice it was a can of worms they probably wish they had never opened. Now a well documented legal case, the classification was dragged through the French courts and eventually lost much of its integrity. The system was rife with corruption and the so called arbitrators were found to be interested parties. After the lengthy case, the system looked a bit of a shambles. A tail between the legs retreat to the 1996 classification followed, with the 2006 promotions still standing but none of the relegations taking effect. A compromise that everyone could live with...
Classification of Graves wine
It is understandable that the 1855 classification didn’t incorporate St Emilion and Pomerol, the now short drive from the Medoc to Libourne must have taken an age using the waterways or horse and cart. It is however somewhat inexcusable that the wines of the Graves were overlooked. Haut Brion is the notable exception as the only wine from Pessac-Leognon recognised by the merchants in 1855. Distance surely couldn’t have been used as an excuse... It seems even more extraordinary given the quality of wines such as La Mission Haut Brion, Pape Clement, Domaine de Chevalier and Haut Bailly today. There appears to be some confusion over when the wines of the Graves were actually classified. The original list is reported to have emerged in 1953, however, it was amended in 1958 and was finally ratified in 1959. The 1959 classification is really totally ineffectual and almost worthless to Chateaux and consumer alike. It is simply a non-tiered list of whites and reds, with several notable omissions. Haut Brion sits shoulder to shoulder with Chateau Olivier. Clearly this classification would benefit from a little reworking.