The baffling ordeal that is the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux

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Even those who are taking their first steps as wine investors might have come across the 1855 classification, or at the very least heard of ‘First growths’, ‘Second growths’ all the way down to fifth. Remarkably, very little has changed since 1855, when the wines of Bordeaux were classified from first to fifth growths depending on their trading value. This would largely indicate that the authorities responsible for the classification largely got it right – but this has been a point of contention ever since, as underperforming second growths have lavished their status and consistently excellent fifth growths have failed to gain any promotion. And let’s not forget the zillions of Bordeaux wines that were not actually classified.


The way that I got to grips with the 1855 classification was to read a lot of books and ask a lot of questions of people who knew an awful lot more than I did. I feel the time has come to pass on this information so that you too can become absorbed in the wine industry’s most notoriously baffling ordeal.


So what happened in 1855?


The wines of Bordeaux, that had long been established as the best in Europe, were ranked according to their trading value from first to fifth growths.


So did this apply to all the wines ofBordeaux?


No. Just the wines of the Medocregion. Oh, and one other wine. Chateau Haut-Brion, fromGraves.


Were white wines included?


Sort of. As white wines were not as highly regarded, only the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac were classified. But differently to the reds, with only first and second growth categories being recognised. Oh, and one other, ‘first great growth’, which is a bit better, and only applies to Chateau d’Yquem.


So has anything changed since 1855?


Not much. Baron Philippe de Rothschild campaigned to have Chateau Mouton-Rothschild promoted, deservedly, to first growth status. But very little else has changed.


What about the rest of Bordeaux?


The rest of the wines of Graves were classified in 1953, but not from first to fifth like theMedoc. Cru Classé indicated the best wines. Some changes were made in 1959. The classification concerned both red and white wines. Additionally, in 1987, a sub-regional appellation of Grave was recognised, called Pessac-Léognan, where Haut-Brion is actually situated.


Confused yet?


You should be. What about the wines of theRight Bank? Well, the wines of St. Emilion have their own system, known as the 1955 classification, identifying the best wines as Premier Grand Cru Classé or Grand Cru Classé.


That sounds nice and simple.


It isn’t. Unlike the wines of the 1855 classification, St Emilion’s wines classifications are reviewed every 10 years. In 2006, there was a great deal of controversy when it was believed that some of the panel who were responsible for the review and consequent promotion of Chateaux had vested interests in some Chateaux, and were therefore not impartial. After much legal wrangling, well, there was a bit more legal wrangling. And it is only five years until the next review.


So why do some St Emilion wines simply say ‘Grand Cru?’


Well, they just do. Grand Cru isn’t recognised by the 1955 classification system, but it isn’t illegal to put it on the bottle. Grand Cru wines are believed to be significantly inferior to the Classé wines. Similarly, there are two wines that are considered to be better than the other Premier Grand Cru Classé wines – Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval-Blanc have an unofficial ‘uber’ status.


And Pomerol?


Ah, Pomerol, the famous wines of Chateau Pétrus and Chateau Le Pin, surely they must be ranked as highly as Latour, Lafite, Margaux and the others? No. Pomerol does not have any classification system – although its best wines fetch similar prices to first growths at auction.


I won’t go on – there are many fine books on the subject if you genuinely want to learn more. But whether you do or not, there is something pleasing about getting to grips with Bordeaux classification; I don’t know whether it is the thrill of understanding something that actually seems to have been made deliberately confusing, as if to keep out any intruders who are not bona fide Bordeaux enthusiasts. It is as is those who are in the know have been initiated into the circle  – that can recognise a fifth growth that is better than a second growth and knows that ‘St Emilion Grand Gru’ isn’t as impressive as it sounds. And once you are in the circle, there are countless other circles that you can try to enter, like Champagne and Alsace and the Rhone, and I promise you the confusing ordeal of Burgundy classification will leave you yearning for the straightforward, concise and common sense laws of Bordeaux….