Special Occasion Bordeaux.
Bordeaux has lots of affordable options but sometimes a special occasion needs a special bottle. Let's look at the famous and not so famous Bordeaux Classifications to help you navigate your way through the top tiers of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux - A Class Act.
Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the top wines of Bordeaux, the classified growths. These are the best known and some of the most expensive wines of the region. But why? What does classified mean? And are they worth the money?
We take you through the classifications to know and recommend a few to try.
1855 and all that
The oldest and most famous Bordeaux classification is the 1855 Medoc, Graves and Sauternes Classification. Despite its name, it includes just one Graves property; Chateau Haut Brion, alongside 60 Medoc properties and 27 Barsac and Sauternes properties.
It’s a historical document and could be thought of as out of touch with today’s market, but that would be to underestimate its importance. Still today it remains a point of preference for any Bordeaux enthusiast.
In 1855, Napoleon III created the Paris Universal Exhibition, to showcase all that was great and good in France – including wine. The Bordeaux wine brokers, or courtiers, translated the price hierarchy of wines, established over more than 200 years of trading into a classification with a ranking of first growths to fifth growths.
There were, and still are five levels for the red wines and three levels for the sweet whites of Barsac and Sauternes. The highest-ranking property in the 1855 classification as 1st Superior Growth was awarded uniquely to Chateau d’Yquem.
There have only been two changes in this classification, Château Cantemerle was added in later that year and in1973, Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted from a second to a first.
Although, with these two exceptions, the 1855 classification has never really changed, certain properties systematically hit above their 1855 status. These have become known as the super seconds, (or in some cases fabulous fifths) properties that sell at similar price points to their neighbours higher up the classification.
Examples of this would be Château Palmer, classified as a third growth in 1855. Its price point is systematically above its status as are second growths Château Ducru Beaucaillou, Château Cos Destournel, and fifth growths Château Lynch Bages and Château Pontet Canet. Price is not the only indicator of quality of course. Reputation and marketing help, but as price point determined the original 1855 classification it makes for a useful and easy to find benchmark.
Faced with the unmoving 1855 classification, in 1932, the excluded Médoc properties decided to create their own classification with 444 properties. The classification was revised in 2003 and from 2008 to 2018 was reclassified every year. Since the 2018 vintage, the classification was extended to five years, reintroducing the three quality levels. Of the 250 current Cru Bourgeois,180 are Cru Bourgeois, 56 Cru Bourgeois Supérieurs and 14 Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels.
It would take 100 years for the Graves region to see the interest in having other properties, apart from Château Haut Brion, classified. In 1953, (revised in 1959) Graves introduced its own classification. Originally it included 16 Chateaux: 13 red and 9 white wines. Thanks to Chateau Haut Brion buying up some neighbours there are now just 14.
Some are classified for their white and not their red or vice versa and a few for both.
There is only one level in the Graves; you either have it or you don’t.
These classified wines are all found to the north of the Graves appellation, in what is now Pessac Léognan, an appellation created in 1987.
These wines are often overshadowed by the reputation of their Medoc neighbours to the north, possibly due to the one-hundred-year head start. Most remain great value wines, accessible both in style and price and the classification is a lot easier to understand.
About the same time, the right bank also woke up to the advantage of having a classification. Saint Emilion introduced a classification in 1955, It is reassessed more or less every 10 years for example 2012, 2022. There are three categories of classification in Saint Emilion:
Grand Cru Classé,
Premier Grand Cru Classé B
Premier Grand Cru Classé A.
The latest classification was 2022 and includes 71 classified growths (Grand Cru Classés) and 14 first growths (Première Grand Cru Classés) of which two are As, currently Chateau Pavie and Chateau Figeac.
This classification is optional, properties must apply. Several top properties pulled out of the latest classification, complaining that the tasting and quality assessment reperesented too small a part of the criteria.
Why does it matter? Are Classifications still relevant?
With the exception of Pomerol, the regions without a classification remain the less well-known wines of Bordeaux. Côtes de Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers anyone? (Or Fronsac – sorry Sally !)
Although all the classifications together represent less than 500 out of about 5,300 wineries. Less than 5% of the volume of production is classified (or equivalent) but it does represent 20% of the value.
These classifications are important for the whole region, as well as the reputation of the participating chateau. They remain a benchmark, a way of quickly identifying reputable and reliable wines in such a large region. As they are critically acclaimed, they are also open to criticism. A criticism that keeps them on their toes so, although there is no official way of booting them out of the 1885 or Graves classifications, the trade prices and critics’ scores makes it very clear who is living up to their reputation and who is letting the side down.
Some of the top Bordeaux names to know
The original club of 9, includes the five first (red) growths of the Medoc; Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux and Haut Brion, the two original As from Saint Emilion; Cheval Blanc and Ausone, Petrus from non-classified Pomerol and Château d’Yquem, the unique Superior.
To this list we should probably add Figeac, Angelus and Le Pin from the right back, Chateau Palmer, Cos d’Estournel, Leoville Las Cazes and the Pichons or Ducru Beaucaillou from the Médoc, La Mission Haut Brion and Pape Clement from Graves.
I’m sure there will be many other suggestions, feel free to share your favourites to add to the list..