Classifications of wines of Bordeaux

Table of contents:

While everything is relatively clear with Burgundy and its four hierarchical levels of wine classification (see my article on Burgundy wines), the first encounter with classifications of Bordeaux wines can be quite confusing.
The two parts of the Bordeaux region – the right bank and the left bank – have their own hierarchies, some of which differ in terminology and criteria, although their principle remains the same – to distinguish the best wines. Many, though not all, winemakers strive to get into such a categorization applied to the appellations they produce, as receiving one of these statuses means recognition of the winemaker’s work and that the drinks can qualify for a higher selling price. We can say that Bordeaux is the most “classified” of all the French regions, as it is characterized by numerous historic winemaking estates, its particular market structure and the principle of commercialization of its wines through the interaction of three market players: winemaker, courtier and negociant. In addition, the Bordeaux region has a favourable position in the estuary of Gironde, which is a great advantage to access the international market. This means that the opinion of foreign buyers has to some extent influenced the emergence of the various Bordeaux «rankings».

Classification of the regions on the Left bank of Bordeaux

The «Left bank» is a collective term for appellations of Bordeaux regions on the left bank of the Garonne river (which crosses the city and the Gironde department):

  • Graves.
  • Pessac-Léognan.
  • Sauternes-Barsac.
  • Médoc

As many as four classifications can be counted on the left bank alone, overlapping in some communal (i.e. small, situated around a single settlement – a commune) names of the left bank.

The 1855 Grand Cru classification (Grands Crus Classés de 1855)

grands crus classés 1855

Emblem of the 1855 Grand Cru Classés

The most famous of all. It was specially created by the order of Emperor Napoleon III for the Universal Exhibition in Paris. France was hosting the exhibition for the first time (the previous one was in London), so it was very important for the Emperor to show the best of his homeland. On the orders of Napoleon III, the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux asked courtiers to make a list of the best Bordeaux wines, the most expensive and famous. The courtiers assigned 56 Châteaux of Médoc and one of Graves into five categories, from the 1st growth to the 5th growth, or Grand Cru Classé (only for red wines):

  • Premier Grand Cru Classé – first classified growth
  • Second …- second
  • Troisième … – third
  • Quatrième … – fourth
  • Cinquième … – and fifth

and 21 Châteaux from Sauternes in three categories for sweet white wines (dry whites are not included, as sweet drinks were more highly valued and sold more expensively in the XIXth century):

  • Premier Cru Supérieur – the highest level of classification
  • Premier Cru Classé – the first level
  • Deuxième Cru Classé – second level

château pichon baron

Château Pichon Baron Second Grand Cru Classé, Paulliac

château d'yquem

Château d’Yquem Premier Cru Supérieur, Sauternes

However, the hierarchy was not based on tasting and assessing the quality of the drinks, but rather on their price levels during the last few decades, as well as on the prestige of the château and the fame of its owners.
Despite this not entirely objective method of ranking, which was chosen by courtiers in 1855, this first official Bordeaux classification still exists, and wines of the Châteaux, included in this list are considered as the best and most prestigious in the Bordeaux region, with high prices corresponding to this status.
The 1855 version has remained unchanged since its creation, in spite of the fact that it refers not to clearly defined areas producing the highest quality grapes, as in Burgundy, but to the whole vineyard of a Château. The vineyards may have changed considerably over time, for example, expanding but not always on a better terroir, or being reorganized and planted with different varieties.
Nevertheless, two exceptions in this classification were made. Without considering the estates, that disappeared since 1855 and were deleted from the list made by courtiers, there were only two changes in the official list of Grands Crus.
The first is the addition of Château Cantemerle from Haut-Médoc after courtiers had submitted the completed list to the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, but before the Universal Exhibition. The second, more significant change occurred in 1973, when Château Mouton Rothschild, previously listed among the Second Grand Cru Classés, was promoted to the highest status of first growth.
Today the Union de Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) brings together the chateaux in this classification, as well as those on the left and right banks of Bordeaux, who are noted for their exceptional wines, and professionnals involved in the wine trade and wine production. It promotes Grands Crus in the national and international market and monitors attempts to falsify these wines (unfortunately, it happens, as these expensive cuvées have a great success among collectors and at auctions). By the way, a good opportunity to get to know them is the annual Week-end des Grand Crus tasting, organized by the Union in May-June and available also to wine enthusiasts, and not only to professionals.

ugcb

The emblem of UGCB, Union de Grands Crus de Bordeaux

Cru Bourgeois du Médoc (Cru Bourgeois of the Médoc region)

This is a historic ranking of the Médoc region, which dates back to the Middle Ages, but only began to take shape in the 17th century, when wealthy merchants and artisans living in towns (or «bourgeois», derived from the word «bourg», «city») began to acquire vineyards to consolidate their social status. At this time, the classification of crus bourgeois was not official but empirical, although a hierarchical list of châteaux with prices for their wines already existed in 1740. The Crus Bourgeois hierarchy was officially recognised by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce in 1932, and the Syndicate was established in the 1960s, with the status being shown on labels.
Since then, attempts have been made to restore the historical hierarchy of three levels:

  • Cru Bourgeois.
  • Cru Bourgeois Supérieur
  • Exceptional, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel,

but they did not succeed until 2020. Until that time, only one level existed officially, the Cru Bourgeois, although these three categories date back to the 18th century, and even earlier one could find Cru Artisan and Cru Paysan, whose names reflect the principal occupation of the winery owner (craftsman or peasant, respectively), but were not part of the official categorization of wines.
It emerged from the long work of a panel of experts and takes into account several criteria that enable a château to achieve one of the statuses for 5 years:

  • the quality of the beverage and its consistency as determined by the tasting of the last five vintages
  • technologies, applied to work the vineyard
  • the state of the winery, which plays a major role in the quality of the products (state of the production infrastructure, winemaking techniques, ageing and storage of the wine…)
  • The infrastructure: the historic buildings and their state, the oenotourism offer, the facilities for visitors (both professionals and the general public)

Crus Bourgeois may not compete with the international fame of Grands Crus Classés de 1855, but these are high quality wines, which sell for a very reasonable price.

cru bourgeois

Emblem of Crus Bourgeois

The artisanal growth of the Médoc region (Cru Artisan de Médoc)

The term also originated in the 17th and 18th century, and also indicated the occupation of the vineyard owner. «Artisan» translates as «craftsman», and the owners of such, often smallholdings, were blacksmiths, cooperage workers…, in other words, craftsmans.
The status of «Artisan», over time, became secondary, as it was considered less prestigious than «Bourgeois», according to the hierarchy of the owners’ occupations. In 1989, at the initiative of a few winemakers, a Syndicate was formed and, in 1994, the winemakers obtained the right to put their status on the label.
All winemakers are united by the fact that they all love their business and know their work very well: both the terroir and the vinification and aging process, which is suitable for grapes and wines with the characteristics that they acquire in a given terroir. In addition, Bordeaux is rarely known for having such a pleasing quality/price ratio.

crus artisan

Emblem of Crus Artisan /strong>

Crus Classés de Graves: classification of Graves region

The historically important Graves region also has its own hierarchy, but with one status. It was established in 1953 at the request of the Syndicate of Graves and was revised in 1959 to include 16 estates. It differs from the others classifications existing in Bordeaux in that it does not apply to châteaux or vineyards as a whole, but to château wines. That is, if an estate produces both white and red wines, only one of them, or both, may receive «classified» status, but not the entire château. Since 1987, all the estates whose wines have been classified in this way belong to the small appellation of Pessac-Léognan, which includes the best terroir of the Graves region. Separately, Château Haut Brion, which was the only one from the Graves region to enter the 1855 version, is the only one that today holds two statuses: the Premier Grand Cru Classé in 1855 and the Cru Сlassé de Graves for red wine.

crus classés de graves

Emblem of Crus Classés de Graves

château haut brion

Château Haut-Brion

Classification of Saint-Emilion

It so happened that the wines of the Right bank of Bordeaux – Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac – which form the Libournais group, were not included in the most prestigious and famous classification of 1855. I have encountered several versions of this situation:

  • One is that the courtiers did not have enough time before the Universal Exhibition to compile a complete list of the most expensive wines from both banks of Bordeaux.
  • The second is that the Châteaux of the right bank did not want to participate in the list for fear of discontent among those who would not have been included.
  • On the third, which is probably the most probable, the Chambers of Commerce of Bordeaux (which dealt with the wines of Médoc, Graves and Sauternes on the left bank) and Libourne (which, respectively, paid more attention to Saint-Emilion on the right bank) existed separately and their courtiers did not collaborate. And since it was the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux that asked its courtiers to provide a list of the best wines, only representatives of the left bank were included in the famous 1855 list.

Saint-Emilion’s own wine classification was established in 1954, at the request of the Saint-Emilion Winegrowers’ Syndicate. It comprises three levels:

  • Premier Grand Cru Classé “A”
  • Premier Grand Cru Classé – Sometimes the label may indicate Premier Grand Cru Classé “B”, although this class does not officially exist
  • Grand Cru Classé

To qualify for one of these levels, a château must meet the criteria of winemaking technology, production and enotourism offerings, and its drinks must meet the quality criteria determined by professionals in a blind tasting of wines from 10 or 15 vintages, depending on the category of classification, that a château wish to obtain. The classification of Saint-Emilion is renewed every 10 years, and the winemakers must work hard to maintain the quality of their products in order to maintain or improve their status.
Currently, 4 Châteaux have the first, highest and most prestigious “A” level, 14 have a second status, and 65 have a third. However, in Saint-Emilion, unlike Burgundy, Premier Grand Cru Classés are not protected geographical appellations in their own right. They are levels in the hierarchical classification of wines that characterize their quality.

château cheval blanc wine château cheval blanc

chateau ausone château ausone

Château Cheval Blanc Château Ausone – не стали выдвигать свои кандидатуры для составления новой классификации вин Сент-Эмильона

There are two PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin), or AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) in French, in Saint-Emilion:

  • Saint-Emilion AOP
  • Saint-Emilion Grand Cru AOP.

Both appellations cover the entire area of Saint-Emilion, but differ in terms of the technical requirements: to qualify for the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru appellation, the grapes must reach a certain level of sugar content, and the wine must be aged two years (and not one year as for Saint-Emilion).

And what about Pomerol?

Curiosly, Bordeaux’s most expensive wines are not marked by their own classification, nor by any of the classifications listed above. Like Saint-Emilion, Pomerol has been forgotten by Bordeaux’s courtiers, who either didn’t want to or didn’t have time to reach the region. While the classification of Saint-Emilion wines came 100 years after the famous Universal Exhibition in Paris, Pomerol does not have any ranking to this day. However, this has nothing to do with the prestige of its wines, nor with their prices, which are quite higher than the average Saint-Emilion. Given this fact, we can say that Pomerol does not even need the term “Grand Cru” on the label.

Is it worth navigating the classifications when buying wines?

Quite a fair question, even if at first glance such an indication on the label seems an indisputable guarantee of quality. But is it really so?
The first ever classification of Bordeaux wines, introduced on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855, was essentially a list of châteaux, sorted by price, whose owners were considered at the time to be the most influential and renowned. At the time of the Universal Exhibition the decision to declare the most expensive Bordeaux wines the best ones could be justified even without a tasting, because the high prices that buyers were prepared to pay for them obliged the winemakers in some way to produce a product of appropriate quality. In other words, if the list of the best wines drawn up by courtiers in the XIX century could be relied upon, nowadays the classification of 1855 may well be questioned.
For more than 160 years many things have changed: some châteaux no longer exist, others have changed owners several times (today only 5% are still hereditary property of the same families that owned them at the time of the Universal Exhibition), others have extended their vineyards or grown other varieties. One way or another, even the cuvées made in 1855 are, for the most part, worthy wines for their price, and the 1855 list should be updated to be more objective and correspond to reality.
But such “ranking by quality” would necessarily involve changes that would not be welcomed by everyone: it is likely that some fifth-level châteaux would be dropped from the classification, while others would get a lower status. So the rather delicate process of changing the established hierarchy of estates has only happened once, and that was to promote Château Mouton Rothschild to a higher category. It is unlikely then that the rest of the classification, established in 1855, will ever change. It is also worth noting that the Grands Crus Classés are historic estates, whose original vineyards have been identified for their extraordinary terroirs and the quality of their wines. Thus, as a whole, the Grands Crus Classés en 1855 represent the reputation and typicity of great Bordeaux wines, exceptional beverages made for long ageing.
In the updated Saint-Emilion and Crus Bourgeois rankings in the Médoc, here the château acquires Grand Cru Classé or Cru Bourgeois status precisely for the consistency of its wines and for the distinctive and positive characteristics of the châteaux themselves (sustainable viticulture and winemaking techniques, enotouristic offer, historical value), so such classifications can be relied on.

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