Burgundy’s hierarchy dates back as far as that of Bordeaux, but is based on appellation rather than producer. Benjamin Lewin MW investigates whether classification by terroir stands the test of time

Two events in 1855 established contrasting styles for ranking wine, and their consequences have reverberated ever since. The best known is the classification of the wines of the Médoc: the 1855 classification not only still dominates the wines of the Left Bank, but made classification by price the model for all Bordeaux wines.

It is less well known that in the same year, Lavalle published his Plan Topographique of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, a detailed map of every vineyard from Santenay to Dijon, grading them Tête de Cuvée, Première, Deuxième and even Troisième Cuvée.

This was the basis for mapping the Côte d’Or into more than 400 appellations when the appellation contrôlée system was introduced in 1936. Today, every vineyard in Burgundy has its place in a hierarchy descending from grand cru, to premier cru, to village wine, down to generic Bourgogne.

Neither classification was intended as other than a contemporary description of the status quo, but both became set in stone. Since 1855, Bordeaux has been classified by price, while Burgundy has been classified by terroir. In my look at Bordeaux (Decanter, January 2010), ranking by price does not age well for more than a decade. So how does classification by terroir stand up over the centuries?

Price evolution

All classification starts with price. The first classification in Burgundy was based on the average price that wine from each area fetched in the 19th century. Wines were sold at that time by négociants with little attention to individual producers, and prices were based on areas defined more broadly than those of today.