A foiled attempt to redraw the 1855 classification could have had far-reaching consequences. Jane Anson investigates a little-known chapter of Bordeaux history

The headline in The Times, 20 November 1963 reads, ‘Controversy in Bordeaux’. Written by Alexis Lichine, the article that follows begins, ‘Until they read the news of a movement to change the [1855] Bordeaux classification, a surprising number of wine-buying Englishmen… had never heard of it’. More than 50 years later, and the 1855 classification has surely gained in renown. But its near-replacement in the early 1960s has been almost entirely forgotten; a curious footnote in the 20th-century history of Bordeaux, even though Lichine’s project – he was one of the key agitators for change, along with Baron Philippe de Rothschild at Mouton – came surprisingly close to overthrowing the world’s oldest wine classification.

The proposals made it all the way to France’s national appellations’ institute, INAO, and were within a whisker of being accepted. Three years of negotiations reached their conclusion, a letter of congratulations was sent to the governing committee and a newspaper article proclaiming its arrival was published in Bordeaux.

If it had gone any further, the INAO would have signed the new 1961 Classement des Crus du Médoc into existence. The five levels of 1855 would have been replaced with three. A total of 17 names rewarded in the original ranking would have been demoted and 12 cru bourgeois made their way into the light.