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The 1855 Classification: on the mark or marketing ploy?

The 1855 classification of the Médoc has never been revised. Benjamin Lewin MW asks whether it still expresses the true quality of each château or if it’s now just a marketing ploy

The 1850s did not start well in Bordeaux. A run of poor vintages put financial pressure on the châteaux, and by the middle of the decade they needed a boost. So they were happy to respond to a request from Napoleon III to present their wines at the Grand Exposition in Paris in 1855.

The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce asked the brokers to list the wines of the Gironde in order of quality, to accompany a map of the region. As négociants who bought the wine each vintage and matured it for sale, the brokers routinely classified the region’s châteaux. So within a few days they provided a list of 57 wines, all from the Médoc except for Haut-Brion. (Wines of the Right Bank were so much lower in price they were not thought worth including.)

Looking back at price records, the brokers did a good job. Relative prices of the châteaux had been stable for a while, so the classification was simple. The châteaux were divided into five groups of grands crus classés, descending in order from the first growths. There was a large price gap between the first growths and seconds, a smaller gap between the seconds and thirds, and then a more or less continuous distribution of prices, making the break points between third, fourth, and fifth growths somewhat arbitrary.

Defying the devotion to terroir that is the driving principle of the appellation contrôlée system, the price approach is unique to Bordeaux. Indeed, in the same year of 1855, a detailed map of Burgundy classified several hundred different vineyard sites. If it weren’t for the accident of the 1855 classification, Bordeaux would probably have followed the same route. Now it’s the great exception, where instead of the vineyards, it’s the châteaux – the producers – that are classified. There is much talk about terroir, especially about the famed gravel mounds where the Médoc’s best châteaux are located, but this has nothing to do with the classification. Châteaux can trade their land without in the slightest affecting their classification. And they often do.

Changing times

The total vineyard area of the grands crus classés in 1855 was 2,650 hectares; during a slump in the first half of the 20th century it dropped to 1,800ha; now it is up to 3,450ha. Most of the grands crus classés have more land than they had in 1855 (some have doubled), and between the contraction, expansion and continuous trade in land between châteaux, few make wines from the same terroir now as then. During the slump, some châteaux, such as d’Issan, Malescot-St-Exupéry, La Lagune, Desmirail and Prieuré-Lichine, lost almost all their land; but the brands were resurrected by buying vineyards, not always the same as those of the original landholdings. It’s a sensitive topic: when I asked each of the grands crus classés how their land now compared with 1855, only one replied.

So what were the brokers actually classifying in 1855? The wines would scarcely have been recognisable in terms of today’s wines. They just about reached 10% alcohol, colour was little darker than rosé, and there was not much tannin. Cabernet Sauvignon had only recently been introduced; there was a lot of Malbec but little Merlot. New oak was affordable only by the top châteaux. Wines were usually drunk within a year of the vintage. Their weakness meant they were usually blended with stronger, foreign wine before being exported. The brokers might know the taste of the wines in their original state, but it would be a rare consumer who did. What was being classified was more a sort of base wine than what actually went on sale.

The terroir and nature of the wine was different and production was about five times less than today: so why is the classification still valid 150 years on? To me, it’s a poor guide to current quality. Taking the system on its own terms, and looking at the relative prices just of the classified growths over the past decade, only 28 of the 61 classified châteaux would remain in their original price groups. (There are now 61, not 57, as some châteaux split into two, and both parts kept the classification.) The first growths remain at the top; many of the fifth growths remain at the bottom; but there’s extensive reordering between (see box, p34).

Price sensitive

Reality shows even less connection with the classification if all the wines of the Médoc are ordered by price. The first growths stay the same, with a widening gap between them and the next group – the ‘super-seconds’ (mostly some of the old second growths, but with Palmer (a third growth) and Lynch-Bages (a fifth growth) now included). If the wines of the Graves were included, Mission Haut-Brion would be at the top of this group Again there’s a distinct gap to the next group, which would consist of châteaux from all levels of the original classification (about half from the remaining original second growths). At the bottom, 13 châteaux (a mix of third, fourth, and fifth growths) would fall off the list altogether.

Eight cru bourgeois would be included at either the fourth- or fifth-growth level, headed by Haut-Marbuzet and Sociando-Mallet. Six second wines would come into the classification, including Forts de Latour, Pavilion Rouge de Margaux, Carruades de Lafite and Clos du Marquis, at the level below the super seconds.

The rise of the second wines into classified growth territory is a problem for any classification. At a minimum, it explodes the myth that the classification is in any way based on the terroir of each château, since distinctions between grand vins and second wines vary, but are not necessarily based on terroir (see box, right).

And what about the rest of Bordeaux? In a general Left Bank classification, Pape-Clément would come into the super-second group, and several other châteaux in Pessac-Léognan would be included at lower levels. If the classification were extended to the Right Bank, most of the top 50 wines of Bordeaux by price would be from St-Emilion or Pomerol. The first growths of the Médoc would only just squeeze into the top 10.

Does any of this matter? If prices are so different from the old classification, hasn’t the market just adjusted to quality today? What harm is done by the old classification? The effects may be most pronounced at the top and the bottom. The fact that five châteaux are described as premier grand cru classé in the Médoc sets a glass ceiling that the second growths just can’t break through, although blind tastings do not consistently place all the first growths top.

(In Decanter’s November 2009 panel tasting of 2006 crus classés, only two of the four Médoc first growths were among five Award winners, but fifth-growth Dauzac, a perennial high achiever, was). And there’s kudos to being a grand cru classé: the price of Sociando-Mallet, for example, is well into the fourth tier but would it be higher if it had the magic 1855 label? And would the prices of some of the châteaux that should be excluded fall even further without it?

Yet there’s an even more pressing question: is there any point to classification by price? If the classification just repeats the most recent year’s prices, it adds nothing to the judgment of the market. But if it differs from market price order, it begs the question: who’s right – the market or the classification?

The justification is that it takes a longer term view, reflecting the history and potential of a wine, and not being over-influenced by short-term fashion. This is the intention behind the classification of St-Emilion, revised every 10 years. But even this shows distance from the marketplace: only just over half of the top 40 wines by price in St-Emilion belong to the latest (currently suspended) classification. That’s largely due to the rise of the garage wines, which admittedly don’t fit the system because of their tiny production levels.

The 1855 classification was useful to the trade, but it was only during the mid 20th century it became widely used as a marketing tool for consumers – by which time it was already becoming out of date. One of the reasons why the classification retained its validity for a good period was the stability among the châteaux at the time. Change is far more rapid today – the super-seconds, for example, developed as a distinct group well after 1982.

With one exception, entrenched interests have always seen off any attempt at reclassification. When regulatory body INAO attempted an official reclassification in 1961, it divided the châteaux into three groups; 17 were dropped and 13 new châteaux included. A leak to the press killed the proposal. In the 50 years since, the classification has departed further from reality but no one has dared take it on – except Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who succeeded by sheer force of personality and political influence in getting an official government statement declaring Mouton a first growth in 1973.

The justification for maintaining the 1855 is based on the misapprehension that there was something unique determining the potential of each château at that time. But what could this be but the terroir, which in almost every case has changed vastly due to trading of land? The 1855 classification was nothing more and nothing less than a freeze-frame of the status at that time. Setting it in stone as though it represents eternal truth is a defiance of reality that can only damage Bordeaux’s reputation.

Written by Benjamin Lewin MW

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