Thursday, May 2, 2013

1855 Bordeaux Classification: Still Meaningfull?

Our society is obsessed with ranking. We desire to know who or what is the best of the best. There are countless publications and websites that focus on figuring out what universities, cars, athletes, and in this case, what wine is in a class of its own.

I understand why we as a society rank everything, but is it always required. Also with regards to certain rankings, are they relevant today? A great example is the Bordeaux Classification of 1855. Is this 150 plus year old classification meaningful today? Is it an effective ranking of quality claret in the Medoc? The quick answer is no, but there is some merit to the Classification of 1855.

Link: Full 1855 Bordeaux Classification

The big question that we should be asking ourselves is why are we following a classification that was created in 1855? In 158 years, a lot has changed in the Medoc. Chateaus have gone under new ownership, chateaus have purchased bigger plots of vineyards, new chateaus have been established and new vineyard and winemaking techniques have been used. Another glaring issue to the 1855 rankings is that it did not include the communes of St. Emilion, Pomerol, or the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes.

The 1855 Classification of Bordeaux took place while Napoleon III was in power of France. They established the rankings by looking at which wines were the most expensive to buy (single bottle), which they felt meant higher quality. The classification of 1855 ranked all of the chateaus in the Medoc into five groups, or in the case of Bordeaux, five “growths”. In the end, four chateaus were awarded “First Growth”. These were the best chateaus in Bordeaux which included Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, and Chateau Haut Brion. A fifth was added in 1973, when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was given the honour after years of petitioning. This was the only change to ever happen to the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. Over time, these five First Growths have show that they belong at the top. They continuously produce outstanding wines, even in poor vintages. These First Growths deserve to be the best, but should they have company?

Top wine critics from around the world have discovered that there are non First Growth chateaus producing exceptional wines. In many reviews of past vintages, critics have used the term “First Growth like” to describe that a chateaus quality rivals the likes of Mouton, Lafite, Haut Brion etc. Of recent years left bank chateaus like Pontet Canet, La Mission Haut Brion, Leoville Barton, and Ducru Beaucaillou have wowed critics and wine lovers with their “First Growth like” quality. This “First Growth like” quality is also found in the right bank with Vieux Chateau Certan, Figeac, and Trotanoy to name a few (could also include the likes of Cheval Blanc & Petrus, who are considered First Growths). Sadly, for these chateaus, the classification of 1855 remains the same. This is bad news for the chateaus, but great news for the consumer. Prices for these “First Growth like” wines remain lower than the four figure amount that First Growths demand.

Should Bordeaux abolish the Classification of 1855, re-classify themselves, and included the chateaus of St. Emilion and Pomerol? Maybe, but it will not happen anytime soon. Or at least I cannot foresee it happening due to one large factor, re-classification would create too much drama in Bordeaux. If re-classificatoin occurred, there is a good chance that there will be disappointed chateaus, like a 2nd Growth being bumped down. A prime example is the newly classification of St. Emilion that has recently been established. Two chateaus in this region were awarded to the top class of Premier Grand Cru Classes A and joined the likes of Cheval Blanc and Ausone (Chateau Pavie & Chateau Angelus), but there were many other chateaus that felt like their were snubbed and now have their lawyers fighting their cause. Drama central!

Is the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 relevant today? No, not really. In a perfect world, all chateaus would be equal and there would be no ranking. I cannot recall any other wine regions that have a ranking classification like Bordeaux. If anything, the Classification of 1855 creates great debate around Bordeaux lovers. So, is Montrose better than Lynch Bages? Lascombes better than Palmer? In the classification rankings they are, but in the end you should have the final say.

The 5 First Growths of Bordeaux

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