The 1855 MédocClassification


The 1855 Classification of the red wines of the Gironde is the most famous and influential wine classification in existence. It was conceived, on the request of Napoleon III, for the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris that was organised to showcase all that was best about France. The leading brokers of Bordeaux were asked to create a list of the best wines in the region grouped by quality into 5 levels. Using a system that was probably as good as any, namely the market price of the wines, their list included 58 properties, led by the 'premiers des premiers' Ch. Lafite, which was the most expensive wine at the time.

The wines came exclusively from the Médoc apart from one illustrious example from the Graves, Ch. Haut-Brion. This is perhaps surprising as the wines from the Graves were highly rated at the time. Less surprising was the omission of St Emilion and Pomerol whose wines were not important players in the market. At the same time the brokers also compiled a list of the finest wines of Sauternes and Barsac.

It is astonishing that what was meant as a snapshot of the châteaux of the Médoc has become so important and has remained sacrosanct ever since. What is more, the brokers seem by and large to have got it right. Discrepancies compared to today are largely down to the human factor - namely the skill, resources and effort of who was in charge then versus now. For example, Palmer's rating as a mere Third Growth was probably down to the fact that it was in receivership at the time, while an underperforming Mouton had just been bought by Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild in 1853 who had not had time to turn its fortunes around. Given that only Mouton-Rothschild and Leoville-Barton are in the same hands now as in 1855, this is perfectly understandable.

The 1855 classification was not the first Bordeaux Classification that had been attempted. The American ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, had put together a list in the late 18th century, while wine writers André Simon, Alexander Henderson, Cyrus Redding and Wilhelm Franck, and Bordeaux merchant Tastet and Lawton, had attempted the same in the first half of the 19th century. There have been movements to update the classification since 1855 too - not least from Bordeaux doyen Alexis Lichine whose attempt made some headway in 1960 - but none have ever seriously looked like succeeding.

It is true that the world of 100 point rankings, prices and reputations for individual wines rule the roost today, but being one of the 61 classified growths still retains a considerable caché. There is no question that the 50 years Baron Philippe de Rothschild spent lobbying for First Growth status were well worth it. Classified as a Second Growth in 1855, it was clear by the 1860s and 1870s that the quality of Mouton's wines merited them a place at the top table.

The charismatic Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who ran Mouton from 1922 until his death in 1988, made it his lifelong ambition to right this wrong. For years the Mouton label displayed the words `Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis' (`First I cannot be, Second I do not deign to be, Mouton I am'). In 1973 the Agriculture Minister Jacques Chirac finally passed a decree bestowing Mouton with First Growth status, and the old phrase was replaced with 'Premier je suis, second je fus. Mouton ne change' ('First I am, Second I was, Mouton does not change').

This achievement is always cited as the only change ever to be made to the 1855 classification, and while this is correct the real picture is slightly more complicated. Since 1855 the original list has actually increased, from 58 to 61. Three estates - 'Léoville', 'Pichon' and 'Batailley' - have been split into two or more châteaux, while two separate names - 'Pouget' and 'Pouget-Lassale' - have since been combined into one, known simply as Ch. Pouget. In addition, Third Growth `Dubignon' has disappeared entirely although its vineyards live on as part of other Margaux properties. Ch. Gloria is not a Cru Classé but its vineyards all come from plots of lands that were originally part of other Cru Classé estates.

The pursuit of excellence over the past quarter century has led to the emergence of a further, informal, grouping known as `Super-Seconds': châteaux whose wines can, on occasion, approach or match the quality of the First Growths. Their number includes both Pichons, Lynch-Bages, Léoville-Las Cases and Léoville-Barton, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Cos d'Estournel, Montrose and Palmer. The term First Growth is also sometimes used generically, but inaccurately, to encompass all the greatest châteaux of Bordeaux, namely Châteaux Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Pétrus as well as Latour, Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion and d'Yquem.