‘No single document can ever have done so much to publicize a product and indeed keep it in the public eye, as a matter of discussion and debate…’ Hugh Johnson MW
1647 marked the first attempt to classify the Bordeaux wine properties when individual commune prices were first recorded. By the end of the 17th century several superior properties from the communes of Pessac (Haut Brion), Margaux (Margaux) and Pauillac (Lafite & Latour) had gained sufficient prestige amongst the wine brokers to be classed as First Growths. In the 18th century driven by the British clamouring for good-quality wines, a number of other estates – normally geographically close to the first growths – recorded good prices and were dually marked down as Second growths. Throughout the century with estates distinguishing themselves, three more tiers were created based on market price.
In 1855 the newly crowned Napoleon III decided that the greatest wines of Bordeaux should showcase to the rest of the world at the International Exhibition of Paris and he requested that the Bordeaux brokers to draw up a list of properties using quality as the key indicator. However, the brokers kept with tradition and ranked the estates by price alone pragmatically removing subjectivity from the equation. They only used two parameters: the first being that wines came from the left-bank (including Pessac-Leognon) and the second was the requirement that their annual production exceeded 2,000 cases.
The classification was decreed solely for the purposes of the great exhibition, but has been immutable ever since. The original piece of parchment that recorded the wines and their prices survives in the president’s office of the Chamber of Commerce, clearly displaying the 58 red and 21 white properties of the Medoc and ranking them from Premier Cru to Cinquième cru.
Efforts have been made to change elements of the 1855 classification and with good reason, as it is widely held that there are some fifth growths i.e. Lynch Bages that deserve to be second growths and some seconds which should be relegated based on quality. Yet overall, few would argue that the classification has not stood the test of time and has remained a consistent indicator of both price and quality.
Notable changes – Mouton Rothschild 1973
The – Mouton Rothschild 1973The one major exception, notwithstanding Cantemerle, hurriedly added to the list in 1856, is the great Estate, Mouton Rothschild. Baron Philippe Rothschild possibly the greatest promoter of the Medoc in its history inherited the property in 1922 and after lobbying for 51 years, witnessed Mouton being added as a 1st growth in 1973.
Any other changes to the classification concern name changes and vineyards divisions forming 61 Grand Crus estates today.
In 2009 liv-ex re-classified the most traded left-bank wines based on the original parameters; price and a production over 2,000 cases, taking the average prices over the last 5 years of physical (non En Primeur) stock, then ranking the wines within price, again from 1st to 5th. This they did again in 2011 changing the price bands to reflect the staggering growth in price over this period. The result was extremely instructive with 9 newcomers joining the ranks and 10 wines being forced out.
The original 1855 Ranking