The Classification of 1855 is today, a very controversial assessment of wines from the Bordeaux region that originally rated 73 wine estates in order of quality (from 1st Growth to 5th Growth). Understandably, many opponents of this rating system emphatically state that the doctrine is outdated and therefore irrelevant, that it was a popularity contest, did not necessarily judge the quality of an estate, and that many châteaux have either declined or improved over the years and thus deserve to be reshuffled in the grand scheme of the wine universe. Without doubt, there is some truth to these statements.
However, there is not a single château classified as a 1st Growth that does not deserve to be where it is. Are there other châteaux with lower classifications that deserve to be elevated? Perhaps. But would these châteaux then decline after being elevated, rendering the updated Classification useless as a guide to quality? Since at least 1855, and certainly for a substantial time prior, Classified Bordeaux châteaux had been consistently producing what was considered the finest wine in the world. To read more about the actual famous Bordeaux classification, please visit the Knowledge Center and click on The Classification of 1855.
Bordeaux is one of many wine regions in France and references to some of its châteaux can be found dating back to at least the 1100’s. Focused around the banks of the Gironde River, there are districts, appellations, sub-appellations and communes in Bordeaux where over 10,000 châteaux exist today. As to the production in Bordeaux, the 2005 vintage alone produced some 950 million bottles of wine, which by any measure is formidable! To put this in perspective, the remarkable vintage of 1982 had nearly double the yield of the 2005 vintage.
Terroir (pronounced tehr-wah) is a concept that has much to do with making great wine. This concept hinges on the idea that every piece of land that bears fruit for wine has its own soil and soil chemistry, drainage, minerals, mesoclimate, microclimate, altitude, acclamation to sunlight, rainfall, and is its own unique and special place on the planet. I do not know of one single wine expert, oenophile, or knowledgeable wine lover that does not subscribe to this notion.
In a general sense the Bordeaux region is first broken down into Left Bank and Right Bank, which describes a château’s location relative to the Gironde River. All of the châteaux appearing in the 1855 Classification are from the Left Bank and châteaux across the river on the Right Bank were left out because they did not belong to the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce. The Right Bank has its own classification system for St Émilion that is not as successful as the Left Bank’s 1855 Classification and the Pomerol appellation has chosen to not have a classification system, yet it produces the ever-pricy and highly regarded Château Pétrus.
The major appellation on the Left Bank is Medoc (pronounced may-dawk), which hems in Haut Medoc (pronounced oh-may-dawk). Within Haut Medoc is the sub-appellation of Pauillac (pronounced (POH-yak) where three of the five 1st Growths are located: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Mouton-Rothschild, and Château Latour. Eight miles or so south of Pauillac is the sub-appellation of Margaux where Château Margaux is located. And last but certainly not least of the 1st Growths is Château Haut-Brion, located further south in the sub-appellation of Pessac-Léognan (pay-sak leh-oh-NYAHn) of the Graves (grahv) appellation. Other sub-appellations important to the Classification of 1855 include St. Estèphe in northern Haut Medoc, St. Julien south of Pauillac, and Sauternes in the south of Bordeaux.