In 1855 Napoleon III organized the Universal Exposition in Paris, which was a World Fair designed to show off the best products around the world. Because France was the host country, however, a lot of effort went into showcasing France to the rest of the world. Before the exposition took place the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was invited to participate and the city’s wine trade was asked to put together a list of the best wine estates. The wine brokers drew up a list and ranked the châteaux into five categories, in descending quality from 1st Growth to 5th Growth. In this list, the wine trade was simply following unofficial classifications that had been in existence for centuries.
The market, even back then was very aware of the best estates and their wines. This list was really based on price and popularity and is the subject of heated debate today amongst wine experts and enophiles. This list became know as the Classification of 1855 and has only made one significant change since: in 1973, after decades of Baron Philippe Rothschild petitioning government officials (mostly the Minister of Agriculture, who was recently the President of France), the Classification of 1855 changed to move his château (Château Mouton Rothschild) from a 2nd Growth to a 1st Growth.
The most vocal opponents of the Classification believe this ranking system has no value because it was based on prices commanded by the châteaux, as opposed to the actual quality of wine they produced. There are a couple reasons why this argument fails.
First, the wine brokers in Bordeaux had, at the time of the Classification, been around for hundreds of years and had many decades of records to draw upon. So if, say, five châteaux had consistently sold their wine at the highest prices for hundreds of years, the market certainly had decided these were of the highest quality, otherwise prices would be lower and comparable to lower quality wines. This is one of the best examples of free market economics. Having all the books stored for multiple generations to call on for price verification gave credibility to the process.
Secondly, and this might be the most important point of it all, the notion that the Classification should be changed frequently or even time-to-time, like in the Right Bank Bordeaux appellation of St. Émilion (every ten years), would render the Classification useless, also like the Classification in St. Émilion. The argument for updating the Classification goes something like this: ‘There are many 3rd Growths that should be elevated to 2nd Growth status, a few 2nd Growths that should be elevated to 1st Growth, and many that should be taken down a notch or two.’ The flaw in this argument is that such adjustments are already made, without having to change the Classification. How is this possible? It is reflected in every vintage by that good old capitalistic tool, price. A 2nd Growth that arguably should be elevated to 1st Growth enjoys the benefits of getting a far higher price per bottle than other 2nd Growths. And a 3rd Growth château that is producing 5th Growth quality receives much less per bottle than other 3rd Growth châteaux. Again, the market determines quality by the prices it is willing to pay so there is absolutely no need to rearrange the Classification constantly, which doing so would only make it a shell game. Indeed, it definitely helps to know the quality of each châteaux within its given Classification because some are under-performers and some are over-performers, and each is rewarded or punished economically accordingly.
The Classification of 1855 is the single most copied system in the world but none has succeeded like the Bordeaux system because others continue to change their classification frequently or there is not a consistent basis established enough to support a classification. France’s Burgundy region has also been very successful in its classification of the best wines but this is another matter entirely, and not in the scope of this site. It is worth researching however, and certainly worth enjoying its truly great wines.
| First Growth – Premier Crus
|Haut-Brion|| Pessac Léognan, Graves (only wine in Classification not from Haut-Médoc)
|Mouton Rothschild||Pauillac (promoted in 1973 from Second Growth)|
|Second Growth – Deuxième Crus|
| Léoville-Las Cases
| Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
|Third Growth – Troisième Crus|
|Malescot St Exupéry||Margaux|
|La Lagune||Haut Médoc|
|Fourth Growth – Quatrième Crus|
|La Tour-Carnet||Haut Médoc|
|Fifth Growth – Cinquième Crus|
| Dauzac Labarde
|du Tertre|| Margaux
|Belgrave|| Haut Médoc
| de Camensac
|| Haut Médoc
|Superior First Growth – Premier Cru Supérieur||Appellation|
|First Growth – Premiers Crus|
|Second Growth – Deuxièmes Crus|
|de Myrat|| Barsac
|Doisy Daene|| Barsac