The fine wines of Bordeaux are organised according to a number of different official classifications. This may sound complicated, but you don’t need to know each classification inside and out. Developing a basic understanding of each classification and some of its constituent châteaux will help you to make suitable recommendations and answer questions knowledgeably.
The easiest way to understand the classifications is by dividing the region geographically, into four zones: Médoc, Sauternes, Graves and Saint-Émilion.
The most famous Bordeaux classification is the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, which classified the red wines of the Médoc and the sweet wines of Sauternes. The story of the classification has been told widely, though you only really need to understand the very basics.
The Paris Universal Exhibition was to take place in 1855, and the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was asked to produce an official ranking of the region’s best wines. They did this by working with a group of experienced wine brokers, who based the list on existing, unofficial rankings largely based on market prices dating back a hundred years or more.
The Médoc classification spans five quality tiers, descending from First to Fifth Growth (Premier Grand Cru Classé to Cinquième Grand Cru Classé). The classification includes 61 châteaux and is best known for the five First Growths, namely Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton Rothschild. These estates are some of the world’s most famous, and their wines command very high prices.
There are excellent estates at each of the five levels of the classification; particularly the unofficial group sometimes referred to as the “Super Seconds”. Most, though not all, are ranked as Second Growths. Chief among this group are Châteaux Palmer, Léoville Las Cases, Ducru-Beaucaillou and Cos d’Estournel, to name just a few. These estates routinely produce wines considered to be at, or close to, First Growth level. They are, unsurprisingly, very expensive, though less so than the top tier, and thus can represent relatively good value for your clients.
Since its inception, the 1855 classification has undergone only two major changes, most significantly the elevation of Château Mouton Rothschild from Second to First Growth in 1973. The ranking is not without its critics, and common points of contention include the ability of châteaux to buy new, potentially lower quality, vineyard land while maintaining their ranking, and the unchanging rigidity of the system overall.
Interestingly, First Growth estate Haut-Brion is not actually located in the Médoc region and is instead found to the south of Bordeaux city in the Pessac-Léognan appellation of the Graves region. Haut-Brion is the only non-Médoc estate on that list and is also found in the Graves classification.
The British fine wine stock exchange, Liv-Ex, has recreated the 1855 classification on numerous occasions to create an unofficial, modern simulation. This is an interesting exercise that looks at today’s market environment and applies to the original classified growths and also includes the wineries of the Graves region. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the rankings remain the same or similar to the original list. Liv-Ex’s most recent version, in 2015, saw all the First Growths stay at that level, with the new addition of Pessac-Léognan estate La Mission Haut-Brion. This is not surprising, as that estate is often referred to as the “Sixth First Growth” despite not even being in the Médoc region. Some châteaux have been promoted in the Liv-Ex simulation, reflecting their reputations and market positions today, notably Palmer and Pontet-Canet.
Despite its standing in the wine world, the 1855 classification covers only a small fraction of the wines of the Médoc, a great many of whom are very expensive. An additional system exists to highlight the best of those châteaux that were not classified in the original document: The Cru Bourgeoisclassification was introduced in 1932, and has undergone many changes since. Today, it is not so much a classification as it is a merit-based status that producers apply for by submitting their wines. The most recent Official Selection of the Crus Bourgeois du Médoc applies to the 2014 vintage and counts 278 producers. The quality assurance protocols required for approval mean that Cru Bourgeois wines usually have a very attractive quality/price ratio, though in most cases lack the name recognition of the Grand Cru Classé.
At the time of the 1855 Médoc classification, the sweet wine producers of Sauternes and Barsac were also ranked. There are three tiers here, with the iconic Château d’Yquem the sole occupant of the top tier, enjoying the distinguished title of Premier Cru Supérieur. The rest are divided across Premier Cru and Deuxième Cru status. The Sauternes classification is of far less significance commercially than that of the Médoc, though it is useful to know some of the top Premier Crunames to recommend in addition to, or instead of, Yquem. Those estates whose reputation is almost at the level of Yquem include Châteaux Coutet, Climens and Suduiraut.
The Graves region lies to the south of Bordeaux city on the region’s left bank. Trailing the earlier classification by more than a century, the châteaux of Graves were classified in 1959. There are no tiers or rankings here as such - a château is either classified or is not - though there are separate lists for red and white wines. It is worth noting that the Médoc classification does not apply to white wines.
The most significant Cru Classé de Graves châteaux are found in the Pessac-Léognan appellation and include Châteaux Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Haut-Bailly, Pape Clément, Smith Haut Lafitte, and Domaine de Chevalier.
The only classification on the right bank is that of Saint-Émilion, and it is tied to the region’s appellation system. Entry-level wine from this region falls under the Saint-Émilion AOC, while higher quality estates lie in the Saint Émilion Grand Cru AOC. It is within the latter grouping that we find the classified châteaux of the region. The rankings, in descending order, are Premier Grand Cru Classé A, Premier Grand Cru Classé B, Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru.
Premier Grand Cru Classé A is the equivalent of the Médoc’s First Growth category. These are some of the finest and most sought-after wines in the world, and thus are very important in yachting. The members of the top tier are Châteaux Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Angélus and Pavie. The second tier, Premier Grand Cru Classé B, has many high-profile members too, including Châteaux Figeac, Canon, Canon La Gaffelière and Valandraud.
The Saint-Émilion classification dates to 1955, though interestingly it has undergone numerous significant revisions since then. The most recent, in 2012, saw Châteaux Angélus and Pavie promoted to the top tier, joining Ausone and Cheval Blanc, who had been its sole occupants since the classification’s inception. The next revision is scheduled for 2022.
It is interesting to note that there is no classification system in the neighbouring Pomerol region. Nonetheless, the top estates here are held in equal (if not higher) esteem than the official First Growths. The very top châteaux, including Pétrus and Le Pin, routinely command the highest prices in all of Bordeaux, at a considerable premium to even the likes of Lafite Rothschild.