During a century and a half of development, wars, diseases, changes of ownership and replanting, the 1855 classification has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wines that were classified mention it proudly on their label and their prices reflect their position on that long ago list.
In 1855 Paris was to host a Universal Exposition and among the exhibits would be the best of France’s wines. But in those days of difficult travel and poor communications how would international visitors know which wines had merit? Emperor Napoleon III asked the Bordeaux wine merchants to draw up a list which rated the best wines. The merchants knew the wines and they knew the prices they would fetch.
They produced a list of red wines from the Medoc north of Bordeaux and a list of sweet wines from the Sauternes region south of the city.
They rated 61 red wines in order of merit grouped in five bands, known as Cru’s in French and Growths in English. In the first, or Premier Cru were four Château’s, as Bordeaux wineries are known:
Château Lafite, Pauillac
Château Latour, Pauillac
Château Margaux, Margaux
Haut-Brion wasn’t actually in the Medoc, it is located just south (and is now surrounded by Bordeaux’s suburbs) but it had been a famous wine for more than two hundred years before the list, even mentioned by Samual Pepys in his diaries of 1663.
27 Sauternes wineries were rated in three bands, with just one—Ch Yquem—at the top as Premier Cru Supérieur.
Over time properties on the 1855 list have changed their names, usually by hyphenating the owners name to it, or have split into two or vanished having been subsumed into their neighbours, but prices today generally reflect the position in the 1855 classification.
While there has been much talk about adjusting the position of some winery’s banding only one change has been made. The highest Medoc wine in the second category, Ch Mouton-Rothschild, was elevated by Presidential decree in 1973 to the first band.
Because production of these wineries is limited by the size of their properties, and because their wines are long lasting they have been the choice of investors. Prices have been moving upwards at an alarming rate, thanks in part to interest from Asia and China. In 1973 a botte of Ch Lafite cost around five times the cost of the cheapest red Bordeaux. Now it is ratio is more than 150 times. The price paid by a wholesaler for Ch Mouton-Rothschild in 1982 was 26 EUR, in 2009 is was 450 EUR and the 2010 vintage will cost twice.
The full 1855 classifications may be seen here
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle and Apple iPad.
Disclosure: Peter F May travelled to Bordeaux at his own expense and paid full price for all his accommodation, meals, tastings and wines.