1855 Classification of Medoc Wine of Bordeaux France

December 07, 2010

About Wines from Bordeaux
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Médoc 1855 Classification
It is old news to anyone who has done a little reading around the wines of Bordeaux that the 1855 classification, which looked not only at the red wines of the Médoc (discussed here) but also the wines of Sauternes, was drawn up for the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1855. This grand exhibition, the brainchild of Emperor Napoleon III, was intended to showcase the best of all that was France, and thus to rival the great exhibitions held in England, such as that at Crystal Palace in 1851. The exhibition was an elaborate vehicle for boosting trade, and wine was just a small part of it. Agriculture as a whole, however, was a strong component, from displays of the latest agricultural machinery to the new and emerging breeds of sheep, cattle and other livestock. There was also an industrial component, as well as a section devoted to the Beaux Arts of France.
Napoleon, having decided that the great wines of Bordeaux should be featured in the exhibition, asked the brokers of the region to draw up a list of properties ranked into five groups according to quality. But quality is perhaps rather nebulous, and the pragmatic businessmen decided to rank the wines according to price, which no doubt seemed to those charged with the task to be an appropriate surrogate. Although intended as a listing for the show, and nothing more than that, the classification stuck fast and now appears to be with us for the rest of eternity. The reasons for this are unclear; after all, this was not a novel idea. Commentators on the wines had long demonstrated a penchant for rating the numerous chateaux of the Médoc; Wilhelm Franck in 1845, before him André Jullien, Lawton of Tastet and Lawton in 1815, André Simon in 1800 and even Thomas Jefferson, the American ambassador to France who was well known for his appreciation of the vinous products of Bordeaux, made an attempt at drawing up a scheme.
Whatever the reason, the 1855 classification came to dominate, and even today it has not been usurped despite the efforts of several critics who have published their own opinion of how the classification such be refreshed. Whilst these efforts may make for interesting and perhaps rumbustious debate, they really are of academic interest only, in the same way that today the original listing provides a focal point for debate and, in truth, nothing more. Today’s perhaps more sophisticated consumer knows that there are better ways for critics to communicate the quality of any particular chateaux, and it can be done on a vintage-by-vintage, wine-by-wine basis. This system of regular critical review has really made classifications such as this one quite obsolete, and I think for those who are unable to taste the wine for themselves before purchase, it is a preferable system. There are pitfalls, of course; prominent critics have well defined palates that appreciate certain styles more than others, and it is essential that any one consumer understands this fact, and allows for this in their wine buying. But that is another debate.
Below is the 1855 classification as it stands today; there is no regular review of the classification, so it should be exactly as it was originally written, but in fact it is a little different to the list produced in 1855 as a result of the division of some estates and the loss of others. There remain sixty-one chateaux listed, all in the Médoc except for Haut-Brion, the sole Graves estate, the inclusion of which gives us an indication of the standing of this illustrious property in the mid-19th Century.
Immutable….yet Changeable
Although I have noted that the 1855 classification is seemingly immutable, there are a few properties that stand out as exceptions to this unofficial rule. Cantemerle is perhaps the first such estate, and as such is deserving of a special mention in any discussion of the system. In this case, inspection of the original document suggests that this Haut-Médoc property was an afterthought, scribbled in at the bottom at the last minute by the syndicate of brokers that drew up the list. At the time the wine of Cantemerle was sold direct to merchants in Holland, and thus it lacked the track record of prices on the Bordeaux market that was required to be included. The proprietor at the time was Caroline de Villeneuve-Durfort, who had recently been successful in a legal case against near neighbour Pierre Chadeuil, forcing him to remove the word Cantemerle from his wine labels. Following on from this success, in 1854 she sold her wine in Bordeaux rather than on foreign soil, but this was clearly not long enough to register in the minds of the 1855 brokers. Undaunted, Caroline de Villeneuve-Durfort jolted their collective memory with the presentation of a dossier amassed during her legal case, documenting Cantemerle’s selling price (the basis for the 1855 classification) which placed it comfortably alongside the other Cinquième Crus. And so Cantemerle made it onto the list as a last minute amendment; early publications, as well as a map displayed at the 1855 Exposition Universelle itself, still did not include it, although with time this was rectified.
Perhaps the next most notable exception to the rule – that the 1855 classification is immutable – is Mouton-Rothschild. Philippe de Rothschild, proprietor of this grand estate during much of the 20th Century, regarded Mouton’s ranking as a deuxième cru as a “monstrous injustice”. For years the labels stated simply Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis, or ‘First I cannot be, second I do not deign to be, I am Mouton”. It was clear from the great vintages of Mouton produced in the 1860s and 1870s that the 1855 classification was already outdated, and that change was overdue. But no such review of this classification has ever been intended, and it was only thanks to the tireless campaigning of Philippe that Jacques Chirac, then Minister of Agriculture, passed a decree conferring the status of Premier Grand Cru Classé upon Mouton-Rothschild in 1973. At last this apparent wrong had been righted, and from then on Mouton’s labels bore a new inscription, Premier je suis, second je fus. Mouton ne change, or First I am, second I was. Mouton does not change.
Finally, no round up of the 1855 classification is complete without mentioning changes through loss, as not all those chateaux classified in 1855 have survived through to modern day. Chateau Dubignon is the estate in question, once the smallest cru of all. Subsequently absorbed into the Malescot St-Exupéry estate, then cleaved off once more when Malescot was sold in 1901, Dubignon was finally acquired by a consortium of buyers, including Paul Zuger, Pierre Ginestet and Jean Cordier, who finally put the estate to rest. Thus the name of Dubignon (and also the associated Dubignon-Talbot, which would no doubt be of importance to Cordier, who owned Chateau Talbot) disappeared forever. On the whole, however, despite this loss the number of chateaux in the classification has increased rather than decreased over the years, thanks to the division of many ranked estates. A browse through the list will reveal many such properties, Léoville, Pichon and Batailley for instance, where the Napoleonic laws of inheritance forced the respective families into the division of their estates. Today such legal traumas are avoided as on the whole the chateaux and vineyards are no longer assets belonging to individuals or families, but to limited companies, so the question of inheritance is no longer relevant. For this reason it is unlikely that there will be any future changes in the 1855 classification; the list above really is here to stay forever.

Source: http://www.thewinedoctor.com/regionalguides/bordeauxclassifications.shtml

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