The Ecphorizer

Charles Sullivan

Issue #03 (November 1981)

Our resident oenologist classifies the classic classification of classy French wines

A person who drinks French red wine and has not heard of first and second growths is a person who drinks wine and does not think. But few understand this 126-year-old system of classifying Bordeaux wines, and fewer yet have any idea about its genesis.

The 1955 rating of St. Emilion is not worth a warm cup of spit.

class="style14">[quoteright]What happened in 1855 was the setting down of a ranking of red Bordeaux into five classes, or growths, devised for the Universal Exposition in Paris that year at the behest of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce. It was well received at the time and few would disagree with the Chamber in its claim that it "has been sanctioned by experience extending back more than a century." Many today think that the ranking was handed down in 1855 like some word from God, but it is really a codification of previous practice and previous classification.

All the wines in the ranking are from the south side of the Gironde River, from the Medoc district-all save one, Haut Brion. This chateau is just to the south in Graves. Many think that this was a classification of the Medoc wines; it was not. It was of the red wines of Gironde, and all were from Medoc but one. Why no St. Emilion or Pomerol? Sinple. The wines weren't very good. How determine good? Simple. Price. This was the only solid criterion employed to develop this ranking.

When I write Medoc, I mean Haut Medoc, which is below Bas Medoc. But it is up river, thus the name. There are no great growths in Bas Medoc, and the consumer mast be aware that Bas Medoc is today allowed to travel as Medoc: Haut Medoc is always thus.

There are 26 communes in Haut Medoc and just about all the great growths are in four of then: Pauillac, Margaux, St. Julien, and St. Estephe. One obvious exception is LaLagune, which sits in Ludon and is not allowed a commune appellation on its labels. (Buy the 1978 LaLagune and thank me in ten years.)

The excellence of Medoc wine was well established in the 17th century and by the middle of the 18th we are hearing about classification into growths. First growths are understood to be as they later were: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut Brion. Jefferson passed through and particularly liked "Obrion." He sent home six dozen bottles. He also noted that Mouton was in the third class.

Over the years these classifications of Gironde wines were many and far from rigid. They were really lists put out by the trade to guide buyers as to proper pricing and thus quality. I think we have to believe that there was a very high correlation in those years between price and quality. There still is but it's only about .65.

Before the Revolution there seems to have been three classes. Later there were four, and later yet lists were divided into top and bottom fourths. The latter became the fifths. Wines were added and deleted. Montrose and Palmer came aboard in the 1820's. La Mission was ranked before 1850, then dropped.

The 1855 classification stands today and should be part of any serious wine buyer's bag of essential information. (I don't mean memorize it.) I believe that it is still 75% good, for those growths that we see here. There are some we never see. One should also know that ranking inside each growth was made by order of merit. This can be tough to take. In the thirds we find Kirwan and Issan well ahead of Palmer and Lalagune.

There have been attempts to change the thing. In 1932 six exceptional growths were added as a sort of codicil. But this effort points up how dumb such modifications can appear after half a century. Of the six I would keep only Chasse-Spleen and Bel-Air-Marquis, perhaps Angludet.

In 1965 there was a real effort made by the French Ministry of Agriculture to update the classification. But many top growths refused to cooperate and the idea was dropped. One great change was welcomed by almost everyone when Mouton was made a first.

The other areas of the Gironde have had their recent classifications. Graves in 1953 is rather useful. The 1955 rating of St. Emilion is not worth a warm cup of spit. And all the several Pomerol lists are similarly questionable.

Alexis Lichine has produced his own new classification, combining all the regions so that the first properly include Petrus and Cheval Blanc. He's pulled up some non-classified that are justified. And he's moved some oldies around. His own Prieure-Lichine moves from fourth to second. I always grunted at that until I tasted the 1978. (Buy it.)

Were I to add to the list I would be very conservative. Years ago I would have moved up de Pez and Phelan Segur, but not now. I would have Chasse-Spleen and Gloria on board, but am happy to see them off, since to this day it still gives a price host to the first five. Would that Ducru-Beaucaillou and Lynch Bages could somehow be declassified. 

Oenologist Charles Sullivan has written well over 200 articles about wine, as well as a book on the history of the Baltic states. He is a grandson of the person who made Elizabeth Taylor's first two wedding dresses. Doing a Google search will produce quite a few references to his contributions to the history of wine in general, and California wine in particular. Check out his book about Zinfandel from Amazon.

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