This page is about the historic, 1855 Bordeaux Classification of the wines of Bordeaux from the Medoc.
The historic 1855 Bordeaux Classification stands as the single most important and famous classifications of any wine region in the world. Almost 160 years later, this historic document continues to stand the test of time, with almost no changes. In fact, since 1855, the official classification of Bordeaux wines from the Medoc has only allowed two modifications in almost 160 years! Chateau Cantemerle was added in 1856, for the simple reason that it was left off by accident in 1855! The more important and historic change came when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted from Second Growth to First Growth status. That took place June 21, 1973. While some chateaux should be upgraded, and a few others downgraded, by and large, when you think about it, they came close to getting it right in the original 1855 Bordeaux classification.
For information on other areas of French wine classifications, the laws and rules behind appellation designations and other important topics: Vineyards, Grapes of France and Appellation Laws If you want to read about the St. Emilion, Graves or Cru Bourgeois classifications, please see: Bordeaux Resource Page
How did the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux wines come into being?
First Growths (Premiers Crus)
Second Growths (Deuxiemes Crus)
Leoville Las Cases
Pichon Longueville Baron
Pichon Comtesse de Lalande
Third Growths (Troisiemes Crus)
Fourth Growths (Quatriemes Crus)
Fifth Growths (Cinquiemes Crus)
Grand Puy Lacoste
Grand Puy Ducasse
Haut Bages Liberal
As a point of reference, the wines of Bordeaux had been unofficially classified prior to the 1855 Bordeaux Classification. It can be argued that consumers began classifying Bordeaux wine as far back as the 1600′s. When Bordeaux wine first began to be exported to other countries. In those formative years, at first, buyers only sought wines from the entire Bordeaux appellation. The first unique estates to gain attention for their specific wines was Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion. They were the first chateaux to earn notoriety. Due to their initial fame, in unofficial classifications, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion were soon listed as the finest and most expensive wines of Bordeaux by the negociants and merchants.
The next step in the development of the classification, as well as in consumer preference came about when wines began to be sold by their appellation. Merchants attended to their customers search for quality and started selling wines from Pauillac, Margaux, St. Julien, St. Estephe and Graves. Due to the fame of Haut Brion, purchasers also asked for the wines of Pessac. To satiate this rapidly growing demand, in 1666, the owner of Haut Brion, Arnaud de Pontac, came up with the idea of starting a tavern in London for the sole purpose of selling and promoting Chateau Haut Brion and his other brands.
Thomas Jefferson during his visit to Bordeaux in 1787 came up with his own list of the best wines as well. His list also placed what we know of as the First Growths at the top. Jefferson was the first to classify the wines in the Medoc as a whole, and not by appellation. He came up with the idea of three levels of classification. It was at this time that the next level of classified growths took hold and what we think of today as Second Growths were born.
Some of the other known tasters of the day that put together unofficial rankings of Bordeaux wines after Jefferson were: Andre Simon in 1800, Guillaume Lawton of Tastet and Lawton in 1815, Wilhelm Franck in 1845 and most notably, Cocks and Feret in 1850. Numerous books were published offering information on which classified Bordeaux wines were the best. The first official Bordeaux classification took place in 1740 for tax purposes and was published by the Intendant Boucher. As a point of reference, more than 50% of the chateaux listed in the 1855 Classification were already listed in the 1740 document which contained 75 chateaux in all. As you can see, many of the wines we think of today as being the best in Bordeaux are not that much different than they were hundreds of years ago.
How did the 1855 Bordeaux Classification come about? Similar to the World Fair’s we hold today, The Exposition Universelle de Paris was the perfect opportunity for France to place on display the best it had to offer in a myriad of categories for the entire world to see. This was what Napoléon III wanted to accomplish in 1855.
When it comes to wine, you have to keep in mind, there were thousands of Bordeaux wine producers that wanted to show their wines at The Exposition Universelle de Paris. It’s even more important to realize tens of thousands of consumers attended the event and many of the attendees wanted to taste the best Bordeaux wines. As it would have required far too much wine from each chateau to allow everyone to sample their wine, each chateaux sent a total of 6 bottles of their specific wine. Because no consumer was able to taste all the wines, the need for an official Bordeaux classification was now exacerbated. If consumers could not taste the wines and decide which was best, some person or organaiztion was need to help buyers know, which wine they should purchase.
What happened next was, on April 5, 1855, the Gironde Chamber of Commerce headed by the president, Duffour-Dubergier, ordered an official classification to accompany the now famous wines of the Bordeaux appellation. They allowed the Wine Brokers’ Union of Bordeaux to develop the plan. The brokers, or what we refer to as negociants knew the wines, the terroir, the chateau and the owners better than anyone. Their efforts morphed into what we now refer to as the official 1855 Bordeaux Classification.
Two things stand out about the results for the request. It took the negociants less than 2 weeks to create the official 1855 Bordeaux Classification as it was completed April 18, 1855. That is made even more amazing when you consider that even today, more than 150 years later, much of the original 1855 classification is still valid!
The 1855 Bordeaux classification came up with a ranking of the best Bordeaux wines in five, unique classes for the red wines. The wines included were all from Medoc, except for the already legendary Château Haut-Brion from Graves, which had to be included due to its world wide fame and the fact that it sold for as much, or more than the other First Growth wines of the Medoc. Rankings were determined by in large part, their selling price over an extended period of time. In this case, when the official rankings for the 1855 classification were produced, the average selling price covering the period of 1815 to 1855 was considered. In all, a total of 61 Bordeaux chateaux are included in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification for producers of red wine. This breaks down to 5, First Growths, 14 Second Growths, 14, Third Growths, 10 Fourth Growths and 18, Fifth Growths. The final rankings for the 1855 Bordeaux Classification are organized as follows:
First Growth Bordeaux – Prices over 3,000 French Francs per barrel.
Second Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 2,500 and 2700 French Francs per barrel.
Third Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 2,100 and 2,400French Francs per barrel.
Fourth Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 1,800 and 2,100 French Francs per barrel.
Fifth Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 1,400 and1,600 French Fancs per barrel.
It is important to keep in mind, at the time, wines like Petrus, Cheval Blanc and other famed wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion were either not yet producing wine, or they were still considered simple wines. The difficulty to get those wines to the Bordeaux merchants also added to the reason they were not included in the Classification. The shipping related issues of the time has a lot to do with why those wines became popular in Belgium and in other European countries long before more established Bordeaux wine markets like London. Ironically, some of the top Right Bank wines sell for more money today than even the First Growths!
It’s interesting to note, that the classification has remained a reasonable and reliable document since its inception, with only three changes. The first time the classification was altered was shortly after it was created. Less than 12 months after it’s birth, in 1856, Chateau Cantemerle was deemed a Fifth Growth, due to the fact it was left off the original ranking by accident. The next change concerned one of the original Third Growth estates in Margaux, Chateau Dubignon, which due to its recent sale became part of Chateau Malescot St. Exupery in the 1870′s. Of course the most famous change occured the last time the classification was altered. This took place in 1973, when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was elevated to the coveted rank of First Growth status.
While the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux wine remains a strong historical document, which in many cases remains reasonably accurate, in the end, it’s the consumer that sets the price. While the First Growths continue to occupy a rare atmosphere that remains a world apart from the other wines of Bordeaux, lesser growths that make better wine are able to sell their wine for as much as higher classes growths. For a few examples, with the 2009 vintage. Chateau Pontet Canet, a Fifth Growth began to charge as much or more money than most Second Growths. Chateau Palmer, a 3rd Growth is more expensive than most Second Growth. It is important to recognize that today, the best Second Growth Bordeaux wines can, and often so produce wine at the same level of quality as the more expensive First Growths. The Second Growths at the top end of the quality spectrum are known and classed by consumers as Super Seconds. The wines unofficially classed as Super Seconds sell for a lot more money than their peers, for example. Chateau Cos d’Estournel and Chateau Leoville Las Cases. You can read more about the top Second Growth Bordeaux wines here: Bordeaux Super Second Chateaux Guide
In Sauternes and Barsac, the sweet wines were also included in the original 1855 Classification, but with only two classes. List of 1855 Sauternes- Barsac Classifications The list reflected the market’s view of the relative quality between the wines in terms of the selling price and reputation of the various châteaux. Within each category, the châteaux were ranked in order of quality and more importantly, selling price which was the same standard used for the classification of the red Bordeaux wines.