1855 Bordeaux Classification of the Medoc, Official History

The Bordeaux 1855 Classification

The Complete Guide to 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 classification 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 on 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 Saint Emilion, Graves or Cru Bourgeois classifications, please see: Bordeaux Resource Page

How did the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux wines come into being?

Bordeaux wine classifications prior to 1855:

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 were 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 customer’s search for quality and started selling wines from Pauillac, Margaux, Saint Julien, Saint 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 creates his own Bordeaux classification:

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. Thomas 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.

Thomas Jefferson went on to create his own classification of Bordeaux wines. According to Thomas Jefferson, “There are four vineyards of prime quality:

1. Chateau Margaux, belonging to the Marquis d’Argicourt, produces around 150 barrels that were sold by contract to a merchant named Jernon.

2. La Tour Segur, (Chateau Latour ) in Saint-Lambert, belonging to Mister de Miromesnil, who produces 125 barrels.

3. Haut-Brion, two-thirds of which belong to the Count de Fumel who sold the harvest to a merchant called Barton. The other third belongs to the Count of Toulouse; in all, the château produces 75 barrels.

4. Chateau de la Fite, (Chateau Lafite Rothschild) belonging to President Pichard of Bordeaux, which produces 175 barrels”.

Thomas Jefferson, the eventual President of the United States, had already discovered the four best Bordeaux wines of the day. Similar to what would take place in the official Classification, Jefferson created his own list of what would become First Growths, and interestingly, it was exactly the same a the list drawn up almost 75 years later with the official 1855 classification.

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. History of the Bordeaux 1855 Classification of the Medoc:

How did the 1855 Bordeaux Classification come about? Similar to the World Fairs 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 chateau 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 organization was needed to help buyers know, which wine they should purchase.

The creators of the 1855 classification:

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. The chateaux chosen were all located in 5 Left Bank appellations, Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, Saint Estephe and Haut Medoc. 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 and soils of the vineyard, 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 of the request. It took the negociants less than 2 weeks to create the official 1855 Bordeaux Classification as it was completed on 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 classification of 1855 is written:

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 Chateau Haut-Brion from Graves, which had to be included, due to its worldwide 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 Growth Bordeaux wines.

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 2,400 French Francs per barrel.

Fourth Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 1,800 and 2,100 French Francs per barrel.

Fifth Growth Bordeaux – Prices between 1,400 and 1,600 French Francs per barrel.

Explanation of the different growths:

To help you understand what the term Growths means, think of it like this. The best wines of Bordeaux were placed in ranking categories. Each of the ranking categories was called Growths. A wine with the ranking of First Growth was considered the best wine in Bordeaux.

While the rankings were in theory about quality, the selling price factored heavily into which wines were ranked into their respective categories and of course, the most expensive wines were The First Growth Bordeaux Wines.

Another way to look at this is, a First Growth is an A+, Second Growth is an A-, a Third Growth is a B+, a Fourth Growth is a B and a Fifth Growth is a C+. With the exception of an A+ for a First Growths, the grades may or may not be applicable, but they provide you with a good idea of what the term First Growth means in relationship to the other Classified Growths in Bordeaux.

An interesting fact about the 1855 Classification is noticed when you take a look at how the chateau were organized in each growth class. The estates are not listed alphabetically. Instead, the chateau were placed in the order of their ranking in each category.

Take the First Growth Classified growths. Lafite Rothschild appears first because at the time of the Classification, they were considered to produce the best wine, which also sold for more money than all the other classified growths.

Why the Right Bank Bordeaux wines were not classified:

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 have 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!

Changes in the classification:

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 its birth, in 1856, Chateau Cantemerle has 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 became part of Chateau Malescot St. Exupery in the 1870s. Of course, the most famous change occurred 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. It took more than 160 years, but in January 2016, Bordeaux obtained copyright under European law for the term 1855 when applied to wine.

From that point forward, “1855” enjoys the same legal protection as the term “Grand Cru Classe”. With the new copyright enforcement action, the only wineries legally able to use the term 1855 on their label are the 61 Bordeaux wines and 26 producers of sweet, white Bordeaux wine included in the 1855 classification.

There has also been changes in the vineyards, as you would expect, over time. For example, at the time the wines were first classified, the total amount of cultivated land owned by the 61 chateaux was 2,650 hectares. Today, they cumulatively own almost 3,500 hectares of vines.

However, it’s important to note that at the time of the classification, the majority of grapes were used to produce the Grand Vin.

Today, that is not the case, as all the top growths have reduced the amount of wine in the Grand Vin by an average of 30-50% of their yields. So, even though the vineyards are larger today, more of that land is being used to produce second and third wines.

To some extent, many vineyards have also changed in their makeup as they bought, sold, and traded parcels of vines over the years. This is not to imply that all the vineyards are different, as that is not the case. For example, the Enclos vineyard of Chateau Latour has remained unchanged, and that is the case for several other estates as well. This should be looked at on a vineyard-by-vineyard basis.

Value of the 1855 classification today:

While the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux wine remains an incredibly strong historical document, which in many cases remains reasonably accurate.

In the end, it’s the consumer that sets the price. But in much of the world, especially for new markets, inclusion in the 1855 classification is a guarantee of quality, which is clearly reflected in the price of the wine, and in the land, should any of those estates come up for sale.

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 classed growths. For a few examples, with the 2009 vintage. Chateau Pontet Canet, a Fifth Growth began to charge as much or more money as 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 do 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 dEstournel and Chateau Leoville Las Cases. You can read more about the top Second Growth Bordeaux wines here: Bordeaux Super Second Chateaux Guide

1855 classification of the sweet, white Bordeaux wine from Sauternes: 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 chateaux.

Within each category, the chateaux were ranked in order of quality and more importantly, selling price which was the same standard used for the classification of the red Bordeaux wine.

For all the reasons listed above, 1855 remains one of the most important years in the history of Bordeaux. The wines from 1855 however did not turn out all that well from this historic year. The 1855 Bordeaux vintage was a difficult year in the vineyards which were struck by mildew and oidium. The harvest officially began on October 5.