What makes some Bordeaux wines so damn expensive and difficult to get your mittens on? First Growth, Second Growth? Why do you care?
Bordeaux is a region that turns out some of the finest and most respected wines in the world, with over 10,000 producers covering 287,000 acres under vine. It is a region renowned for its red wines, made up mainly of Cab Sav, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot as well as its whites and sweet wines from Sauternes.
Before 1855, Bordeaux wine ratings were largely left to the wine merchants, and buyers who often identified thier favourites and pushed these sales. Among the many wine makers, several began to gain attention and notariety: Latour, Margeaux and Haute-Brion. They commanded high prices, and were listed as the best the region had to offer.
Next in the classification steps came Thomas Jefferson, an avid collector and lover of French wines. He is known to have visted Bordeaux in the 1700’s, and made his own top list of producers, noting four that were in a league of thier own. These are known as the First Growths; Latour, Margeaux, Haute-Brion and Lafite. He also came up with the idea of a tierd classification system, and the Second Growths are introduced.
We can skip a bit to 1855 now, as this is quite important and the Exposition Universelle de Paris was held, kind of like a world fair but not! It was seen as a stage on which to boast and show off the produce of France, including its wine. Naturally there was a tasting, but as you can imagine the number of producers, the amount of wine, and the number of tasters meant it was not possible for 1 person to taste ALL the wines on display. There was a growing need now for an official classification system.
After this fair, the Chamber of Commerce decided to send someone to Bordeaux to put this in motion, and to taste thier way around the region sampling the now famous wines. In coordination with the Wine Brokers Union of Bordeaux the survey took 2 weeks, and with the exception of 2 changes remains the same today.
These ranking were based on the selling price of the wine between 1815 – 1855, covering 61 chateaus making red wine broken down in to5 catagories known as Growths.
The best were given Premier Grand Cru status, 4 we have already met earlier in the blog, they are listed below in thier status order rather than alphabetically:
Chateau Lafite Rothschild (Medoc)
Chateau Margeaux (Medoc)
Chateau Latour (Medoc)
Chateau Haute Brion (Graves)
Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Medoc) – this was the last producer to be elevated to this level, having originally been catagorised as Second Growth, this action was considered rare, as no one has ever been promoted!
You will notice that most of these wines come from the left bank, from Medoc, with the exception of Chateau Haute Brion from Graves on the wrong side of the tracks as it were. Although in 1988 they changed thier location from Graves to Pessac-Leognan becauase of urbanisation in Bordeaux, putting them on the right side of the tracks. Nice to know but not relevant to the Cru classes.
I cant talk about Bordeaux classifications and not mention Chateau d’ Yquem, considered to the the best sweet wine in the world (I think Klein Constantia will have something to say about that!). Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed that Chateau d’ Yquem was the best white wine of France. This is the only wine to be awarded the very prestigious Premeir Cru Superior class, and quite deservedly so.
Other producers that have also been recognised as Premier Cru are Château La Tour Blanche, Château Guiraud and Château Sigalas-Rabaud to name a few. In total there are 11 producers that qualify for the Premier Cru class, all from the Sauternes commune, producing world class sweet wines.
Not included in these classification are the Villages of Pomerol, St Emillion and Graves. Instead they chose either to make thier own, or opt out completly, as is the case with Pomerol.
Within Bordeaux and the wine making world there is what is known as the Big 8,including the First Growths as well as:
Chateau Cheval Blanc
Also included is our familiar friend Chateau d’ Yquem. This group of Bordeaux wine wizards meet every year for what I can only imagine is the world most epic wine tasting of the most recent vintage. Between them, these guys command some of the highest prices in the world for thier wines.
today, while this classification system is still theoretically in place, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. The First Growths will always reamin just that, however lesser growths are also producing world class wines, commanding price tags that might make the First Growths jealous!
Below I have listed all the other Growth classes in Bordeaux from second to fifth, so you will know what you are looking for when you pop out for your next bottle of Bordeaux:
Leoville Las Cases
Pichon Longueville Baron
Pichon Comtesse Lalande
Malescot St. Exupery
La Tour Carnet
Marquis de Terme
Grand Puy Lacoste
Grand Puy Ducasse
Haut Bages Liberal