Wines of the Medoc: Is the 1855 Classification Out

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What do we mean by a classified wine of the Medoc? That refers to the Classification of 1855, which was undertaken by the wine brokers of the Gironde region of Bordeaux, in consultation with mayors of the region, under the command of Napoleon III. The event was planned for the Paris Universal Exhibition, or World’s Fair, of 1855. The 1855 Classification created five categories, or “growths,” which reflected selling prices for the wines over the years, and grouped selected wines accordingly. There has been just one change in status in all that time — in 1973 — as Chateau Mouton Rothschild was elevated to first growth status from heading the second growth list. There has also been some consolidation (two “Pougets” were listed as fourth growths, and only one currently exists), and some expansion (most notably, the second growth estate “Pichon Longueville” was split by inheritance into today’s Pichon Longueville Baron and Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande). There are now five first growths: Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Mouton Rothchild, and Chateau Haut Brion. There are fourteen second growths and the same number of third growths. There are also ten fourth growths and eighteen fifth growths, for a total of sixty-one classified wines. The classification did not pretend to be inclusive. However, one wine from the Graves region was included, Chateau Haut Brion, because that wine was simply too famous to be excluded. However, all of the other wines that are listed are from the Medoc region, and the classification does not include wines from other sections of the Bordeaux area, such as St. Emilion and Pomerol. A separate classification from 1855, however, did consider the Sauternes region and is still cited today as an authoritative reference to those wines. The classification of these wines was not entirely new in 1855. Actually, one of the very first to link Lafite, Margaux, Latour and Haut Brion together was Thomas Jefferson, then our Minister in Paris, and a great connoisseur of wines. It is also true that in all probability, some errors in judgment were made. Properties go into an eclipse from time to time, while others have been steadier performers. Nearly a century and a half later, I have been told tales of woe by owners of lesser ranked wine chateaux that, for example, their wines had been uncharacteristically poor at the time of the classification. However, in general, the 1855 classification, as far as it goes, has served its purpose well as a guide to quality. Let us be clear, though, that the list was not intended to convey anything more than market judgments of relative quality over time. A well made fifth growth, for example, is not a fifth rate wine. It is instead a quality wine that has been recognized over the years as a distinctive product. One does not condemn Schubert by praising Mozart. The region of the Medoc is itself a great gift, and properly used, the Classification of 1855 can be very useful in sorting out its treasures. Obviously, over a period of years, wine estates will have their ups and downs. Clearly in a given year, a third growth may be a better made wine than its second growth neighbor. The 1855 Classification is a guide to relative quality, not an assurance that that ranking will stand every year. There has also been a movement to give greater standing to the so-called “super seconds,” those second growths which over the years have performed particularly well. However, efforts to amend or update the 1855 classification, with the exception of the 1973 upgrading of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, have gone nowhere. If the list cannot be amended, then why not put out revised rankings that also include the regions not included originally, St. Emilion, Graves and Pomerol? This is what Alexis Lichine first attempted to do, and more recently Robert Parker, who has issued his own comparative evaluations. It is useful, for example, to know that Chateau Ausone of St. Emilion belongs in the top rank, and that Domaine de Chevalier in the Graves would be a second growth in an expanded listing. Such efforts provide a helpful comparison, that the market oriented producers of the mid-nineteenth century were most anxious to avoid. That is what the famous classification of 1855 is, and why it remains useful even now. The quality it reflects over the years are a corrective to arithmetic wine evaluations, measuring instead judgments of quality wine over many decades. In future articles, beginning with the northernmost of the Medoc regions, St. Estephe, we’ll take a look at each wine region of Bordeaux, evaluating these classified growths in the setting of their own regions. In the process, we’ll discover that not all classified growths are bargains, and some wines that are not part of that famous grouping are enjoyable wines, rivaling their more famous neighbors in quality at a fraction of the price. For more on Bill Shepard see his biography. Copyright © Paris New Media, LLC Wine never gets better than France In Your Glass.
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