Friday, March 16, 2012

Bordeaux Wines and their Classifications: The Basics

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller at Chateau Haut Brion. In 1935 the chateau was purchased by the American investment banker Clarence Dillon, the U.S. ambassador in Paris at the time. This is the only First Growth of 1855 in American hands. In 1983, Dillon bought La Mission Haut Brion, just across the road in Pessac-Leognan. The four key producers in Pessac-Leognan are Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Laville Haut-Brion and Pape Clement. The 2 Dillon chateaux are both among the 5 First Growths of the the Liv-ex 2011 Classification, although Mission Haut Brion barely.

The Bordeaux region is the second largest winegrowing area in the world. Close to 300,000 acres are under vine. The Gironde estuary dominates the region along with its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers. These rivers define the main geographical subdivisions of Bordeaux:

The Left Bank is situated on the left bank of the Gironde and the Garonne, subdivided into: Graves, the area upstream of the city Bordeaux and Médoc, the area downstream of the city Bordeaux.

The Right Bank is situated on the right bank of the Gironde and the Dordogne, with St. Emilion and Pomerol the star wine regions.

Picture: The Wine Regions of Bordeaux

Entre Deux Mers is the inland region sculpted into the wedge by the two rivers that give it its name, the Pyrenees-sourced Garonne to the west and the Massif-Centrale-sourced Dordogne to the east.

There are a number of classifications in the Bordeaux region. Some apply to the whole area, others to just parts of it. This posting provides an introduction to the wine classifications of Bordeaux.

The French Law

French law divides any French wine into four categories. The percentage in the brackets indicates the share of this category in the total.

Vin de Table (11.7%) – Carries with it only the producer and the designation that it is from France.

Vin de Pays (33.9%) – Carries with it a specific region within France (for example Vin de Pays d'Oc from Languedoc-Roussillon).

Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS, 0.9%) – Less strict than AOC.

Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC, 53.4%) – Wine from a particular area with many restrictions, inculding the areas of production, the grapes permitted, the growing and production methods allowed, the maximum yields per hectare and the minimum alcohol level.

The wine classification system of France is being reformed as part of an Europe-wide effort. A new system is to be fully introduced by 2012. The new system consists of three categories rather than four. The new categories are:

Vin de France - A table wine category basically replacing Vin de Table, but allowing grape variety and vintage to be indicated on the label.

Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) - An intermediate category basically replacing Vin de Pays.

Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP) - The highest category basically replacing AOC wines. For the former AOC wines, the move to AOP will only mean minor changes to the terminology of the label, while the actual names of the appellations themselves will remain unchanged.

Appellation d'Origine Controlée (AOC)

Almost all Bordeaux fine wine aligns with the highest quality designation, or AOC. I yet have to have a non-AOC Bordeaux wine. There are 54 AOCs in Bordeaux, at 3 different levels:  

Regional AOCs: Wines from regional AOCs source their grapes from anywhere in the Bordeaux region. There are five regional level AOCs, including Bordeaux, Bordeaux Superieur and Cremant de Bordeaux (a sparkling wine). These wines have the fewest regulations and are considered the lowest quality AOC wines in Bordeaux. Bordeaux Superieur AC wine comes from the Bordeaux AC, but must have a bit more alcohol and has tighter yield restrictions. All producers in the different Bordeaux areas are entitled to produce under these generic appellations.

Sub Regional AOCs: These AOCs source their grapes from a much smaller area than the regional AOCs. These AOCs have more strict regulations which produce higher quality wines. Examples: Medoc and Graves. 

Communal AOCs: These wines are the highest quality wines in the region. Grapes are sourced from a smaller area than either of the two types listed above. Regulations here are more strict. The Haut-Medoc is home to four of the most famous appellations – all ACs at the commune level - in France: Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux.


North of Pauillac, its most famous chateaux are the two second growths, Chateau Cos d'Estournel and Chateau Montrose.


Two of the top five of the 1855 Classification of the Medoc were in Pauillac: Chateaux Latour and Lafite-Rothschild. They were joined by Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in 1973, in an almost unprecedented addition to the ranking system.

Picture: Pauillac Pauillac's two second-growth producers were once a single entity: Chateau Pichon-Longueville. At some point before 1855, this property was divided by the intricacies of France's Napoleonic inheritance laws, giving rise to the Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron.


Saint-Julien is sandwiched between the more famous appellations of Pauillac and Margaux, less famous because it does not have a first-growth chateau. Pauillac has three of the five Medoc first growths and Margaux has one. Saint-Julien makes up for its lack of first-growth chateaux by being home to five second growths estates: Chateaux Leoville Las Cases, Leoville Poyferre, Leoville Barton, Gruaud-Larose and Ducru-Beaucaillou.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller at Chateau Leoville Poyferre  


In Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe and Pauillac, the vineyards belonging to each chateau are clearly divided and consolidated in a single zone. In Margaux, this is not the case. Here, even vineyards belonging to the wealthier chateaux are dispersed and mixed in with those of their rivals.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Henri Lurton, owner of Chateau Brane-Cantenac in Washington DC. Château Brane-Cantenac is a Deuxiemes Crus Classe en 1855 in Margaux. See: Henri Lurton and his Chateau Brane Cantenac Wines

The 1855 Médoc Classification

The Medoc classification of 1855 covers (with one exception) red wines of Médoc. The 1855 classification was made at the request of Emperor Napoleon III for the Exposition Universelle de Paris. It ranked the wines into five categories, mainly according to price.

The famous 5 first growths are:

• Château Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac
• Château Margaux in Margaux
• Château Latour in Pauillac
• Château Haut-Brion in Péssac-Leognan
• Château Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac, promoted from second to first growth in 1973.

And there are:

14 Deuxièmes (2nd) Crus
14 Troisièmes (3rd) Crus
10 Quatrièmes (4rd) Crus
18 Cinquièmes (5th) Crus.

Picture: Château Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac, promoted from second to first growth in 1973. See: (German) Winemakers in the World: The German Roots of the Baron Philippe de Rothschild Empire and see: The Emerging Wine Giant China - Mouton Cadet Bar Opening 

The 1855 Sauternes and Barsac Classification 

At the same time, 27 sweet white wines of Barsac and Sauternes were classified into:

1 Premier Cru Supérieur (Château d'Yquem),
11 Prémier Crus,
15 Deuxièmes Crus.

The St Emilion Classification 

The St. Émilion Classification was introduced in 1955, with 3 levels. It is revised about every 10 years. The most recent revision is the one of 2006.

There are now:

15 Premier Grand Cru Classé, devided into the 2 classes 'A' and 'B' (with Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone the two A’s) and

46 Grand Cru Classé.

Unusually, the St. Emilion 1955 Classification is integrated with the AOC system of St. Emilion, comprising 3 appellations: (1) Appellation St. Emilion Controlee, (2) Appellation St. Emilion Grand Cru Controlee, and (3) Appellation St.Emilion Grand Cru Classee Controlee.

This creates a lot of confusion for the non-expert wine drinker. First, the material difference between the first and the second group, the "Controlee" and "Grand Cru Controlee" wines, is minor; over two hundred Saint-Émilion wines carry the description "Grand Cru Controlee", although they are no way at the "Grand Cru", i.e. at the top level. Second, the difference on the label between second and the third group, the "Grand Cru Controlee" and "Grand Cru Classee Controlee", is minor, just the word "Classee", although only the latter are the top wines of the 1955 Classification.

The 1959 Graves Classification 

The wines of Graves were classified in 1953 by a jury appointed by Institute Nacional des Appellations d'Origine, and approved by the Minister of Agriculture in August of that year. The selection was revised with a few additions in February 1959. The classification concerns both red and white wines, and all chateaux belong to the Apellation Pessac-Léognan, which was carved out of Graves in 1987. There is no ranking. All wines listed are called Cru Classé.

The Cru Bourgeois Classification of Medoc 

Crus Bourgeois wineries can be found across the Médoc, but there is a particularly high concentration in the Saint-Estèphe appellation. These are all high quality wines from the Left Bank Bordeaux wine regions that were not included in the 1855 Classification.

The history of the Cru Bourgeois classification has been eventful. The initial classification (of 1932) designated 444 estates as Cru Bourgeois, but by the 1960s over 300 had been absorbed into other estates or had converted their land away from viticulture.

A new classification was introduced in 2003 by the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois. They split the wines into three tiers: Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (9 wines), Cru Bourgeois Supérieur (87 wines) and Cru Bourgeois (151 wines).

Picture: Chateau Citran, Cru Bourgeois en 1932

In 2007, a Bordeaux magistrate decreed the whole 2003 Crus Bourgeois classification null and void. In response, the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois proposed a significantly modified version of the Cru Bourgeois, consisting only of a single tier, and applied to the 2008 vintage. Furthermore, Cru Bourgeois is no longer a permanent classification, but an annual label, awarded each year by a panel tasting, open to all Medoc wines.

No Classification in Pomerol

Pomerol has never been classified, probably due to its relative anonymity before the 1960s.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller at Chateau Petrus

Robert Parker Points Classification 

With their points system, wine critics like Robert Parker have established their own rankings, which are closely watched by many wine consumers in the world. These ratings  have arguably replaced the age-old classification systems. This certainly explains why châteaux like Cru Bourgeois Sociando-Mallet and St Emilion's Chateau Le Tertre Rôteboeuf have decided to opt out of the system. It also must make the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild turn in his grave, who campaigned tirelessly for 50 years to upgrade Ch. Mouton Rothschild from a 2nd to a 1st Growth; this was the only alteration that has ever been made to the 1855 classification.

Picture: At Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf with owner/winemaker Francois Mitjavile. The small chateau entered the international wine scene in the mid-80s. The 2010 en primeur is at Euro 150 and the excellent 2005 currently at Euro 240 per bottle.

Recently, for example, Robert Parker issued a list of 2009 Bordeaux wines, which he gave 100 points. Here’s the list of Parker’s perfect 100-point Bordeaux 2009:

Beausejour Duffau Lagarrosse
Bellevue Mondotte
Clos Fourtet
Cos D’Estournel
Ducru Beaucaillou
Haut Brion
Leoville Poyferre
La Mission Haut Brion
Le Pin
Pontet Canet
Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge
Also: Pape Clément blanc

Liv-ex Bordeaux Classification

The Liv-ex Bordeaux Classification is a classification of Left Bank red Bordeaux wine compiled by the British internet and phone-based wine exchange, London International Vintners Exchange (Liv-ex), with a view of updating the 1855 classification. The first one was established in 2009; it was updated in 2011.

The Liv-ex classification is based entirely on the level of prices and includes only wines from the Left Bank (including Pessac-Leognan), produced in quantities of more than 2,000 cases. The Liv-ex classification lists 60 estates, one fewer than that of 1855.

In 2009, the tiers are sectioned by the First Growths in the range of £2,000 a case and above, the Second Growths from £500 to £2,000, the Third Growths from £300 to £500, the Fourth Growths from £250 to £300 and the Fifth Growths from £200 to £250. In 2011, the price bands were adjusted upward. For the first growths this was £3,300 and above, for the seconds £700 to £3,229, thirds £400 to £699 and so on.

The Liv-ex Classification of 2011

Lafite, with an average price of £11,043 per case, consolidated its position at the top of the first growths, followed by Latour, Margaux, Mouton, Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut Brion. At £3,400 per case, La Mission Haut Brion, just made it to first growth.

Third growth 1855 Palmer (£1655 per case) was promoted to the top of the second growths in 2009, where it remained in 2011, with fifth growth 1855 Lynch Bages (£931) close behind. Beychevelle (£715), Duhart Milon (£1147) and Pontet Canet (£801) also became second growths, while Leoville Barton (£547) was relegated to third growth.

Among the chief differences from the 1885 classification is the placement of Château La Mission Haut-Brion among the First Growths, Château Lynch-Bages elevated from the fifth tier to the second, Clerc Milon from fifth to third and Château Palmer promoted a tier to become the top Second Growth.

Second wines are not included in the Liv-ex Classification: if they had been, Carruades de Lafite would be a first growth and Forts de Latour would be the top second growth. Margaux’s Pavillon Rouge, Petit Mouton and Clarence Haut Brion would also make second growth.

schiller-Wine: Related Postings

A Glass of Bordeaux – What Else? – With Wine Journalist Panos Kakaviatos

Meeting Virginia and Bordeaux Wine Expert and Wine Blogger Allan Liska, USA

The Wines from Entre Deux Mers Winemaker Joel Duffau

In the Glass: 1970 Chateau de La Riviere, Fronsac, France

Henri Lurton and his Chateau Brane Cantenac Wines

The Emerging Wine Giant China - Mouton Cadet Bar Opening

Trends in the global wine market: old world, new world, emerging wine countries

The Label of 2007 Chateau Mouton Rothschild designed by Bernar Venet

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  1. The 1855 classification: a flawed certainty in a world of change interesting posting with classification based on current prices

  2. The new Liv-ex 2013 Bordeaux Classification was released in March 2013 with interesting results.