Article - Bordeaux

Classifications in Bordeaux - Your Guide

Even a wine connoisseur can get lost in the French classification jungle, and this article is your Bordeaux compass. Learn to navigate - Classification by classification.

Classifications In Bordeaux

In Bordeaux there is a tradition of ranking chateaux and therefore producers, and today these historical classifications of individual properties are still being worked on. In Burgundy the classification belongs to the vineyard, whereas in Bordeaux it belongs to the producer. There are five major classifications in the region, each of which is still relevant today. It is important to point out that a classification belongs to an estate including the parcels of land owned by that estate. The point is that if a given château buys a neighbouring parcel, the producer can include it in the production of their estate under the same classification.

There are currently five valid classifications in Bordeaux:

  • 1855 classification (also known as Grand Cru Classé en 1855)
  • Graves classification of 1959
  • Saint-Emilion classification
  • Cru Bourgeois classification
  • Cru Artisan classification

However, only a small part of the total production is classified, as the vast majority of production in Bordeaux is generic wine, which is sold at significantly lower prices.

The 1855 Classification - Also Known As Grand Cru Classé Du Médoc En 1855

This is absolutely the most important and best-known classification in Bordeaux.

In 1855 there was going to be a world exhibition in Paris, and Napoleon III wanted to show the world the best wines France had to offer - and they had to be from Bordeaux. He asked the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce to draw up a list. The list was drawn up on the basis of the sales price and reputation of the wine in the run-up to the exhibition. 60 châteaux from the Médoc and 1 from Graves were included in the list, which was divided into five levels.

  • Premier Cru (1. Grand Cru Classé) – First Growth
  • Deuxièmes Cru (2. Grand Cru Classé) – Second Growths
  • Troisième Cru (3. Grand Cru Classé) - Third Growths
  • Quatrième Cru (4. Grand Cru Classé) – Fourth Growths
  • Cinquième Cru (5. Grand Cru Classé) – Fifth Growths

Five châteaux have Premier Cru classification: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Mouton Rothschild, and Château Haut-Brion.

See the complete list of all chateaux in the classification here:

At the same time, it was decided to also rank the sweet wines from the Sauternes and Barsac communes, located south of Bordeaux city under the classification Grands Crus Classés de Sauternes and Barsac 1855. This classification is still valid today. At the top of the list is Château d'Yquem, with its very own 'Premier Cru Superieur' category. Next come 11 châteaux in the 1st cru and 15 châteaux in the 2nd cru.

Over the years, only two changes have been made to the original 1855 classification list. Château Cantemerle was added in 1856, having been forgotten in the first place. The second change was the rise of Château Mouton-Rothschild in 1973 from 2nd Cru to 1st Cru. The last was the result of hard lobbying by Baron Rothschild, who used his political connections to push through this change.

These two classifications have been questioned many times over the years, yet they seem to stand. Quite simply, they become self-reinforcing to a point: the more the chateau can sell its wine for, the more funds they have to invest in the vineyard and cellar.

What may change the classification slightly is if a chateau is sold to an investment fund or other wealthy person. They will be able to raise the quality of the wines of a given château with long-term investments. An excellent example of this is Château Pontet-Canet. When the Tesseron family started their investments in the mid-1990s, the quality improved significantly. The Tesseron family chose first to convert to organic viticulture - then to biodynamic, which has helped to significantly raise the quality of the wine. Today, the wine from Château Pontet-Canet ranks in price and reputation on a par with a wine from the 2. Grand Cru Classé despite its classification as 5. Grand Cru Classé.

Chateau Figeac St. Èmilion Chateau Figeac St. Èmilion

The Graves Classification Of 1959

The very first vineyards planted in Bordeaux are the northern vineyards of Graves. Today the appellation is called Pessac-Léogan, and this is also where the city of Bordeaux itself is located. Although the quest for both appellation and classification had been going on for many years, it was not until 1987 that the Pessac-Léognan appellation was a reality in earnest.

In fact, the best wines from Graves were intended to have been included in the 1855 Paris World Exhibition, and thus to have been part of the 1855 classification. Unfortunately, this did not happen as disease ravaged the vineyards. However, Château Haut-Brion was classified as a 1st Cru and thus included in the 1855 classification of the wines of the Médoc.

In 1953, the Graves Syndicate had its classification approved by the French INAO, the institute that protects the appellation system. There were 16 châteaux approved as Grand Cru Classé along with Château Haut-Brion, which was in the 1855 classification. In 1959, the classification was amended to include the white wines of the area. And in 1987, the final classification came, separating Graves in the south from Pessac-Léognan in the north, where the best châteaux are located and classified in a non-hierarchical system as Grand Cru Classé.

Here is a link to a list of classified chateaux. 

The Saint-Emilion Classification

Saint-Emilion never made it into the famous 1855 classification, and the Médoc and Sauternes classifications are chiselled in solid marble, so they are unlikely to see further changes in the future. The wines of the Grand Cru appellation of Saint-Emilion were first classified in 1955, and already in 1958 it was revised for the first time.

The revision is also what makes the Saint-Emilion classification markedly different from the other classifications. It is not static but is more or less revised every ten years by a committee set up by the producers in the area. This creates a more valid classification, where the current quality has a direct influence on the position of the chateaux in the classification for the next 10 years.

Since the first classification in 1955, there have been seven revisions - most recently in 2022. The latest classification has 85 châteaux registered with 71 as Grand Cru Classé and 12 as Premier Grand Cru Classé. In the latter category, two châteaux are classified as Premier Grand Cru Classé 'A' as the very finest category. This is where Château Pavie is placed, and most recently Château Figeac has been deservedly added.

Here is the list for the 2022 classification.

The last classification was made in 2022, and there was trouble in the beautiful city. Each chateau had to apply to be included in the next classification and meet certain requirements set by the INAO, as it is the INAO that is responsible for the classification.

When the deadline for applications expired, it was found that two of the best châteaux had chosen not to apply for inclusion in the new classification. These were Château Cheval-Blanc and Château Ausone, both of which have been at the top since the first classification. They have both chosen to no longer be part of the official classification for Saint-Emilion. In the past, these Châteaus benefited greatly from the classification, allowing them to price their wines highly. Now their own brand is so strong that they can price their wine as they wish. Therefore, they are no longer dependent on the classification.

What this decision will mean is anyone's guess. Either it will have no impact, as the fame of these châteaux exceeds the classification, or it may make the classification lose its meaning.

Château Ausone Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Château Ausone Saint-Émilion Grand Cru

Cru Bourgeois

Cru Bourgeois has existed since 1932, and in direct translation it means "the bourgeois classification". It was created to highlight the wines of the Médoc that had not become part of the famous 1855 classification. Thus, it can be defined as an intermediary between the Grand Cru Classé wines and the ordinary wines of the Médoc.

This classification includes châteaux from the eight large communes on the left bank, north of Bordeaux city - the Medoc peninsula. The following communes are concerned: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estèphe. Cru Bourgeois has been a designation used since the Middle Ages for the better châteaux.

The intentions behind this classification have been entirely good, but in practice it has lagged, and many adjustments have been needed along the way.

In 1932 an official classification was made for the first time with a list of 444 chateaux, all of which were given the designation Cru Bourgeois. This list functioned for many years without modification. At the end of the last century, French bureaucracy went into the list and some châteaux wanted to be included in the classification. Furthermore, there were other châteaux that no longer produced wine that justified their place on the list. This led to court cases, which resulted in a new committee being set up to update the list. So, in 2008, a new classification with a brand-new logo was presented and a fresh start was more than welcome.

The new modified classification was a step in the right direction, albeit administratively heavy. This meant that another revision in 2018 would try to sort out redundant processes.

In 2020, the current list came out, with the number of châteaux reduced. Now it only includes châteaux that produce a high-quality wine entitled to the Cru Bourgeois designation on the label. It is the ambition of the association that this list will be re-evaluated every five years to keep it up to date. The châteaux are classified into three categories, as follows:

  • Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (14 chateaux in this category)
  • Cru Bourgeois Superieur (56 chateaux in this category)
  • Cru Bourgeois (179 chateaux in this category)

The eligibility of the chateaux is assessed based on blind tasting (carried out by an impartial and independent tasting panel), environmental considerations, controls and inspections and positive arguments put forward by each chateau.

Cru Bourgeois is an extremely important classification, which each year sends 28 million bottles of wine on the market, making it by far the largest classification in Bordeaux.

This is the current list of chateaux.

Cru Artisan

Cru Artisan is the smallest classification in Bordeaux. It is an old term from the region that often covered châteaux where the owner himself lived and did most of the work from the vineyard to the bottling at the chateau. Today they are still small to medium sized often family-owned estates where everything is done on the estate. In 1989 the Cru Artisan syndicate was founded and in 2004 the designation was approved by the European Union so that it can now appear on the labels of classified châteaux.

The ambition of the wine producers in the region is to classify every 5 years to keep the list up to date. The latest list includes 40 châteaux, all located on the Medoc peninsula.

See the list of Cru Artisan chateaux here:

The Autonomous Chateaux Of Bordeaux

There are always those who cannot find a place in a box or a bureaucratic system. These may be chateaux that feel they have been passed over at some point or just never been part of the system. These chateaux will only appear with their origin on the label without being classified in any of the above classifications. The most famous producers in this category are Château Sociando-Mallet once a Cru Bourgeois but producing wines on a par with Grand Cru Classé.

Another example is the new wave of modern/natural winemakers who do not want to be part of the system at all. They are making wines in new ways with new mindsets as well as in a style that does not immediately fit into the very traditional classifications of Bordeaux. These can also be interesting wines that challenge the norms and show new ways to go.

One example that is certainly worth mentioning is Liber Pater. The owner of Liber Pater is a visionary man - Loïc Pasquet makes a wine where he looks more backwards but with an eye to the future. He experiments with old grape varieties, old planting methods and ageing in amphora rather than traditional barrels. A high price per bottle also indicates that some find these wines very interesting.

It is therefore understandable that even the best wine connoisseur can get lost in the French classification jungle. And with classifications that are both static, changeable, and non-definable, navigating them does not get any easier. It will probably never be any different in Bordeaux, so hopefully the above can serve as a compass.

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