Over the centuries, there have been several abortive attempts by European wine producing countries to classify wine for market purposes. In France, there are two important wine classification systems that did take hold and continue to be used and affect the Bordeaux wine industry today.
Classification System of 1855
In 1855, a significant event took place in Paris, that would have a dramatic effect, not only on the wine trade of Bordeaux, but also on all other significant wine producing regions of the world. The event in question was the Exposition Universelle. Napoleon III, the Emperor of France at the time, decided to invite Bordeaux’s wine brokers to rank the region’s wines according to price. After a great deal of discussion, they eventually agreed upon a five-tier, Crus Classés (Classed Growths), classification system ranging from Premiers Crus (First Growth) to Cinquièmes Crus (Fifth Growth). The final list consisted of 61 leading châteaux.
Curiously, nearly all the selections came from the Médoc, with the exception of the most prominent Graves château, Haut-Brion, and the highly rated, sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Why did the list consist almost exclusively of Médoc wines? It wasn’t as if the other districts were unworthy. St. Émilion, Frosnac and the remainder of Graves, for instance, were also highly regarded. The reason was simple: the quality wine revolution of the previous century had first taken hold in Médoc and the district’s fine reputation was already well established by the time of the Exposition Universelle in 1855. At the time, the area was deemed to be Bordeaux’s centre of viticultural excellence. Even so, is it unreasonable to question why the noble wines of St. Émilion and Pomerol were excluded from the Classification System of 1855? Viewed in its historical context, the picture is quite clear. These two areas were considered to be out of touch with the rest of the Bordeaux wine world—they simply weren’t fashionable enough.
The highly respected Classification System of 1855 has remained largely unchanged to this day. Strange though it may seem, St. Émilion, famous for its quality wines, was not formally classified until 1955 (subsequently revised in 1969, 1985/86 and 1996). Similarly, some of the wines of Graves were not officially classified until 1953 with others following in 1959. Ironically, some of the world’s most highly rated wines, those from Pomerol, have never even been classified.
The only formal revision was in 1973, when Baron Philippe de Rothschild succeeded in having Mouton-Rothschild elevated from Second to First Growth.
What are Crus Bourgeois?
AOC Regulations and the Bordeaux Wine Industry
In 1930, the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) was established. These regulations set minimum requirements for each wine-producing region in France. Today, some 70% of Bordeaux’s total production is AOC quality, of which, roughly, two thirds are red and one third is white. Approximately 57 wine districts in Bordeaux produce high quality wine enabling them to carry the AOC classification on the label. Of the 57 districts, four stand out for red wine—Médoc, St. Émilion, Graves/Pessac-Léognan and Pomerol. Compared with the country as a whole, these are impressive statistics, as only around 35% of all French wines are currently considered worthy of the AOC classification.
From these various strands of classification over the years, the following broad quality categories have emerged within the AOC classification: