The Growth Classification System
The 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines was created at the request of Napoleon III, to be presented at the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Showcasing the very best French wines, the classification ranked sixty top Bordeaux reds, fifty-nine from the Medoc and one from Graves. The original rankings still stand 160 years later, with only one change, the promotion of Chateau Mouton Rothschild to Premier Cru status in 1973. The classification also picked out the fourteen finest sweet whites from Sauternes and Barsac.
The History Behind The Classification System
The classification system was created by Napoleon III for the Universal Exposition of 1855. It was an event held to showcase the best that France has to offer, including wine. Since humans grasp things much easier when they are put into categories and rankings, the 1855 Medoc classification was put in place. It was intended to make the vast wine offerings of the Bordeaux region easier for international visitors to understand.
Perhaps an unintended consequence is that after the Exposition – due our tendency to categorise and rank things – people retained that hierarchy in their minds. First Growth wines became the most expensive wines in the 1855 and still are today – 160 years later.
The First Growth wines are chased by wine drinkers, collectors, and speculators alike. The First Growth title is also covered by winemakers, with Chateau Mouton Rothschild successfully entering the First Growth class in 1973 after intense lobbying by it’s owner, Baron Rothschild. Other winemakers covet the title as well, because it would give them the ability to set high prices for their wine.
What does this classification mean to us today?
Napoleon’s plan was to increase the demand for these great wines by limiting the supply. Within two years, wine sales by the classified producers had increased by over 250 per cent. Today, although many ‘Growths’ have merged or acquired neighbouring estates, the laws are still the basis for Bordeaux wine classification and have maintained the unique supply and demand dynamics which makes the market for fine French wine so lucrative.
First Growth Wines
Château Mouton Rothschild
One of three Pauillacs, and only elevated to the status of a First Growth in 1973, Château Mouton Rothschild produces wines often described as sumptuous, with intense fruit and classic Cabernet Sauvignon richness. They officially started producing wine here in 1853, when Nathaniel de Rothschild purchased Brane Mouton. Surrounded by well-manicured lawns and topiary, the château is currently under the ownership of Philippe Sereys de Rothschild.
With a history dating back to the 14th century, Château Latour is situated close to the Gironde estuary. It produces a powerful, very long-lived wine often described as muscular. The dominant grape variety is Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up 80 percent of vines. Under the management of president Frédéric Engerer, this property has gone from strength to strength in recent vintages.
Château Lafite Rothschild
Having been in the business since the late 17th century, Château Lafite Rothschild produces wines that have slightly less Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, and are often described as graceful—quite delicate for a Pauillac. Now run by Saskia de Rothschild, this property produces a harmonious and balanced wine. Covering 276.758 acres (112 hectares), the vineyards are well-drained and well-exposed, with a mix of deep gravel, sand, and limestone soils.
Situated closer to the town of Bordeaux, this is a softer, often silky, wine—more refined than its northern neighbors. Still predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Château Margaux is an elegant, long-lived wine with a history dating back to the 13th century. Currently managed by Corinne Mentzelopoulos, the estate marked its bicentenary in 2015 with a new addition—a state-of-the-art tasting room designed by starchitect Norman Foster.
Situated in the commune of Pessac-Léognan close to the city center of Bordeaux, Château Haut-Brion has an illustrious history predating its owners opening a tavern in England in 1666 in order to sell and promote its wines overseas. The property is planted with much less Cabernet and more Merlot on a gravel bank, similar to the arrangement at Château Latour. This estate produces lavish, generous wines that, although approachable from a younger age, will still age gracefully. It is now run by Prince Robert of Luxembourg.