Classifications of wineries(Châteaux) or wines in Bordeaux already took place in the 18th century. Today there are five systems; the most famous dates back to 1855, but only wines from the left bank(Rive gauche) of the Gironde were taken into account, including the Médoc, Graves and Sauternes areas. Of course, excellent wines also grow on the right bank(Rive droite), such as Fronsac, Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. The classification, which is more than a century and a half old, applies regardless of the quality of the wines, which certainly varies from year to year. Up to now, there has been only one change, as an absolute exception, in which Château Mouton-Rothschild rose from second to first place. It is still of great importance and is therefore used by the wineries for marketing purposes, with the rank being indicated on the label.
The remaining four systems for other Bordeaux areas (which, as mentioned above, were not even considered in 1855) were only introduced much later. The cru classes are different in the designation and in the number of quality levels, which is quite confusing compared to the uniform Burgundy classification that is valid for all appellations. There have been repeated attempts at standardisation. One suggestion came from Alexis Lichine (1913-1989), but in the end it was not realised.
The Cru Bourgeois and Cru Artisan one-tier systems apply to Médoc vineyards not classified as Grands Crus and rank behind the Grands Crus of 1855. The classification, which has already been changed several times, is repeated periodically (see below). For Graves, a single-level classification was created in 1953 and supplemented in 1959, which distinguishes between red and white wines (all the estates are in the Pessac-Léognan area). For Saint-Émilion, a two-tier system was introduced in 1955, the classification being linked to the sites (vineyards). It is periodically reviewed, and wineries must apply for it. In the Fronsac and Pomerol areas, as an exception in Bordeaux, there is no classification
The UGCB (Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux) represents the most important Bordeaux growing regions, represents the interests of independent winegrowers and acts as a marketing platform, especially for international customers. In addition to the UGCB, there are other regional associations with similar objectives, namely the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc, the Classement des Vins de Graves and the Classements des Vins de Saint-Émilion.
From 15 May to 15 November 1855, under the aegis of Napoleon III. (1808-1873) the world exhibition took place in Paris. The most important exhibition site had been temporarily built between the Champs-Élysées and the Seine. The monarch commissioned the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux (Gironde), in preparation for this event, to draw up "a complete list of classified Bordeaux red wines and our great white wines". The wines of the right bank of the Dordogne were not taken into account because these appellations were under the jurisdiction of the Chamber of Commerce of Libourne. However, the reputation of these wines, such as Pomerol, only developed later anyway.
The Chamber of Commerce could not agree on an evaluation system and delegated the responsibility to the "Syndicat des courtiers de commerce de Bordeaux" (Association of wine brokers). A classification for wines was nothing fundamentally new, as similar rankings had unofficially existed for some time. There are more than 25 different systems known before 1855
The brokers were under enormous pressure and had little time left, but still managed to get a list within a very short time. This list was not based on current tastings, but primarily took into account the sales prices of the last hundred years. This criterion simply stated that the most expensive wines are also the best. However, rankings were also included in the decision, which were drawn up by Alexander Henderson (1780-1863), the later US president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Cyrus Redding (1785-1870). In addition, the estate agents also took into account the reputation of the houses and the ownership at the time. The classification was based on a long-term view, so that individual fluctuations such as individual poor vintages or poorer quality due to changes in ownership were of little consequence.
Red wines 1855 (Médoc and a wine Graves)
On 18 April 1855, the Brokers' Association announced its list of the best wines. It was expressly emphasised that the classification was by no means a snapshot, but was to be understood as "the result of a development that has been going on for more than a hundred years". The result was two lists, one with red wines and one with white wines. A total of 61 châteaux were included in the red wine list (but this number refers to the current status). It was intended to cover all the red wines of the Gironde, but only included wines from the Médoc and one from Graves. These were grouped into five classes from "Premiers Crus" to "Cinquièmes Crus". A question that is asked again and again is whether there is a ranking within the five groups. In this respect, the brokers behaved very contradictorily during the evaluation phase.
In a letter of 16 September 1855 to the Chamber of Commerce, they noted that there was no superiority or qualitative ranking within a level: wines of the same classification were to be considered equivalent. But just one month before, they had claimed the opposite. Another argument against "equality" is that in the original list, the wines were not arranged alphabetically or by commune. In addition, Château Mouton-Rothschild was explicitly assigned first place in the Deuxième Crus, so to speak, as a "consolation". So the committee probably ranked very well within the groups, but in the end they did not want to admit this officially, in order not to annoy anyone and to prevent expected protests.
It is worth mentioning that, compared with the classification in Saint-Émilion, for example, changes in the vineyards have no effect on the ranking. The only requirement is that the areas must be located within the appellation. So what counts here is the reputation of the winery and not the quality of the site. The name of the winery is considered an unchangeable quality feature and trademark, so to speak. See the list or the order of the wines listed under Médoc, where the châteaux are listed with the place numbers ex the original list.
White wines 1855 (Sauternes and Barsac)
24 châteaux from Barsac and Sauternes were grouped into two classes: "Premiers Crus" and "Deuxièmes Crus". But finally one of them was awarded the special class "Premieur Cru Classé Supérieur", that was the Château d'Yquem. The winery stood and still stands even one level higher than the first class of red wines. Due to the division of ownership there are now 27 Châteaux. See in detail under Sauternes
This term originated in the 1920s. In addition to the Cru Classé, a "bourgeois class", so to speak, was created among these "aristocratic" wineries. The wines must come from one of the eight Médoc appellations Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Margaux, Médoc, Moulis, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe or Saint-Julien. Other criteria include no barrel sales, bottling on the estate, sale only in the second year after the harvest and regular quality control by sampling. Between 1930 and 1932, a commission of experts classified 444 wineries. The "Association of Crus Bourgeois" was founded in 1962, at which time half of these estates no longer existed. In 1976 "Cru Bourgeois" was also recognized by the EU.
In 1978 there was a second and in 2003 the third classification. 490 châteaux applied, of which only 247 were classified. The classification was based on wines produced from 1994 to 1999. The châteaux were classified in the three levels Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (9), Cru Bourgeois Supérieur (87) and Cru Bourgeois (151). After the publication there was a challenge. In 2004, a total of 78 châteaux that had not been taken into account and in their view had been ignored filed a complaint with the Administrative Court of Bordeaux, pointing out alleged serious procedural errors. Among other things, classified winegrowers allegedly evaluated themselves and wineries were not even visited during the evaluation. The appeal instance of the administrative court then revoked the new classification in February 2007. However, the further procedure was still unclear. One waited for the reaction of the "Alliance des Crus Bourgeois", founded in 2003, as the legal representative of the member wineries. There was even the opinion that the 1978 classification should also be considered obsolete and that the first classification from 1932 should actually be considered as the only valid one.
In 2009 a new organisation was introduced. The new classification no longer referred to the château (winery), but to the respective vintage of the wine. The two categories "Cru Bourgeois Superieur" and "Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel" were eliminated without replacement. Now a classification must be applied for annually, the only requirement being a minimum of 7 hectares in the Médoc and Haut-Medoc, and 4.5 hectares in the six communal appellations. The wines of the Châteaux are tasted by an independent body. But that was not the end of the long story.
After ten years of work and intensive discussions with the authorities, a classification valid for five years was introduced in February 2020, again with three categories: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. It is valid for the years 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022, after which a new classification will be introduced for another five years. A total of 249 châteaux were classified, of which 179 were Crus Bourgeois, 56 Crus Bourgeois Supérieurs and 14 Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels. Under this link there is a list of all classified châteaux, many of which are included in the wine lexicon as a separate keyword.
The first filter in the classification process is a sensory analysis in a blind tasting. In order to achieve "Cru Bourgeois Supérieur" or "Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel", the technical and sales & marketing aspects are also evaluated. The category "winery technology" is dedicated to the examination of five sub-themes: Viticulture, harvesting, cellar work, storage and quality system. The "Sales & Marketing" category examines how a château is presented. Hospitality is put to the test as well as distribution, sales promotion and communication on a national and international level. For these two stages, the châteaux must also be able to prove that they have been awarded the HVE 2 (Haute Valeur Environnementale) sustainability certificate recognised by the French authorities, or that they are currently in the certification process.
These two designations were already used by wine merchants in the 19th century. They are described in 1868 in the "Bordeaux Bible" written by the English professor Charles Cocks and translated by Michel-Édouard Féret. These small estates are often owned by farmers (paysans) or craftsmen (artisans) who have a small-scale viticultural activity. In the 1930s, however, the denominations fell into oblivion. Cru Paysan no longer plays a role, but on the initiative of small wineries, the "Cru Artisan" class was applied for in 1989 to allow more leeway with regard to the Cru Bourgeois regulations. The basic requirement is that the owner must be a real person who personally takes care of the vineyard, cellar and sales. They must be small estates (less than five hectares) producing wines with one of the eight denominations of origin of the Médoc. Cru Artisan was then recognised by the European Union in 1994; the designation may appear on the main label.
Sources: WIKIPEDIA and wine (André Dominé)
Facsimile Bordeaux Classification: Antique wine