The list that's both prestigious and irrelevant.

June 17 2005 12:50 PM

Making the List

How the most important rankings in wine became irrelevant.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.
Click image to expand.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1855 Bordeaux classifications—the five-tiered ranking of the region's top châteaux that has long been the most prestigious pecking order in all of wine. Sixty-one wines were included on the original list: The best were deemed "first growths," or premier cru s, with the others categorized as either second, third, fourth, or fifth growths. In the years since the list was compiled, it has been updated only once, and that change involved only one château: Mouton-Rothschild was bumped from a second growth to a first in 1973.

The birthday has been met with dubious fanfare. As the anniversary approached, there was speculation that the French authorities might use the milestone as an occasion to overhaul the system—namely, to promote Château Leoville-las-Cases, a second growth, and possibly also Château La Mission Haut-Brion, which was left off the 1855 list entirely, to first-growth status. Gossips reported that any changes would be announced at VinExpo, the biannual Bordeaux trade show that kicks off this weekend. The rumors are almost certainly false, but they point up a sad truth about the aging list: It needs help. It would take a lot more than the promotion of one or two stars to make the 1855 classifications relevant again.

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The original list was drawn up as part of an effort to showcase the best French wines at the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris, a World's Fair staged at the behest of Napoleon III, who wanted France to put on an event that would rival the Great Exhibition held in London four years earlier. Bordeaux fans are fond of noting that Napoleon himself called for the ranking, but Dewey Markham, the author of the book 1855: A History of the Bordeaux Classification, says it was actually Napoleon's cousin, Prince Napoleon Jerome, who organized the exposition.

The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, which was putting together the Bordeaux display in Paris, decided to feature a list of the region's best wines and asked Bordeaux's Union of Brokers to draw one up. The brokers, to their eternal credit, compiled the rankings in the most sensible manner possible: on the basis of price. In their view, the market had already determined which Bordeaux wines were best, and the classifications needed to reflect the market's judgment. (If this market-driven logic sounds terribly un-Gallic, that's because it was un-Gallic: At the time, the British were still the main players in the Bordeaux wine market.)

In all, 61 châteaux made the cut. The rankings were limited to wines from the Medoc region, on the left bank of Bordeaux; the only exception was Château Haut-Brion, which was named one of the four original first growths—Latour, Lafite, and Margaux were the others—even though it hails from the Graves section of Bordeaux (also on the left bank, but not part of the Medoc). As far as the four original first growths go, the 1855 classifications merely acknowledged a level of superiority that had long been common knowledge. Nearly a century earlier, Thomas Jefferson had named Latour, Lafite, Margaux, and Haut-Brion as the finest of all Bordeaux wines, and today these are still considered the best wines produced on the left bank.

But the rankings have proved less durable in other ways. In 1855, excluding wines from Bordeaux's right bank made sense; while some fine wines were produced there, they didn't command the prices that the top left-bank wines did. One hundred and fifty years later, it's a different story. Château Petrus, the crown jewel of Pomerol, is the most expensive of all Bordeaux, and other right-bank wines, including Cheval Blanc, Ausone, and Le Pin, are every bit as pricey (and good) as the first growths. Meanwhile, the list of wines included in the original classifications has become hopelessly antiquated. A number of classed growths—Ferrière, Croizet-Bages, Camensac—are at best mediocre, at worst abysmal. By contrast, Sociando-Mallet, a left-bank château that has no rating, consistently turns out wines that are equal in quality even to some second growths.

It is a measure of how outdated the 1855 classifications have become that almost every wine writer feels it necessary at some point or other to propose an alternative set of rankings. Indeed, revising the categories is one of the wine world's favorite parlor games. The general consensus: Leoville-Las Cases should certainly be a first growth. Ditto Petrus, Cheval Blanc, and possibly also Ausone, Lafleur, and La Mission Haut-Brion. Further down the list, Lynch-Bages and Grand-Puy-Lacoste long ago surpassed their fifth-growth status; both châteaux are now easily second-growth quality. Conversely, it is absurd to rank Rauzan-Gassies, a second growth that consistently punches below its weight, alongside such standouts as Leoville Barton, Ducru-Beaucaillou, and Pichon-Lalande.

If the rankings are to continue to have any meaning, they need to be revised to take account of the way fortunes have shifted in Bordeaux over the last 150 years. But merely creating a new hierarchy would not be enough; the classifications would need to be updated fairly regularly, and they would really be credible only if they were taken out of the hands of the châteaux owners and the French regulators. (The procedure for making changes to the classifications is utterly opaque; as best I can understand it, any change to a category—say, second growths—needs the unanimous consent of all the châteaux that are ranked in that particular category, and also the approval of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, or INAO, the regulatory agency that oversees French wine production.) If, for example, the job of classifying the wines were entrusted to a suitably illustrious group of critics, the results would almost certainly be an accurate reflection of reality and would carry substantial weight with the market. But that will never happen, and any attempt to make wholesale changes to the classifications would inevitably be subverted by politics. It took 20 years of tireless lobbying and horse-trading by Philippe de Rothschild to finally get Mouton its promotion, and it was universally agreed that Mouton deserved to be a first growth.

There is, of course, a larger issue here: Do we still even need a formal Bordeaux hierarchy? The 1855 classifications were drawn up at a time when the wine business was not globalized—and when there were no critics, magazines, and chat rooms to help steer consumers to the best wines. Thirty or 40 years ago, wines may have been sold on the basis of the 1855 rankings, but with the exception of the first growths, that is clearly no longer the case. Today, the wines of Bordeaux are bought and sold on the basis of another hierarchy—the 100-point system used by both Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator.

Given all this, the 1855 classifications should probably just be left untouched and regarded as the relic they have become. Happy birthday, you glamorous old list. Now rest in peace.

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