In total, there are a hundred and seventy-seven estates in Bordeaux designated as Grand Cru, derived from the three different classifications in the region. Unlike the Grand Cru classification system in Burgundy and Champagne, where certain vineyard sites are classified, the wineries in Bordeaux were specifically ranked based on the quality of the wines.
The 1855 classification ranked the wines of the estates in the Medoc, as well as in the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac. As of today, according to the classification’s ranking, there is one First Growth Superior in Sauternes (Yquem) and five First Growths of the Medoc (Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild, and Haut-Brion). For Sauternes and Barsac, there are two further rankings, the First and Second Growths. In the Medoc, the rankings extend to a Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths.
The history of this classification is rooted in the international recognition and demand for Bordeaux wines that began in the seventeenth century, due to increased trade with England the Netherlands. Bordeaux’s advantageous location (with good access to the Atlantic) helped trade flourish between the region and other countries. Even before the classification was formally written, certain exemplary chateaux in Bordeaux had achieved informal ‘first growth’ commercial status. For example, Haut-Brion had earned an excellent reputation in England, as the chateau had established a tavern in London (in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666) to showcase the wines of Haut-Brion to British consumers. Following this initiative, the chateaux of Margaux, Latour and Lafite also worked to create this international awareness about their estates, and the quality of their wines allowed these four chateaux to be informally classed as ‘first growth’.
In 1855, at the request of newly reigning Napoleon III, the Universal Exhibition in Paris (an event where goods from across France and around the world would be showcased) required a list to rank and classify the top Bordeaux wines. The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce commissioned this assignment to the Union of Brokers, who had the knowledge of the wines and relationships with the chateaux to determine who should be included within this ranking. The list was organised based on the long-term track records and quality of the chateaux. One hundred and sixty years later, this classification still resonates, and it continues holds incredible influence and authority within the wine industry.
The Graves Classification
In 1953, a single tier classification of the top wines within the Graves appellation was created. Those included in the ranking were classified from a jury selected by the Institute Nacional des Appellations d’Origine. In 1959, four white wines and two red wines were added to the classification. Chateau Haut Brion is the only chateau to appear on the both the 1855 and Graves classifications.
The Saint Emilion Classification
The vineyards of Saint Emilion were not included in the 1855 classification, as at the time, the area was officially in the wine region of Libourne, and under that region’s jurisdiction. In 1955, a century after the 1855 classification in the Medoc, the vintners association of Saint Emilion created the first classification of this region. Unlike the other classifications, the Saint Emilion classification is generally revised and updated approximately every ten years.
The system is divided into two tiers. The first tier is the Premier Grand Cru Classé, which is then sub-divided into an ‘A’ and ‘B’ group. The second tier of this classification is labelled as Grand Cru Classé.