The regional classifications of Bordeaux are extremely complicated -- and are different from one region to the next, even though the terms used may be the same or similar. For this article, I will limit the Bordeaux classifications to the Medoc district, the largest of the famous regions of Bordeaux.
What the classifications refer to in the Medoc was based on the estate not on the land; thus a Premier Cru, or First Growth, is a wine estate of the first rank. Medoc was the first and remains the most famous classification. It occurred in 1855 and ranked 60 top chateaux in the Medoc, plus one, Chateau Haut-Brion, in Graves. Napoleon III asked Bordeaux's top chateau owners to rate their wines from best to worst for the Paris Exhibition (a fair). The chateau owners stalled, not willing to pit neighbor against neighbor.
Eventually, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was invested with the job. The Chamber members grouped the chateaux into five categories based on the selling price of their wines: the Premier Crus, or First Growths, were those wines that sold for the most. The system continued down to Fifth Growths. In all, 61 chateaux were classified, but hundreds of chateaux whose wines cost less than the Fifth Growths were not classified at all. It started a political and ideological battle that continues to this day -- why should a wine that sold for the most in 1855 still be rated one of the best wines in Bordeaux today? Nevertheless, the First Growths have been the gold standard even before the official ranking. While some wines are equally famous and even more expensive (Chateau Petrus is one example) the First Growths offer a window into every vintage.
The Medoc starts at the city of Bordeaux and stretches northward like a snake for 50 miles along the left bank of the Gironde River. The Medoc is made up of two smaller appellations, one called the Medoc (the top northern third) and the Haut-Medoc (the bottom, southern two thirds). It is in the Haut-Medoc that you will find the famous communes (villages) of Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe. Two other less important communes, Listrac and Moulis, are farther inland with different soil, resulting in somewhat coarser wines.
Margaux is the southernmost and largest commune of the Medoc and has one First Growth: Margaux. Its wine is lighter; fragrant with finesse. Pauillac is where the excitement of Bordeaux is centered: home to three of the five first growths -- Lafite, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild. These are firm, powerful, age-worthy wines, typically with black currant and cigar box characteristics. Further south is the district Graves, named for its famous gravelly soil, where Haut-Brion was the sole Graves wine to be included in the 1855 Classification. Haut Brion is powerful, supple and earthy.
Almost all the Medoc's wines are red. The dominant grape is cabernet sauvignon, forming up to 60 to 70 percent of all blends. The other grapes used in Bordeaux blends are merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot.
Bordeaux is known for its expensive, famous wines... but it's a large area with thousands of chateaux, many of them small, and which most of us have never heard of. My advice to wine drinkers seeking value is to buy the best wines in lesser vintages and the lesser wines in the best vintages.
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