Drinking Outside The Box

With Simon Woods – wine for people who have a life

1855 revisited, and the Wine Wasteland March 6, 2009 at 3:53 pm

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Just back from three days in France, and a mound of work and clutter to deal with. After the sun of the Languedoc, it was a bit of a shock to wake up at home this morning with a smattering of snow on the car. After tasting ~400 wines from 2008 over the last few days, I’m hoping to tuck into something a little more mature this evening – not sure what yet….

Two things have caught my eye since I’ve returned. The first was this homage to T S Eliot written by Daron Fincham – it deserves as wide an audience as possible. The second was that Liv-ex, the fine wine exchange, has done it’s own version of the 1855 Bordeaux classification. I couldn’t find it on the Liv-Ex site, but you’ll find it here.

I did my own rejig of the list in 2005 to celebrate its 150th anniversary – here’s how it turned out…

1855 Revisited
As numerous Nick Hornby books will testify, men like lists. I remember being in one of Piedmont’s best restaurants in truffle season and having an enthusiastic debate on two topics – the top crus of Barolo and the best guitar solos of all time. Sad, but true. In wine terms, the granddaddy of all lists is the 1855 classification of Bordeaux châteaux. So potent was the original list that the only change to occur, the elevation of Mouton Rothschild from second growth to first growth, required a government decree.

The beauty of the classification was that it removed critical prejudice from the judging process in favour of hard commercial reality. Those wines that emerged as first second, third fourth and fifth growths did so purely according to the prices they commanded on the Bordeaux market at the time. Not surprisingly, there has been extensive debate in the last 150 years concerning how accurate the 1855 list is in determining the quality of Bordeaux wines. Cut to today, and there are several wines in the original list that, in cricket parlance, no longer trouble the scorers. And similarly, there are other wines that didn’t appear in the 1855 ranking but today are referred to as ‘honorary classed growths’, and even ‘honorary first growths’.

I’m not so much of a dreamer that I think that the price of a wine is a direct reflection of the quality. Yet nor am I so much of a cynic that I think that anyone can consistently overprice their wine in the hope that there are enough mugs out there who adhere to the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ school of wine buying. And so it is with more of a ‘what-if?’ mentality that I present my 2005 classification of the region’s producers, in which price has been the sole determinant of rank. If it ruffles feathers in Bordeaux, it’s not my fault.

To determine the list, I looked at the top vintages of the past decade, namely 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2003. I reasoned that the wines had to be available in the UK for at least three of the six vintages I was looking at, and that at least one of the vintages had to be on offer at £350 a case or greater, a rather arbitrary figure, but one which reduced the number of château down to a sensible figure. It was then a case of sifting through the prices from several UK fine wine merchants and brokers – thank you wine-searcher.com for helping me fill in some of the gaps – and then used the wonders of Microsoft Excel to churn though the data. (For the statisticians among you, I normalised the prices for each vintage so the highly priced 2000 vintage wouldn’t have a disproportionate effect in the figures, and then looked at both arithmetic and geometric means – there was very little difference in the lists given by the two methods.)

I chose the boundaries between the different tiers purely according to the statistics. In most instances, the gap between one level and another was small, but there was a definite cut-off point between the first and second growths, and also between the end of the fifth tier and the next bracket of châteaux. I toyed with the idea of a sixth level, but settled on five because that was how many there had been back in 1855, and because the total of 59 châteaux was close to the figure of 150 years ago.

The verdict? A conclusive triumph of Right Bank over Left. Whereas St Emilion and Pomerol never made it into the 1855 classification, they dominate this listing, with each having more representatives than the entire Médoc. Just sixteen of the original cru classé châteaux are among the top priced wines of Bordeaux 150 years later. Although all the original first growths are close to the top of the list, Haut-Brion is now at the top of the second level, while Mouton Rothschild, originally a second growth but promoted to the top echelon in 1973, has also slipped down a rung. Haut-Brion was the sole non-Médoc wine in 1855. Today, it has two compatriots from Pessac-Léognan in the list, its stablemate La Mission Haut-Brion, which tops the array of third growths, and Pape Clément among the fifth growths.

Meanwhile back on the Right Bank… Had a similar classification been done twenty-five years ago, a large proportion of the wines would not have appeared. Yes, châteaux such as Lafleur, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Angélus have a long history of producing fine wine, while Pétrus has been at or close to the top of the Bordeaux price tree for decades. But as for others, particularly those of St Emilion, many of them simply didn’t exist. Le Dôme was first made in 1996, La Gomerie in 1995, while Valandraud and Croix de Labrie debuted in 1991. Le Pin, which heads the list, is something of a veteran by comparison – the inaugural vintage was 1979. These so-called garage wines, made in tiny quantities from a particular parcel of land, and often with the thumbprint/footprint of the producer very evident in terms of concentration and use of oak, are still seen as a Right Bank phenomenon, but they are beginning to appear elsewhere in Bordeaux. For example, Marojallia from Margaux appears among the 2005 third growths, where it holds a position higher than all but the four 1855 Médoc first growths and Léoville Las Cases. (Out of interest, the next highest non-classed growth Médoc wine was Sociando Mallet, which would have been a seventh growth).

A further point of debate is that of super-cuvées versus second wines. Again, the arrival of super-cuvées is a recent trend. In effect, the idea is to produce a garage wine from the vineyards of an existing château. The highest example in this list is Magrez-Fombrauge, the wine that Bernard Magrez, owner of Pape Clément in Pessac Léognan (a fifth growth in this list), began producing after buying Château Fombrauge in 1999. Another is Péby Faugères, a wine whose future looks uncertain following the sale earlier this year of Château Faugères in St Emilion and the adjoining Cap de Faugères in Côtes de Castillon. Proof that Lalande de Pomerol is not just a me-too appellation is provided by the presence of Le Plus de la Fleur de Bouard, which Herbert de Bouard of Château l’Angélus makes from the best parcels of the La Fleur de Bouard estate.

Such an approach contrasts with that traditionally used in Bordeaux, and particularly in the Médoc. This alternative view acknowledges that isolating the best cuvées would make it possible to produce small quantities of something truly special, but that the grand vin would suffer as a consequence. What the producers prefer to do to boost quality is to exclude lesser cuvées and younger vines from the grand vin, and use these for their second wines. Such is the quality and demand for these that several are seen as honorary classed growths. Among the 2005 fifth growths are the second wines from Mouton-Rothschild, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Latour, while Lafleur’s Pensées makes it into the fourth tier.

The list throws up some interesting points. Some of the people I showed the list to questioned the inclusion of so many wines that have existed only for a short time, among them Anthony Hanson MW of Christie’s. ‘If garage wines are to be considered within the context of the 1855 classification, 10 vintages of the new-comers would need to be carefully considered, including blind-tasting by experienced, competent judges. This was the time-span used for the recent Cru Bourgeois assessments in Bordeaux. There is no reason to set the bar lower for the garagistes, and for other new labels.’

Another issue raised by the inclusion of some many garagistes was tiny quantities made of each. Renowned wine writer and Bordeaux fan Andrew Jefford said, ‘Since [the list] is price-led, it is obvious that price will be much higher for an equivalently good wine if there are only 500 cases for the world compared to 10,000 cases for the world. To be totally fair you would perhaps have to have a kind of handicap system based on the largest property, with points deducted for each 500-case decrease in available quantity. I’m sure such a system would redress this imbalance to some extent.’

To address this, I considered doing a separate list for which a minimum level of production, say 5,000 cases per annum, was required, but then changed my mind. Excluding those estates of less than 10 hectares (which with a yield of 45 hl/ha equates to 5,000 cases per annum) does remove the garagistes, but it also eliminates Ausone and Pavie Decesse in St Emilion, and a hefty proportion of long-established Pomerol châteaux, among them L’Eglise Clinet, Lafleur (and second wine Pensées with it), Trotanoy and Clos l’Eglise. Wouldn’t that be just as controversial as leaving Valandraud and Co. in the listing?

As a compromise, here are what would have been the next two tiers. If the presence of the garagistes offends you, simply omit them from the ranking and promote the larger properties from divisions six and seven.

Sixth growths: Beauséjour-Duffau (St Emilion), Gruaud-Larose (St Julien), Calon-Ségur (St Estèphe), Pavie Macquin (St Emilion), Gazin (Pomerol), Magdelaine (St Emilion), Monbousquet (St Emilion), Clos Fourtet (St Emilion), Canon (St Emilion), Latour Haut Brion (Pessac-Léognan), Rauzan-Ségla (Margaux), Troplong Mondot (St Emilion), Beauregard (Pomerol), Nenin (Pomerol), Grand-Puy-Lacoste (Pauillac), Petit Village (Pomerol), Léoville-Poyferré (St Julien), L’Hermitage (St. Emilion) and Virginie de Valandraud (St Emilion).

Seventh growths: Quinault l’Enclos (St Emilion), Bellevue (St Emilion), Smith Haut Lafitte (Pessac-Leognan), Clos de l’Oratoire (St Emilion), Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux (Margaux), Sociando-Mallet (Haut-Médoc), La Couspaude (St Emilion), Les Grandes Murailles (St Emilion), Lagrange (St Julien), Talbot (St. Julien), Le Gay (Pomerol), Carruades de Lafite (Pauillac), Haut-Bailly (Pessac-Léognan), Les Carmes Haut Brion (Pessac-Léognan), Pontet-Canet (Pauillac) and Soutard (St Emilion).

I doubt whether those who produced the 1855 classification anticipated it still being discussed 150 years later. Theirs was a snapshot of an era, and so is my 2005 list. Just as several of the Right Bank properties that feature here wouldn’t have appeared in a price-based ranking from 25 years ago, so I imagine that a similar grading in 2030 will include châteaux that are not among the high fliers today. Theoretically, the best terroir should yield the best wine. However, that ignores the influence of man, and Bordeaux is replete with ambitious souls anxious to flex their wine muscles. The good news is that quality in the world’s largest fine wine region will continue to increase. The bad news is that the châteaux that top any price-based classification will pass even further out of the reach of mere mortals. Ah well, as the French say, C’est La Vie.

The 2005 Classification of Bordeaux

FIRST GROWTHS
Le Pin, Pomerol
Pétrus, Pomerol
Ausone, St Emilion (1er GCC A)
Lafleur, Pomerol
Latour, Pauillac (1er GCC)
Margaux, Margaux (1er GCC)
Cheval Blanc, St Emilion (1er GCC A)
La Mondotte, St Emilion
Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac (1er GCC)

SECOND GROWTHS
Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan (1er GCC)
Valandraud, St Emilion
Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac (1er GCC*)
Le Dôme, St Emilion
Magrez-Fombrauge, St Emilion
Angélus, St Emilion (1er GCC B)
L’Eglise-Clinet, Pomerol
Léoville Las Cases, St Julien (2ème GCC)
Clos l’Eglise, Pomerol

THIRD GROWTHS
La Mission Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan (CC)
Trotanoy, Pomerol
Le Tertre-Rôteboeuf, St Emilion
La Gomerie, St Emilion
L’Evangile, Pomerol
Pavie, St Emilion (1er GCC B)
Croix de Labrie, St Emilion
Péby Faugères, St Emilion
Le Plus de la Fleur de Bouard, Lalande de Pomerol
Marojallia, Margaux
Gracia, St Emilion
Pavie-Decesse, St Emilion (GCC)
Palmer, Margaux (3ème GCC)

FOURTH GROWTHS
Pensées de Lafleur, Pomerol
La Fleur Pétrus, Pomerol
Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac (2ème GCC)
Vieux Château Certan, Pomerol
Clos Dubreuil, St Emilion
Cos d’Estournel, St Estèphe (2ème GCC)
Ducru-Beaucaillou, St Julien (2ème GCC)
Le Moulin, Pomerol
La Conseillante, Pomerol
La Fleur de Gay, Pomerol
Montrose, St Estèphe (2ème GCC)
Clinet, Pomerol

FIFTH GROWTHS
Figeac, St Emilion (1er GCC B)
Le Petit Mouton, Pauillac
Laforge, St Emilion
Pape Clément, Pessac Léognan (CC)
Chapelle d’Ausone, St Emilion
La Croix St Georges, Pomerol
Petit Cheval, St Emilion
Lynch-Bages, Pauillac (5ème GCC)
Les Forts de Latour, Pauillac
Canon La Gaffelière, St Emilion (GCC)
Certan de May, Pomerol
Léoville-Barton, St Julien (2ème GCC)
Pichon-Longueville-Baron, Pauillac (2ème GCC)
Bon Pasteur, Pomerol
Rol Valentin, St Emilion
Latour à Pomerol, Pomerol

Key:
St Emilion classification of 1996
1er GCC A = Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’
1er GCC B = Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’
GCC = Grand Cru Classé

Graves Classification of 1959
CC = Cru Classé

Bordeaux classification of 1855
1er GCC = Premier Grand Cru Classé
2ème GCC, 3ème GCC etc. = Deuxième Grand Cru Classé, Troisième etc.
* Originally a second growth, but elevated to first growth status in 1973.

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

Total

St Emilion

3

4

7

1

6

21

Pomerol

3

2

2

7

4

18

Pauillac

2

1

1

4

8

Margaux

1

2

3

Pessac Léognan

1

1

1

3

St. Julien

1

1

1

3

Lalande de Pomerol

1

1

St Estèphe

2

2

Total

9

9

13

12

16

COMMENTS
David Elswood, International Head of Christie’s Wine Department
‘A fascinating classification which throws a justified spotlight onto many new or newly-improved wines. As a Bordeaux-wide, price-led classification, it would be fair to say there are no real surprises here. However, this type of updated hierarchy would have been very different five years ago and would be different again I’m sure in another five years from now. In my opinion it works as a thumbnail or buyers’ guide to “what’s hot and what’s not so hot” but is overly influenced by current demand and therefore availability, plus recent trends and fashions which are already changing. Perhaps the most interesting point is not the inclusion of so many new, mainly Right Bank wines which we’d expect of course, but which Chateaux from 1855 are demoted or plain disappear as a result. It might be interesting to do a similar exercise using only Parker points!’

Stephen Browett, Director of Farr Vintners
‘A very interesting list! The problem is that price is not the indicator of quality that it was in 1855. As you know, a wine with a 1,000 case production that has the same score/quality level as another that has a 30,000 case production level sells for much more money. Consequently any new classification made purely on price will have far too many garage wines in the top divisions. Chateau Latour could, after all, select their best 4 barrels every year and call it “La Crème de Latour” and sell it for the same price of Le Pin. It might be interesting to re-do it with a minimum production of 5000 cases, say, to qualify for entry and an alternative list for the micro-cuvees. Apart from that I don’t believe that Haut Brion should ever be demoted as they make great wine every year and in vintages such as 1989 and 1998, they make the top wine of the First Growths.’

Categorised in: Bordeaux

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