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Bordeaux wines demystified

Love Bordeaux wines but perplexed by the region’s mind-boggling classifications? Read on to decode the rankings that stretch back to 1855.


For most of us, buying Bordeaux can seem overwhelming. Left Bank, Right Bank... Premières Crus, Premières Grandes Crus Classé A... It’s true, this famous French wine region has a classification system more complex than any other. But you don’t need to be an expert to understand how it works, or enjoy the wines today. You just need to rewind 165 years or so.

In 1855, a great showcase of all things French was due to take place in Paris. As emperor of France, Napoleon III was keen to show off the very best of his country’s wine. So he asked wine brokers to put together a list ranking the finest red wines from Bordeaux. And just like that, the so-called 1855 classification was born.

Ranking the reds

Designed as a quick guide to quality, Napoleon’s ranking system has been used to categorise Bordeaux wines ever since. (Or at least, red wines from the Médoc on the Left Bank. Wines from the Right Bank were excluded as they were not as commercially relevant, with one exception: Château Haut-Brion.) These wines were ranked by market price and put into five quality categories from ‘first growth’ (premièr cru) to fifth – where they remain today. In all that time, there has been only one really significant change, with Château Mouton-Rothschild promoted from second to first growth in 1973.

What about the whites?

Then there were the white wines. In 1855, the only white Bordeaux wines considered worthy of classification were the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. They were ranked into first growths and second growths, with a ‘superior first growth’ category created just for Château d’Yquem, that legendary dessert wine from Sauternes.

The Right Bank gets its day

So that was the Left Bank sorted. But what of the Right Bank wines? Fast forward 100 years, and it gained its own classification. But this only included Saint-Émilion and not the other famous appellation, Pomerol. And just to confuse things, wines from the Right Bank were ranked differently from their Left Bank friends. Top-ranking wines such as Château Cheval-Blanc, were given a ‘Premier Grand Cru Classé A’ category, followed by ‘Premier Grand Cru Classé B’ then ‘Grand Cru Classé’. Contrastingly to Napoleon’s guide, the 1955 classification of Saint-Émilion is reviewed every 10 years – last in 2012.

So there we have it. A system established generations ago, which holds sway even now. Of course, there are limits to its relevance: these days, it’s the market which sets the prices for wine. But while tastes change and values fluctuate over time, the names which attract the highest prices are often the same, year after year. So, complex as it is to the 21st century wine lover, it seems Napoleon III’s rankings still have their merits, after all.