In 1855, Napoleon III had risen to full power in France. He wanted to showcase the best of France to the world and surpass what London did with its 1851 Great Exhibition. He ordered to hold the Exposition Universelle de Paris on the Champs-Elysées, with exhibition of industrial products, agricultural produce and fine arts.
As part of the exhibition, he wanted the best French wines to be present. He invited Bordeaux's Chamber of Commerce to draft a list of wines for exhibition. Anyone could tell it was a daunting (and very sensitive) task . This job was quickly passed to Syndicat of Courtiers, an organization of wine merchants, to draw up the list. Done. Only took them 2 weeks.
Well, the merchants only included the wines they knew well and compiled the list based on the market price, which should reflect the wine quality. This famous list was known as Le Grand Crus Classes en 1855. A total of 58 wines were selected. They were divided into 5 grand crus classe (1st to 5th growth) and each was ranked in descending order based on the market price of the wine. (Please see the original list at the end of the article).
As one would expect, there have been countless controversies and complaints on the list. Other than Haut-Brion, all the wines came from Medoc even though the quality of Graves and St-Emilion wines were already well recognized in the 19th century. No Burgundy was present, even though Napoleon was known to love Chambertin wines.
There have not been many changes to the classification since its inception. The most notable one was the famous "upgrade" of Mouton from 2nd to 1st growth in 1973. This was only made possible after heavy lobbying by the powerful Philippe de Rothschild family for more than a century.
The 1855 Classification has turned out to be an effective marketing tool. Almost 160 years have passed and it still has its influence on customer perception. Nonetheless, the list no longer reflects the most current market situation. In fact, the average price of a 5th growth is higher than that of 4th growth, which in turn is higher than that of the 3rd growth.
If we were to broaden and include entire Bordeaux region, how would the list look like based on the today’s price? Well, the 1st growth list could probably double to include superstars like Petrus, Ausone, Le Pin, Lefleur and Cheval Blanc. Other top producers like La Mission Haut Brion, Pavie, Vieux Chateau Certan, Pape Clement, Le Fleur Petrus, Smith Haut Lafitte and Domaine de Chevalier would be included. Palmer would be considered 2nd growth, while Lynch Bages and Pontent Canet would be promoted from 5th to 3rd growth.
Below is the original list with the exact name used by producer at the time. What do you notice? Ever wonder why almost all producers in Bordeaux have a "Chateau" in their name? Back in 1855, guess who were already using "Chateau" in their names? Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux. That's right, the top 3 wines of Bordeaux. Many producers began to follow suit afterwards for marketing reason. Bordeaux has since then become a town full of "chateaux".
Of course, the list should only serve as a rough reference. I am sure everyone of you has your own version of the classification. In case you are interested, below is the very original list from 1855.First Growth (Premiers Crus)
Château Lafite, Pauillac
Château Latour, Pauillac
Château Margaux, Margaux
Second Growth (Deuxièmes Crus)
Léoville (now Léoville-Las Cases, Léoville-Poyferré, Léoville-Barton), St.-Julien
Vivens Durfort, Margaux
Pichon Longueville (now Pichon Baron and Pichon Lalande), Pauillac
Ducru Beau Caillou, St.-Julien
Cos Destournel, St.-Estèphe
Third Growth (Troisièmes Crus)
Château d'Issan, Margaux
Boyd (now Cantenac-Brown and Boyd-Cantenac), Margaux
Fourth Growth (Quatrièmes Crus)
Pouget-Lassale and Pouget, (both now Pouget), Margaux
Château de Beychevele, St.-Julien
Le Prieuré, Margaux
Marquis de Thermes, Margaux
Fifth Growth (Cinquièmes Crus)
Canet (now Pontet Canet), Pauillac
Batailley (now Batailley and Haut-Batailley), Pauillac
Grand Puy (now Grand Puy Lacoste), Pauillac
Artigues Arnaud (now Grand-Puy-Ducasse), Pauillac
Lynch, (now Lynch-Bages), Pauillac
Lynch Moussas, Pauillac
Le Tertre, Margaux
Haut Bages, Pauillac
Cos Labory, St.-Estèphe
Clerc Milon, Pauillac