The most prestigious red wines in the world come from Bordeaux. Many of them are classified according to the "crus classés" principle. There are five different classifications in total.
Bordeaux is enormous: it has about 120,000 hectares under vines. To give you an overall idea, there are five different classifications in this famous growing region in the Gironde. First introduced in 1855 under Napoleon III, the term is considered synonymous with quality and prestige. That year’s classification, initiated by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is the best known. It includes the best estates in the Médoc (red wines only), and 27 sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac. The criteria applied were the reputations of the crus and the prices achieved by the wines. Terroir was not a factor, although it is now accepted that the best in the hierarchy also have the best soils.
The classification covers 60 estates in the Médoc, plus one – Château Haut-Brion – from Pessac-Léognan. Like four other châteaux, it is classified as Premier Grand Cru – which is followed by the Deuxièmes, Troisièmes, Quatrièmes and Cinquièmes crus. This indication is always mentioned on the labels for prestige reasons. The quality rankings are generally correct, but there have been some shifts over the years. Château Lynch-Bages (5ième), for instance, is certainly above Château D'Issan (3ième). Officially, though, the only change has been the promotion of Château Mouton-Rothschild to the rank of Premier Cru in 1973.
Another classification in the Médoc is the cru bourgeois. Dating back to 1932, it covers wineries in eight appellations on the left bank of the Gironde. Depending on the year, between 240 and 260 estates receive this distinction. At the top are the Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels, followed by the Crus Bourgeois Supérieurs and the Crus Bourgeois. These are very good, attractively priced red wines. Below this level are the wines of the châteaux classified as Crus Artisans. This classification currently covers 36 small to medium-sized wineries, all producing solid, reasonably priced wines.
There is another classification system in the Pessac-Léognan AOC. Based on the foundations laid in 1953, it covers a total of 16 red and white crus. Château Haut-Brion is the only estate represented here, too. The estates are not divided into hierarchical levels, though – so no revisions are necessary in this case. The situation is quite different in the patrician growing area of St.-Emilion, which is located on the right bank of the Gironde. The 2012 revision triggered a major reshuffle, with prominent ascenders and descenders. Introduced in 1955, the classification system is adjusted every ten years.
At the top are the Premiers Grands Crus classé "A" and "B", a total of 14 wineries. These are followed by 64 Grands Crus classés, and finally by the St.-Emilion Grand Cru designation, borne by every wine estate in the region regardless of the actual quality of the wines. This makes it difficult for consumers to find the pearls among the more basic wines. In the run-up to the next revision in 2022 there has already been an upset: world-class estates Château Cheval Blanc and Ausone, both at the peak of the hierarchy, are leaving the classification. They believe that marketing and social media activities count more than terroir and they don't need to be part of such an appraisal. Thanks to their reputations, these two châteaux can certainly make an excellent living without being classified.
Peter Keller, wine curator & wine journalist
Wines from Bordeaux
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