Wine classification in Bordeaux

There are several classification systems in Bordeaux. Those classifications may refer to particular parts of Bordeaux or its entirety. The Saint Emilion classifications and the Bordeaux generic classifications often cause understandable confusion. "Grand Cru" and "Superieur" are often assumed to mean a guarantee of quality. They do not. "Saint Emilion Grand Cru" is very different from "Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe".

The 1855 Classification

In 1855 Napoleon III of France demanded a classification system that would enable wines to be presented in a systematic fashion at the 1855 Paris International Exhibition. The resultant classification was based on the average price of wines from a chateau over the previous few years. It was assumed that those chateaux that were able to charge higher prices were producing better wine and should be ranked accordingly.

The classification recognized:

Premieres Crus (1st Growth): Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion (Graves)
Deuxièmes Crus (2nd Growth): 14 estates
Troisièmes Crus (3rd Growth: 14 estates
Quatrièmes Crus (4th Growth): 10 estates
Cinquièmes Crus (5th Growth): 17 estates

All of the above were classified as Grand Crus Classe. A second growth estate could be described on the label (for example) as: La°Deuxième Cru, Grand Cru Classe.

With one exception (Haut-Brion from Graves), the above classification related only to the red wines of the Medoc, the only significant subsequent change to this classification has been the elevation of Mouton Rothschild to Premiere Cru.

The 1855 classification also classified the sweet wines of Sauternes or Barsac.

Superieur Premier Cru: Chateau d'Yquem
Premier Crus: 11 estates
Deuxièmee Crus: 15 estates

In recent years, there has been pressure to recognize that within the mass of other Medoc estates that were not part of the 1855 classification there are different levels of quality. The concept of "Cru Bourgeois" was therefore developed as a means of recognizing those non classified estates that were producing above average wine. Three levels were agreed: "Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel", "Cru Bourgeois Superieur" and "Cru Bourgeois". However, in 2007 these classifications were withdrawn on the basis that classification suggested permanence rather than quality. Since 2007 any estate in Medoc (only) can apply each year for an examination of its wine for that year and, if successful, it can be labeled (for that year) "Cru Bourgeois".

Saint Emilion Classification

In 1954 Saint Emilion approved its own classification.

Premier Grand Crus Classe: A: Chateau Ausone, Cheval Blanc
Premier Grand Crus Classe: B: 11 estates
Grand Crus Classe: 53 estates

However, you will also see Saint Emilion labeled "Grand Cru". Importantly, "Grand Cru" is not part of an official classification and refers only to the wine conforming to two very simple, undemanding requirements - versus other Saint Emilion wines.

"Grand Cru" Saint Emilion must have:

  • a minimum alcohol level of 11 (versus 10.5 for the standard)
  • a maximum yield of 40 hectoliters per hectare versus 45 for the standard Saint Emilion.

There are over 200 Saint Emilion Grand Crus estates.

"Grand Cru", therefore, does not necessarily mean quality.

Bordeaux Superieur and Bordeaux AOC

Bordeaux wine that is not part of a specific Appellation is labeled "Bordeaux AOC” (or simply "Bordeaux") or "Bordeaux Superieur". The differences between the two descriptions are:

  • "Superieur" has to be a minimum of 10.5 alcohol versus 10 for the standard
  • The maximum yield for "Superieur" is 50 hectoliters per hectare versus 50 for the standard.

"Superieur" wine is also supposed to come from older vines (more concentrate, longer ageing potential) but this is not defined.

Bordeaux has 57 Appellations but other than Medoc, Sauternes/Barsac and Saint Emilion there are no separate classifications for them.

Arthur Till has been interested in the fruits of the vine for many years and shares his enthusiasm for wine with others through wine appreciation courses, a wine group and the tours he organizes.