Bordeaux wine classifications

Cracking the Bordeaux wine code


If you’ve ever been to a wine tasting that focused on Bordeaux, or been poured some wine by a Bordeaux fan who knows their beans, you might have heard of the Bordeaux classifications or “crus classés”.

The concept of classifications in the Bordeaux region were introduced in 1855 by Napoleon, as a way to denote quality. But before we get into all that, let’s have a chat about Bordeaux as a place first. After all, what is a wine without terroir? And what is a crus classés without its sense of place?

Where is Bordeaux? What makes it special?

Bordeaux is an area of south-west France centred around the city of Bordeaux, which itself sits on the banks of the Garonne river.

The Garonne flows through the region and drains out into the Atlantic via the vast Gironde Estuary (along with the Dordogne), which splits the Bordeaux winemaking region roughly in half, creating its famous Left Bank and Right Bank areas.

Bordeaux has a huge range of terroirs and prides itself on the diversity of wines that it produces. This diversity usually comes down to two main aspects: geography and the style of wine produced.

The “Six Families” of Bordeaux

The Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (or CIVB) talks about the main areas of Bordeaux as families. Within these family units, the winemaking is (usually) similar, the terroir is (usually) consistent and therefore the wine coming from these regions can be grouped together. However, Bordeaux has such variety that you can never underestimate its ability to surprise you, no matter how hard you try to categorise it.

The Médoc sits on the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, it has a temperate seaside climate, with sea breezes cooling the vineyards in the summer and temperatures never dropping too low in the winter (although hail can be a problem). Here is where some of the most famous chateaux can be found — like Château Lafite-Rothschild, and Château Latour.

On the left bank, the blend of grapes tends to move in a more Cabernet Sauvignon direction, with Merlot blended for body and oomph. On the right, it’s the other way around.

Blaye and Burg is a hilly area of Bordeaux, riddled with strong appellations that take a lot of character from their sunny aspects and limestone and clay soils. This is the oldest wine region in Bordeaux, and while there are no Grand Crus here, you will find some excellent quality, great value wine.

The Libournais sits further inland along the banks of the Dordogne, and some recogniseable regions are found here: Pomerol, Saint-Émillion, Cotes de Bourdeaux. It’s home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and creates wines with power and energy that do well with ageing (although that’s pretty much what Bordeaux does across the board).

Entre-Deux-Mers has such a romantic name — it literally translates into English as “between two seas.”

This region of Bordeaux sits between the Dordogne and the Garonne, which even as far inland as they are here, are still tidal.

There are many styles of wine crafted in this Entre-Deux-Mers, including sweet whites, dry whites, and classic Bordeaux blends.

Graves and Sauternais enjoy gravelly soil and specific microclimates that create some of Bordeaux’s most famous dessert wines — sweet, unctuous Sauternes. Graves and Pessac-Leógnan are also super famous, so look out for them in your local wine shop.

The Official Bordeaux Wine Classifications

In order of seniority, the Bordeaux wine classifications are:

• The 1855 classification

• The Graves classification

• The Saint-Émilion classification

• The Crus Bourgeois du Médoc classification

• The Crus Artisans classification

Over the years there has been controversy, lobbying and critique, but as it stands, here are what each classification means in as basic terms as we can manage. Remember: these classifications are not exhaustive lists of winemakers in these regions! They’re supposed to be representative of “unusually high quality” — but that doesn’t mean high quality can’t be found elsewhere outside of these lists too.

The 1855 Classification

For the Exposition Universelle 1855, Napoleon III, France’s first president, requested that all wine regions in Bordeaux be classified for the benefit of global visitors to the event.

This classification was given based on chateaux reputation and trading prices, the two main ways to judge a wine’s quality at that time. These wines were then ranked in importance from First Growth (Premier Cru) to Fifth Growth.

Every single red wine that made it onto this tip top list was from the Médoc, except one: Chateau Haute-Brion in Graves. 

The Graves Qualification

This classification was created in 1953 by the Syndicat de Défense de l’Appellation des Graves via a jury and approved by the Minister for Agriculture. Oh yes, this stuff is serious. 

All 16 crus in this classification are within the Pessac-Leógnan appellation, and there is no hierarchy. Basically, what you see is what you get.

The Grand Crus of Saint-Émillion

The Institut National Des Appellations D’origine (INAO) began the classification of crus of this appellation in 1954 after a request by the Syndicat De Défense De L’appellation Saint-Émilion.

This classification, unlike the Graves qualification, is revised every decade as a matter of course. There are currently 82 estates in the 2012 revision — including 64 Grands Crus classés and 18 Premiers Grands Crus classés.

AOC Crus Bourgeois du Médoc

This classification is pretty cool, actually, because it pretty much only exists through sheer force of will. People in this region have been using the Cru Bourgeois classification in common parlance since the Middle Ages. Would you try to fight them about it?

Another pretty cool thing about this classification is that it’s updated annually, making it one of the only constantly evolving classifications. The estates and châteaux within this classification are primarily made up of family-owned wineries, making up more than 40% of the Médoc’s wine production.

Crus Artisans

There are 36 AOC Crus Artisans du Médoc, and the classification has existed for more than 150 years, often denoting wine made by craftsmen and their families in the area — coopers, carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelrights and thatchers.

The classification was officially founded in 1989 and, according to Vins de Bordeaux, “They are autonomous, small and medium-sized estates at which the manager is actively involved in the operations of his/her vineyard, produces AOC wines, and sells the production that is bottled at the château.”

There are 36 properties in the Crus Artisans, and the list is reviewed every five years.

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