First Growth

Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855

First Growth (French: ‘Premier Cru’) status is a classification of wines primarily from the Bordeaux region of France.

The need for a classification of the best Bordeaux wines arose from the 1855 World’s Fair, the ‘Exposition Universelle de Paris.’ The result was the ‘Bordeaux Wine Official Classification,’ a list of the top ranked wines, named the ‘Grand Crus Classés’ (Great Classified Growths). With several thousand Chateaux producing their wines in Bordeaux, to be classified was to carry a mark of high prestige.

Within the Grand Cru Classé list, wines were further ranked and placed in one of five divisions. The best of the best wines were assigned the highest rank of ‘Premier Cru’; only four wines, Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, and Château Haut-Brion were deemed worthy. Of all the 61 great classified wines, all but one came from the Médoc region (on the left bank of the Gironde estuary, north of Bordeau). The exception was the premier cru Château Haut-Brion, produced in Graves (on the left bank of the Garonne River, southeast of Bordeaux).

The 1855 list remained unchanged for over a hundred years until finally Mouton Rothschild was promoted to Premier Cru status in 1973, after decades of relentless lobbying by its powerful owner, Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Of lesser importance, in 1988 the premier cru Château Haut-Brion was changed in appellation from Graves to Pessac-Leognan to represent apparent changes in soil structure caused by the urbanization of areas surrounding Bordeaux.

The Bordeaux region is naturally divided by the Gironde Estuary into a Left Bank area which includes the Médoc and Graves and a Right Bank area which includes the Libournais, Bourg, and Blaye. The Médoc, a large area on the Left Bank, is itself divided into ‘Haut-Médoc’ (the upstream or southern portion) and ‘Bas-Médoc’ (the downstream or northern portion, often referred to simply as ‘Médoc’).

There are various sub-regions within the Haut-Médoc, including St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St.-Julien, and Margaux and the less well known areas of AOC Moulis and Listrac. Graves includes the sub-regions of Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes, and Sauternes in turn includes the sub-region of Barsac. The Libournais includes the sub-regions of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. There is an additional wine region of Entre-Deux-Mers, so called because it lies between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, which combine to form the Gironde. This region contains several less well known sweet wine areas of Cadillac and St. Croix de Mont.

All of these regions (except the Libournais) have their own appellation and are governed by Appellation d’origine contrôlée laws which dictate the permissible grape varieties, alcohol level, methods of pruning and picking, density of planting and appropriate yields, as well as various winemaking techniques. Bordeaux wine labels will usually include the region on the front if all the grapes have been harvested in a specific region and the wine otherwise complies with the AOC requirements. There are about 50 AOCs applicable to the Bordeaux region.

Both red and white Bordeaux wines are almost invariably blended. The permissible grape varieties in red Bordeaux are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. While wine making styles vary, a rule of thumb is that the Left Bank is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon based with the Right Bank being more Merlot based. The Graves area produces both red wine (from the grapes previously mentioned) and white wine from the Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle grapes. The area of Sauternes (including Barsac) is known for its botrytized dessert wines (made from grapes with a healthy fungus growing on them.

Also in 1855, 21 of the best sweet wines from Bordeaux were classified as Grand Crus Classés in a separate list. In the original classification, nine wines (primarily from the Sauternes and Barsac regions) were classed as Premier Cru, while 11 were assigned the lower (though still prestigious) rank of ‘Deuxième Cru’ (Second Growth). One wine (Château d’Yquem) was considered so great it was granted a special ‘Premier Cru Supérieur’ classification.

With the exception of Château Haut-Brion from Graves, the 1855 Classification did not include producers in the regions of Graves, Saint-Émilion, and Pomerol, which have their own classification schemes. Burgundy maintains its own classification scheme based on specific appellations. Although the terminology used is similar, the classification hierarchy is different and also attaches to the vineyards themselves. The most-highly rated vineyards are graded as ‘Grand Cru,’ while those at the next level are classified as ‘Premier Cru.’

After the Second World War, the omission of wines of Graves from the official classification was having a negative effect on the price and desirability of wines from the region. To improve marketing, the region announced in 1953 its own classification of red wines and one white wine, with more white wines added in 1959. Sixteen wines were given special classification.

Missing from the 1855 list, the Bordeaux region of Saint-Émilion offered its own classification in 1955 to improve market demand and prices. The Classification of Saint-Émilion wine differs from the 1855 list in that it is updated approximately every ten years based on new assessments of quality. For each new release of the classification, wines may be promoted or demoted within the list. A wine may even be removed entirely, while other unclassified wines may be added.

In 2006, for example, eleven wines were removed from the list, six new wines added, and two existing wines promoted to a higher division. The Saint-Émilion Classification currently labels 15 wines as ‘First Growths.’ These ‘Premiers Grands Crus Classés,’ subdivided into two further classes : ‘A’ (2 wines) and ‘B’ (13 wines). A further 64 wines are currently classified as ‘Grands Crus Classés.’

Pomerol, which like Saint-Émilion is on the Right Bank, has refused to create any classification scheme but has produced red wines that are among the most expensive in the world, such as Petrus.

One Comment to “First Growth”

  1. ah, how interesting, i had no idea about the distinctions –

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