All wine books summarize the famed 1855 classification nicely. In that year, Emperor Napoleon III, himself an interesting fellow -- the product of a marriage wherein the first Napoleon had joined his brother to his stepdaughter -- asked the authorities in Bordeaux to draw up a short list of the district's finest wines in preparation for an Exposition in Paris. Different wine authors today give slightly different details. His imperial highness may have asked the winegrowing chateau owners themselves for the list, and they for fear of creating mutual jealousies may have fobbed the job off on the local Chamber of Commerce; or he may have asked the Chamber of Commerce first, who then fobbed the job off on local wholesale wine merchants who knew their product.
In any case, the list of the very greatest Bordeaux was made, and of the hundreds of winemaking operations in the area, it ranked only sixty-one chateaux. Determinations of quality were based on the prices these wines fetched in the market. It was a sensible way of doing things: it would be as if the Chicago city council should be asked to list the best department stores in the city. Powerhouse European couture boutiques would crowd the top, followed by the swankier stores and so on down to K-Mart, if our council cared to pursue the matter that far. The Bordelais did not. Judging quality merely by price may at first seem cart-before-the-horse presumptuous, but if we've ever treated ourselves to an exalted shopping experience, as exalted as a Bordeaux shopping experience would be, we know that that judgment is usually very right.
The sixty-one "classified" chateaux were divided up into five subcategories, again determined by prices fetched. They were simply called "premier crus" (first growth), "deuxieme crus," and so on. Of those sixty-one, only four were allotted "first growth" (shall we say, "most expensive"?) status. These were Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, and Chateau Haut-Brion. One hundred and eighteen years later in 1973, one more chateau, Mouton-Rothschild, was elevated to first growth status following twenty years, or was it fifty, of "nagging" (according to Jancis Robinson) of the French authorities on the part of its proud owner, the Baron Phillippe de Rothschild. This represents the only change ever made to the 1855 classification.
Wine writers are careful to emphasize that the list and the judgments were made based on market prices, and further to emphasize that the term "cru" should really be mentally translated as "classification" only. Hugh Johnson, in his book Vintage, is the only one to imply that "first growth" also has something to do with the "classed" or classifed growths being numbered so because they were among the first ones there. And where is there? Let us open a miraculous window, and spy upon Bordeaux.
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We are looking down on the area northwest of the city of Bordeaux called the Medoc, with the blue Atlantic to the west and the blue-gray estuary of the Gironde emptying into that. (Incidentally, that rivers normally empty into oceans is something I always have to remind myself of. I am not only a landlubber, I'm a Chicago landlubber. Engineers reversed our river long ago, and it flows from the lake inland, which makes sense to me.)
This region of the Medoc was swamp up until the 1600s, when Dutch engineers, originally commissioned by the French king Henry IV and long experienced in hauling the Netherlands out of the sea, drained it. The Dutch had become Bordeaux's best customers following the drop in trade with the English consequent to what seemed the later French monarchy's endless wars, and were only too happy to help get more wine for themselves by creating more land where grapes could be grown. More land meant more opportunity for land ownership and chateau-building by a rising class of nouveau riche merchants, politicians, and lawyers in the area, native born or not; more wine meant more trade and more prosperity for all.
This seems as good a time as any to sketch, a little, the very large topic of that English connection to Bordeaux, to the city and the wine. One of the most romantic figures of the middle ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine, brought the city as well as the entire duchy of Aquitaine, a chunk of southwest France bigger than the official kingdom "France" then, as her dowry to her second husband, King Henry II of England. Through this marriage and its establishment of a dynasty, Bordeaux remained an English possession for three hundred and one years, from the wedding day in 1152 to the battle of Castillon and ultimate French victory, on July 17, 1453. The French king who repossessed the city was none other than Charles VII, who had been crowned through the efforts of Joan of Arc twenty-four years earlier. Strangely, the day of the battle was the anniversary of his coronation.
In those intervening three centuries, however, Bordeaux you might say learned to speak English and like it, and learned particularly to like a vigorous wine trade with England. For their part wealthy Englishmen learned to like Bordeaux the beverage, which they called "claret" from the word clairet, a tribute to the wines' once-typical light color. Before the modern era, Bordeaux was made from many different types of grapes, often in mixtures of red and white, and the best wines -- or, as Hugh Johnson says, those that appealed most to English taste -- were only allowed to ferment with their skins for a day, thus remaining pale red.
But we had been working our way toward the topic of what makes the "first growths" first. First in price in 1855, yes, we understand. But Bordeaux had always made good wine. A soft riparian climate and protective forests to the south bless the countryside with warm summers and mild winters. The Romans tended vines here, and a thousand years after that, Queen Eleanor brought a taste for her homeland's wine to her new kingdom. What Dutch engineers and keen-eyed Frenchmen saw in the newly drained Medoc another five hundred years after that was not just some more good land for more "Gascon" wine, but perfect land for superlative wine. They saw rocks and gravel. A bit south of the Medoc is the region called Graves, actually named for the word for gravel; this is the appellation of one of the sixty-one original classed growths, Chateau Haut-Brion, whose wine incidentally Samuel Pepys tasted on April 10, 1663, and pronounced "of a good and most particular taste." This seems to be the first tasting note, ever, for the first wine ever marketed under the name of a chateau. He called it "Ho Bryan." Yes. Grape vines love rocks.
Johnson summarizes: "The old aristocracy [who owned the swampy Medoc in small parcels] was not unwilling to sell its rights over such marginal fragments. The name of the game was consolidation. What is immediately striking is that the first estates to be consolidated remain the first-growths to this day. It must have been very clear to these ambitious investors that the best vineyard land was the most unpromising-looking gravel" (Vintage, p. 206). These ambitious investors must have been able to see the rocks and gravel through the water, because Johnson says the consolidation began even before those Dutch contractors got their royal drainage concessions. The lands that became Chateau Margaux were already being bought up and collected by one family by the 1570s, the lands of Latour by the 1590s (p. 206). The kingly nod to begin drying out the Medoc only came in 1599 (p. 205).
Long before 1855, therefore, the finest chateaux in Bordeaux were well known and had not arisen by sheer luck but were built by people who knew what they were doing. Drawing up the list of sixty-one may have been fairly easy. All the estates except one -- Pepys' Haut-Brion, as it happens -- are located not just in the Medoc but almost entirely in four smaller appellations of the Medoc, called (moving northwest from Bordeaux the city) Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, and St. Estephe. Pauillac seems to be the absolute jewel, owning the distinction of three "first growth" chateaux: Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, and that Mouton-Rothschild promoted in 1973. Many of the great chateaux have hyphenated names whose English half reflects their founding by enterprising seventeenth- or eighteenth-century English merchants more than at home in English-flavored Bordeaux. Boyd, Brown, Palmer, Barton, Talbot, and Lynch all leap off the labels, startlingly un-French.
If you can ever possibly afford these wines, what are they made of and what will you be tasting? The red grapes used -- and something like 85 percent of all Bordeaux is red wine -- are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and a small amount of petit verdot and malbec. The white grapes used are semillon, sauvignon blanc, and a small amount of muscadelle and ugni blanc (also called trebbiano). What you will be tasting, it seems, is something very unlike the California "fruit bomb" reds, made from the same grapes, which stand so temptingly ubiquitous and inexpensive on our grocery store shelves. "Silky" is a term Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible often uses for them; she also uses terms like "soaring elegance," "wonderfully generous," "wonderfully structured," "precision," "refinement," "superbly elegant," "hedonistic." They are going to be, probably, at once lighter and much more tannic than we who know the "jammy" stuff will be used to. Silk would not come to mind if one was busy chewing over a mouthful of slopping-over-fruit; and it's Bordeaux's tannins, seeming un-California-friendly but helping it to age for decades, that would probably call to mind structure and precision.
And would you believe that there was another classification of Bordeaux, also in 1855, but this one concerning only the sweet white wines of the regions of Barsac and Sauternes? These are as superlative as Bordeaux's reds, so the Emperor and the Chamber of Commerce saw that they deserved ranking too. It would be as if the Chicago city council decided to rank the department stores of the tony north suburbs as well. Further, would you believe the wines of Graves were classified in 1953 and 1959, and that so far we have not even crossed the Gironde, to visit the right bank regions of St. Emilion (first classified in 1954), and Pomerol? This last appellation was never classified, "thankfully," the wine writers say -- even though it is from here that the near-divine Chateau Petrus comes.
We could venture, you know, into all this now, but I think we will wait. (To venture into it now might require consultation with a fourth doctor.) And be happy! -- the 2008 vintage is rumored to be a good one.