Classifications 15 April 2020

In 1855, at the express command of Napoleon III, the Bordeaux wine trade cobbled together a classification of the vineyards of the Medoc. This document, part of the region’s contribution to the Universal Exposition in Paris, has enjoyed surprising longevity: today, over 150 years later, it still serves as the pricing guideline for the major estates of the region.

It’s safe to assume that none of the courtiers involved in this last minute project could ever have imagined that well into the 21st century it would remain not merely the benchmark for Bordeaux, but unsurpassed by any comparable effort anywhere else in the world. It’s not as if those who contributed to the project invested vast statistical acumen in the enterprise. In order to determine the respective merits of the various chateaux, they simply used as a metric what the trade was prepared to pay for the wines.

They divided the table into five broad divisions based on average market price. Then they arranged the properties within each of the five sections in descending order of price. At the top were the so-called “First growths” with Lafite Rothschild in the number one slot. Mouton Rothschild topped the table of Second Growths (it was subsequently promoted to First Growth status in 1973, the only deviation from the original order), and so on, all the way to Fifth Growths.

Most of the properties have survived and still produce wine today. Their current pricing generally reflects the order of the 1855 Classification: the courtiers were either prescient, or (as the French would argue anyway) price is determined by site or terroir – so potential is largely fixed, no matter how much marketing money a producer might throw at the problem.

Of course there are a few exceptions, because not all properties in the mid-1800s were equally well managed, so a few had been under-performing at the time. Chateau Palmer, now very much a “Supersecond” finished as a Third Growth; Chateau Lynch Bages was classified as a Fifth Growth but today achieves prices alongside many Seconds.

There have been countless attempt to revise the 1855, just as there were many prior classifications which are largely unremembered. The most influential of modern critics have put forward thoughtfully motivated amendments, all of which now include the Right Bank appellations of St Emilion and Pomerol. No one cares, except the proprietors of the estates prospectively in for an upgrade.

The other regions of France have comparable tables of merit. They too were based on the long-established performance of certain sites above others and were entrenched in the country’s wine of origin legislation, in the 1930s. They are all defined in terms of vineyards, in other words, terroir. The best Burgundies (and for that matter the best Alsace or Champagne vineyards) are graded “Grand Cru,” the next tier “Premier Cru” and after that Village and then regional wines.

Like the 1855 Classification they record centuries of knowledge and experience, and now enjoy the force of legislation. They all share in common the fact that the information was assembled by panels of experts, rather than individuals trying to rewrite the history books. Herein lies a lesson for South Africa. There have been a few attempts – all by individuals – to offer a table of merit of South African wines. They are not even of academic interest.

As long as most of our best known wines are made from fruit sourced from many vineyards and across more than one area of origin, these classifications simply record the opinion of a single palate at a point in time. There is no connection with the one constant which gives long-term credibility to the enterprise – the fact that wine is an agricultural artefact, and great wine the product of a particular site (or a combination of them). For tables of merit to survive longer than a few vintages, they need to reflect performance over an extended period of time, and factors less transient than the hand of a winemaker.

 

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