Bordeaux is probably the most significant wine growing region in the world. So significant that people who don’t even drink wine can rattle off a thing or two about the region! What is it that makes Bordeaux so special?
Prior to the Classification of 1855 there was an unofficial ranking system in place for quality wines throughout France but Napolean III wanted something more official to refer to. He asked Bordeaux’s Chamber of Commerce to organize the classification. Well, the Chamber of Commerce decided to pass the project on to the Syndicate of Courtiers (an organization of wine merchants). The main reason the Chamber of Commerce passed on the project was because they did not want to bear the burden of trying to classify all the chateau; not to mention the kind of backlash it could create after it was published. The Courtiers graciously accepted the project and came back two weeks later with a list outlining the Classification of 1855. Interestingly enough, only the red wines of Medoc and white wines of Sauternes and Barsac were ranked; they felt the other wine growing regions were not prestigious enough to be included. The only exception was the wines from Chateau Haut-Brion in Graves. The list broke down the individual chateau into growths, ranking from first to fifth growth.
As predicted, there was quite an outrage once the list became the official Classification of 1855. Most of the backlash stemmed from the ranking of the chateau within each classe so they rewrote the list putting the chateau in alphebetical order under each classe. That seemed to satisfy everyone except Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. They felt like they should have received first growth instead of second. In 1973, after many years of arguing, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild finally received their wish of being listed as a first growth. Since then, the Classification of 1855 has held firm with no other exceptions!
An important fact to know about the Classification of 1855 is the rank given (first growth, second growth, etc.) belongs to the chateau and not a specific vineyard. That means that wine from a particular site can change classification if the vineyard changes hands from one chateau to another!
Today the Classification of 1855 is still in use for various reasons but most people will tell you it is used more as an academic resource rather than representation of what is currently happening. We have learned so much since then about better wine making techniques that allows other chateau to produce similar if not better quality wine than those who were ranked more than a thousand years ago so I would have to agree that the Classification is more academic. What do you think?