Grands crus and classifications

It is sometimes difficult to navigate when it comes to the classification of Bordeaux wines. Today, there are several classifications: Grand Crus graded in 1855, Grand Crus Classé de Saint Emilion, Grand Crus Graves, Cru Médoc artisans and Cru Bourgeois Médoc. Classified growth refers to properties.

The classifications of the Bordeaux vineyard

There are several classifications in the Gironde:

• The 1855 classification, gathering growths from Médoc (reds), Sauternes (liquoreux whites), and one growth from Graves (red).

• The Graves classification (reds and whites, first established in 1953).

• The Saint-Émilion classification (reds, first established in 1954).

• The classification of Crus bourgeois de Médoc (reds, first established in 1932).

• The classification of Crus artisans (reds, first established in 2002).

Classified growths

A cru is the synthesis of nature and the work of man — on one hand, it can only be produced on terroirs with a poor, well-drained soil, into which the roots of the vine plant may dive deeply to find the nutrients they lack on the surface, thus capturing the mineral wealth of the earth. On the other hand, it also reflects the efforts of men who followed each other through generations, devoting themselves to quality.

Bordeaux grands crus appeared long before they were classified: Château Haut-Brion appeared in 1609, followed by Château Margaux in 1703, then by Château Lafite and Château Latour. From then on, the number of these grands crus increased and their quality was asserted. They are now identified in four wine regions: Médoc, Graves, Saint-Émilion and Sauternes-Barsac. It should be pointed out that not being classified does not prevent an appellation — like Pomerol — or a wine — such as Petrus — to be considered first-rate.

The 1855 classification - Médoc and Sauternes

Château Pichon Baron  

On the occasion of the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris, Emperor Napoleon III asked each wine region of France that showcased their wines to establish a ranking of them. For the Gironde, the task was entrusted to the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Bordeaux, founded in 1705. The Bordeaux CCI in turn asked the Union of wine brokers at the Bordeaux stock exchange to compile the classification of red wines and white wines of the Gironde. Only the red wines of Médoc, the sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac, and one red growth of Graves are represented in that list. The reason for this could be the absence of a Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Libourne at the time — it was not created until 1910 — and the dominant position of the wines sold by the city of Bordeaux’s traders.

The classification was based on the reputation of the wines and on their transaction prices, and it was revised only once since 1855, in 1973, and only for one Médoc wine, following a contest organized by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce. The only change was the reclassification of Château Mouton Rothschild, hitherto a Second Growth, to the rank of First Growth. Sixty classified growths of the Médoc make up about 24% of the total wine production in the peninsula. It is important to point out that for a given growth, only the grand vin made by the château is classified.

The Graves classification

In 1953, at the request of the Defense Syndicate of the Graves Appellation to classify that region’s great growths, the INAO (National Institute of Protected Geographical Appellations) established a list that was modified and completed later, in 1959. On these terroirs where excellent reds as well as excellent dry whites are produced, the INAO had to classify the growths by communes and types of wine, red or white, resulting in a non-hierarchical classification of 16 growths, all claiming the “Cru classé” mention and belonging to the Pessac-Léognan appellation.

It should be noted that there is no mention of a possible revision in the texts.

Château Smith Haut-Lafitte  

The classification of Saint-Émilion

At the request of the Defense Syndicate of the Saint-Émilion appellation, the INAO undertook a classification of the wines of that region as early as 1954.

The decree states that the INAO should proceed to the revision of that classification every ten years. Thus, in succession, the following classifications were established:

Château Pavie  

• First classification in 1954, modified in 1958.

• A second classification was done in 1969.

• The third classification could not be achieved in 1979; it was in 1984 and took effect starting from the 1986 vintage, following the directive of May 23, 1986. It was then stated that any wine produced in the geographical area of the Saint-Émilion appellation could claim either the Saint-Émilion or the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AOC, but only the wines of the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru could benefi t from either the Grand Cru classé or the Premier Grand Cru classé appellation once the official ranking was established.

• The fourth classification, established in 1996, comprised 13 Premiers Grands Crus classés and 55 Grands Crus classés.

• The fifth classification, established in 2006, comprised 15 Premiers Grands Crus classés. This ranking was challenged by some wine growers, which resulted in disputes and in a legal mess. Several times, it was cancelled, reinstated, and then cancelled again, which led the French Senate to cancel it definitely and in its place reinstate the former 1996 classification through an amendment. This was prolongated until 2011, while at the same time authorizing a certain number of properties that had been promoted as Grand Cru classé or Premier Grand Cru classé in the cancelled 2006 ranking to continue displaying these distinctions on their labels. A new classification procedure was scheduled for the 2012 harvest.

• The sixth classification, published on September 6, 2012, is the result of a new procedure that is entirely controlled by the INAO, with the help of the French Ministries of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs. Thus, 82 properties are consecrated — 64 Grands Crus classés and 18 Premiers Grands Crus classés.

The classification of Crus bourgeois du Médoc

The notion of “Cru Bourgeois” dates back to the Middle Ages, when the bourgeois (the affluent families of the bourg, or the city, of Bordeaux, although the word originally simply meant “citizen”) became richer and acquired the best land in the region.

Their properties got their denomination from their owners’ social status, their number fluctuating between 200 and 300 châteaux throughout their long history. The Crus Bourgeois were not officially organized into an official list before 1932 by the Bordeaux brokers, under the auspices of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and of the Chamber of Agriculture of the Gironde. The list then included 444 wines. The traditional mention “Cru Bourgeois” was recognized on the labels by communal legislation in 1979. In 2000, the list was hierarchized by merit between Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels, Crus Bourgeois Supérieurs and Crus Bourgeois. On June 17, 2003, a Ministerial Order finally authorized the first official classification of the Crus Bourgeois, sanctioning 247 châteaux out of 490 applicants. However, in 2007, the Administrative Court of Appeal of Bordeaux cancelled that order. Then the Médoc winemakers, gathered under the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc, decide to fight energetically to revive the traditional designation through a rigorous quality policy. In October 2009, the French government approved this new quality approach, which allowed for the annual selection of the Crus Bourgeois du Médoc, whose official list is published each year in September since 2010. Depending on the year, it oscillates between 240 and 260 wine estates. Today, the Crus Bourgeois, all comprised within the eight Médoc AOCs, are still often family-owned châteaux and represent over 40% of the production of the peninsula.

En octobre 2009, les pouvoirs publics homologuent cette nouvelle démarche de qualité, permettant une sélection qualitative des Crus bourgeois du Médoc, dont la sélection officielle est publiée chaque année en septembre depuis 2010. Elle oscille selon les années entre 240 et 260 domaines. Aujourd’hui, les Crus bourgeois, tous issus de l’une des huit AOC du Médoc, sont encore souvent des propriétés familiales et assurent plus de 40 % de la production de la péninsule.

Château Loudenne  

The crus artisans du Médoc

In the Médoc, the “Crus artisans” denomination has existed for more than 150 years. It concerns small wine properties originally belonging to Médoc craftspeople — coopers, wheelwrights, blacksmith farriers, etc. Fallen into disuse in the mid-20th century, this distinction was reborn in 1989 with the creation of the Union des Crus Artisans du Médoc, which grouped “autonomous small and medium-sized wine estates whose head owner actually participates in the tending of his vineyard, produces AOC wines, and bottles his products at the château before marketing them”.

In June 1994, the European regulations reinstated this designation and authorized the printing of the “Cru Artisan” mention on the label. The list was first published at the Journal officiel in 2006 then again in 2012, and comprised 44 properties. It is updated every ten years.