It’s Time to Discard the Bordeaux Classification System

bordeaux chateau 3The recent stunning report that Cheval Blanc and Ausone will no longer bother with the Saint-Emilion classification system is good news.

As Don Kavanagh exclaims in Wine Searcher:

Are cracks appearing in wine’s great monolith?

Could there be a rumble in the distance that heralds the arrival of that least likely of Bordeaux wine’s attributes – change?

We can only hope.

I am no expert on 1st Growth Bordeaux wines because I can’t afford them. So my reasoning is apriori. (Latin for prior to experience).

But I find in manifestly implausible that the Left Bank classification of 1855 (which has been substantially modified only once to admit Chateau Mouton Rothchild in 1973) accurately captures qualitative distinctions today.

Since 1855 there have been massive improvements in winemaking technology and know how as well as significant developments in our understanding of viticulture. Furthermore, all of the 1st Growth chateaux have expanded production and have bought, sold, and traded parcels that may or may not share the features of the original holdings.

Is it really plausible to think that all of this change has been managed in a way that reflects no qualitative changes in the original classification?

In fact, consumers don’t think so.  Chateau Pontet Canet, a fifth growth, and Chateau Palmer, a 3rd growth, are priced higher than most 2nd  growths, and an informal category of “Super Seconds,” which include luminaries such as Chateau Cos d’Estournel and Chateau Leoville Las Cases, fetch prices close to some of the first growth wines.

I can understand why members of the original 1855 classification don’t want to reclassify. The attempt to revise the St. Emilion classification has been a nightmare of accusations of fraud and bias.

But these classifications are an anachronism that do nothing for consumers and arguably inflate the prices of some wines that don’t deserve their quality ranking. They should just toss the system and allow consumers and critics to develop quality rankings.



  1. Sorry, but the classification of 1855 is only of the Left Bank, and has NOTHING to do with the classification system of Saint-Emilion.

    While your article addresses the obvious flaws with the 1855 system (based almost completely on pricing history from 165 years ago—and the clear problems with that) Saint-Emilion has a completely separate system, based on the blind tasting of ten vintages of each estate. Only those chateaux that are selected in this blind tasting of ten vintages can then call themselves Premier Grand Cru Saint-Emilion. It is the only appellation in the world that uses this system, and I can only imagine the screaming that would ensue if any other region were to try to adopt it.

    And while you may not agree with that process, it is demonstrably more defensible than the 1855 Left Bank classification. The fact that two of the top chateaux in Saint-Emilion have withdrawn their wines from this blind tasting process probably says a great deal more about the power of their respective brands in the world market than it says about the validity of a blind tasting system to rank the wines of the region.

  2. Hi Paul,
    I never claimed the two classification systems were connected. I was addressing Bordeaux classification systems in general as was Kavanaugh’s article. But I can see I didn’t mark the distinction between the two clearly. In the end I was arguing that the St. Emilion approach would be untenable for the Left Bank to adopt. Since the 1855 classification is an anachronism and reclassification a nightmare, they should just discard the whole idea

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