What Does the 1855 Bordeaux Classification System Mean Today?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single wine producer in possession of good terroir, must be in want of an appellation. While I may have *slightly* changed Jane Austen’s famous opening lines from Pride and Prejudice, the parallels between eligible young women of Austen’s era and winemakers and their terroir are more or less the same. If you have the land, the grapes, the know-how and the equipment, and you have worked long and hard to produce a wine that is top-notch, then isn’t it only natural that you would be rewarded? In the real world, yes. In the French fine wine world, non. 

Investment wines are not like other wines. These elite wines are wines that could potentially put your child through university, so when investing in them you need to have as much information as you can. And one piece of information that comes back time and time again is what is the cru? 

What is a Cru?

Also called the appellation or the growth, cru wines are an exclusive club of 61 wines from Bordeaux that were deemed the crème de la crème by Napoleon III in 1855. Basically, this breaks down to: 5 first growths, 14 second growths, 14, third growths, 10 fourth growths, and 18 fifth growth Bordeaux wines. Investors should note that this is only for red wines (bar the sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac). First Growth is considered the very best, and this cascades down in decreasing order.

When investing in wine through your favourite wine investing app, one of the things you have to consider is whether a wine has a cru or not. Those two little words on the label have the potential to make the difference between your child going to Cambridge or the local polytechnic.

History of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification System

The French wine world is traditional. This is something we know. It is a proud country that thrives on its heritage and (slightly snobby, let’s be honest) reputation. 

Much of this reputation is completely founded. In terms of wine investment, the French 1855 Bordeaux Wine Classification is one of the most important things to consider. Even though it’s over 150 years old, this ranking system has an incredible amount of impact on today’s fine wine market. 

The history is as follows … In 1855 Napoleon III, then emperor of France (and notorious wine aficionado), wanted to see all the country’s best wines represented. Thus the Universal Exposition in Paris was conceived. He invited Bordeaux’s Chamber of Commerce to arrange an exhibit. This would be easy right? Best wines from the best country all classified in a nice orderly manner? Job done.

Well, yes and no. The Bordeaux Wine committee  knew that if they didn’t represent only the very best Napoleon would not be a happy man. And the guillotine would be waiting. And nobody wanted that. So they agreed to present only 58 wines (we’ll get to the other two in a minute). These lucky few were four first-growths, 12 seconds, 14 thirds, 11 fourths and 17 fifths. Curiously, all the wines were from the Médoc, with one exception (Haut-Brion, see below). Other regions were surely worthy – Graves boasted a much longer history, and Cheval-Blanc in St.-Emilion and Canon in Fronsac were producing very, very good wines at the time – but Medoc was in vogue so it took the prize. If only they had known the effect that this, perhaps hasty decision would cause! 

Originally, the list of 58 was returned in order of perceived quality. Naturally, the French sense of pride was affronted – why was one Château considered better than another, mon dieu – so the list was quickly changed to alphabetical order. And it has remained that way ever since. It is the benchmark to what all Bordeaux wines aspire to. 

Since then, there have been very, very few changes to the list. There is much heated discussion in fine wine circles that the classification should be updated, but so far the list remains basically as it was in the 19th century. Just two changes have taken place: once in 1856 when Château Cantemerle was added as a fifth growth and, more famously, in 1973, when Château Mouton Rothschild was promoted from a second growth to a first growth after decades of intense lobbying by Philippe de Rothschild. The other two Châteaux that have joined the heady ranks of the classification list were brought on by a division in estate. 

The Médoc Classification of 1855

So, which are the wines that are included on the very influential list? Below is the original classification, with modern names in parentheses. Changes are highlighted in bold. 

First-Growths / Premières Crus

Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac

Château Latour Pauillac

Château Margaux Margaux

Château Haut-Brion Pessac, Graves (since 1986, Pessac-Léognan)

Second-Growths / Deuxièmes Crus

Château Mouton-Rothschild (elevated to first-growth in 1973) Pauillac

Château Rausan-Ségla (Rauzan-Ségla) Margaux

Château Rauzan-Gassies Margaux

Château Léoville Las Cases St.-Julien

Château Léoville Poyferré St.-Julien

Château Léoville Barton St.-Julien

Château Durfort-Vivens Margaux

Château Gruaud-Larose St.-Julien

Château Lascombes Margaux

Château Brane-Cantenac Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)

Château Pichon-Longueville Baron Pauillac

Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (Pichon Longueville Lalande) Pauillac

Château Ducru-Beaucaillou St.-Julien

Château Cos-d’Estournel St.-Estèphe

Château Montrose St.-Estèphe

Third-Growths / Troisièmes Crus

Château Kirwan Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)

Château d’Issan Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)

Château Lagrange St.-Julien

Château Langoa Barton St.-Julien

Château Giscours Labarde-Margaux (Margaux)

Château Malescot-St.-Exupéry Margaux

Château Cantenac-Brown Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)

Château Boyd-Cantenac Margaux

Château Palmer Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)

Château La Lagune Ludon (Haut-Médoc)

Château Desmirail Margaux

Château Calon-Ségur St.-Estèphe

Château Ferrière Margaux

Château Marquis-d’Alesme-Becker Margaux

Fourth-Growths / Quatrièmes Crus

Château St.-Pierre St.-Julien

Château Talbot St.-Julien

Château Branaire-Ducru St.-Julien

Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild Pauillac

Château Pouget Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)

Château La Tour Carnet St.-Laurent (Haut-Médoc)

Château Lafon-Rochet St.-Estèphe

Château Beychevelle St.-Julien

Château Prieuré-Lichine Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)

Château Marquis de Terme Margaux

Fifth-Growths / Cinquièmes Crus

Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac

Château Batailley Pauillac Château Haut-Batailley Pauillac

Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste Pauillac

Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse Pauillac

Château Lynch Bages Pauillac

Château Lynch-Moussas Pauillac

Château Dauzac Labarde (Margaux)

Château Mouton-Baronne-Philippe (Château d’Armailhac after 1989) Pauillac

Château du Tertre Arsac (Margaux)

Château Haut-Bages Libéral Pauillac

Château Pédesclaux Pauillac

Château Belgrave St.-Laurent (Haut-Médoc)

Château Camensac (Château de Camensac) St.-Laurent (Haut-Médoc)

Château Cos Labory St.-Estèphe

Château Clerc Milon Pauillac

Château Croizet-Bages Pauillac

Château Cantemerle Macau (Haut-Médoc). Added in 1856. 

1855 Classification of Sauternes and Barsac

Modern names in parentheses

Great First-Growth / Grand Premier Cru

Château d’Yquem Sauternes

First-Growths / Premières Crus

Château La Tour Blanche Bommes (Sauternes)

Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey Bommes (Sauternes)

Clos Haut-Peyraguey (Clos Haut-Peyraguey) Bommes (Sauternes)

Château de Rayne Vigneau Bommes (Sauternes)

Château Suduiraut Preignac (Sauternes)

Château Coutet Barsac

Château Climens Barsac

Château Guiraud Sauternes

Château Rieussec Fargues (Sauternes)

Château Rabaud-Promis Bommes (Sauternes)

Château Sigalas Rabaud Bommes (Sauternes)

Second-Growths / Deuxièmes Crus

Château Myrat (Château de Myrat) Barsac

Château Doisy Daëne Barsac

Château Doisy-Dubroca Barsac

Château Doisy-Védrines Barsac

Château d’Arche Sauternes

Château Filhot Sauternes

Château Broustet Barsac

Château Nairac Barsac

Château Caillou Barsac

Château Suau Barsac

Château de Malle Preignac (Sauternes)

Château Romer (Château Romer du Hayot) Fargues (Sauternes)

Château Lamothe Sauternes

What Does the 1855 Bordeaux Classification System Mean Today?

How does this list impact fine wine trades today? Well, wines with a cru on their label are almost guaranteed market success. Particularly if it’s a first or second growth – regardless of the vintage or quality, these bottles are always in high demand. However, improvements in winemaking, understanding of terroir, greater respect for traditional farming methods and comprehension of weather conditions have elevated many producers to cru classe status. The general feeling in the fine wine arena is that, while the 61 ones are all indeed very worthy, many producers are equally as good and in some cases surpass the quality of those on the list. 

Modern wine investors will thus need to consider more than just the famous 61. Global fine wine marketplace Liv-Ex (The London International Vintners Exchange) released a list of “their” classification which includes many more wines and is broken down into French wine by region, but also includes Italian, Spanish, America and New World wine. 

The takeaway is simple. Yes, the 1855 fine wine classification system is important, and who doesn’t want a famous wine in their portfolio? But today the Classification is not the only important piece of information that you need to consider when it comes to buying and selling wine. Investors would be foolish not to consider modern techniques, talented winemakers and estate reputations (along with the usual data of vintage, weather conditions etc.) when it comes to adding to their cellar. 

To learn more about the world of wine continue reading our guide on the world’s wine regions.

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