Charles de Gaulle famously lamented the difficulty of governing a country with 265 different varieties of cheese. He could also have mentioned France’s multiplicity of wines but sensibly skirted the subject: the patchwork quilt of French wine production is daunting enough for wine experts, never mind generals. Bordeaux, for example, has 10,000 producers and 57 appellations. How do you decide what’s good, bad or paint stripper in all that? Has anyone mustered the courage and temerity to catalog or classify the wines of Bordeaux?
The short answer to the second question is that many have tried and most have failed. As a result, the answer to the first question is “with great difficulty”. What we have at present in Bordeaux is a hodgepodge of lists and rankings that seek to make sense of—and rate—the region’s output, but which generally add to the confusion.
Since 1954, for example, Saint-Emilion has divided its better wines into two main groups: the top châteaux can call themselves premier grand cru classé (with Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc by common assent occupying a special top niche within that category), while the others are merely grand cru classé. They have a chance to be promoted, because the classification must be revised every ten years, but therein lies the fly in the fermentation—because although producers are happy to be promoted (it generally means they can charge more for their wine), nobody likes to be demoted. Downgraded châteaux fought hard enough that the most recent reclassification attempt, in 2006, ended up in court. The result is that the current Saint-Emilion ranking generally reflects the previous 1996 classification plus the eight 2006 promotions, but no demotions—i.e. nobody loses except the puzzled consumer.
A similar fate has overtaken wines carrying the so-called cru bourgeois accolade created in 1932 by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and bestowed on some 444 leading vineyards of the day. Efforts to update the classification in the new millennium threatened a significant contraction—to 247—in the number of producers considered worthy of the cru bourgeois distinction. Lawsuits from domains facing dismissal followed faster than you can say cabernet sauvignon. The outcome—pleasing no one—was the outlawing of the term cru bourgeois as a designation of rank. Although, of course, châteaux that adhere to certain production methods and quality standards are now able to apply, annually, to use the term on their labels. Clear as claret, no?
So it’s confusion all around, and nowhere more so than with the mother of all rankings—the classification of Médoc wines drawn up in 1855 for the Exposition Universelle de Paris, an exhibition intended by Emperor Napoleon III to showcase France’s artistic flair, agricultural bounty and industrial prowess. He ordered Bordeaux’s wine brokers to compile a list of their best wines but didn’t specify how they should make their selection. Even in that pre-litigious era the brokers realized that a ranking relying on subjective criteria like taste was likely to prove contentious, so they selected their wines on the basis of the prices paid for them over several recent vintages—reasoning no doubt that price was a fair guide to quality. The result was a selection of 61 wines divided into five groups with premier grand cru wines—so-called “first growths”—at the top: Châteaux Latour, Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. At the bottom were 18 fifth growths. It was probably as good a guide to the best of Bordeaux as one could wish back then, but it was no more than a snapshot of the 1850s.
Fast forward to 2010 and the snapshot, alas, is still with us—as dated as a daguerreotype print despite efforts to revise it to reflect the ascendance of some châteaux, the decline of others and the demise of a good few. Many of the châteaux enshrined in the classification no longer work the same vineyards as they did back in 1855; others have been divided and some have amalgamated. And let’s not forget that with one exception—Château Haut-Brion from Graves—the 1855 ranking only considered red wines from Bordeaux’s Médoc region, thus excluding some of today’s stellar performers—Pomerol’s Château Pétrus, for example, or Saint-Emilion’s Château Ausone and Château La Mission Haut-Brion in Graves, all of which are equal to the premiers grands crus and certainly command comparable if not higher prices than the top Médoc wines.
Attempts to update the 1855 classification have consistently foundered on the rocks of inertia and vested interest, and nobody in Bordeaux seriously believes it will be reformed any time soon—if ever. A near-miracle occurred back in 1973 when Baron Philippe de Rothschild, after years of lobbying, managed to persuade his pal Jacques Chirac (then Minister of Agriculture) to issue a decree promoting Mouton-Rothschild to premier grand cru. But few other vignerons have the Rothschild clout and the rest of the classification has remained static as if preserved in amber.
So if the official rankings are unreliable, what’s a Bordeaux lover to do when it comes to choosing wine? The answer would seem to be trusting the experts—the wine merchants and gurus like The Wine Advocate‘s Robert Parker, who know the region inside out and who taste enough of Bordeaux’s finest to be able to provide guidance not only for châteaux but also for vintages. But this approach is not without its complications. Even the experts can disagree, and Parker in particular is a controversial figure whose power, some say, induces producers to make wines that conform to his tastes rather than the dictates of their own terroir.
Wherever the truth lies, Parker is hugely influential: last year many wine merchants were so convinced of the mediocrity of the 2008 vintage that they declined to visit Bordeaux for the traditional en primeur tasting of the new vintage, where judgement is passed and prices are set. Many of those who did attend the tastings judged the vintage to be better than they expected, but the consensus among the cognoscenti was that even the Bordelais, who have a reputation for rapacity, would not be able to justify another price increase. But they reckoned without Parker, who turned up in time to sample the vintage and spent ten days tasting and re-tasting more than 400 of the 2008s. His verdict: “It did not take me long to realize that the 2008 vintage was dramatically better than I expected.” Many of the 2008 wines, he said, compared favorably with the superb 2000 and 2005 vintages. Not surprisingly many of the cognoscenti swiftly revised their opinions, and prices firmed dramatically.
But if they disagree on the merits of different vintages, most experts agree on which Bordeaux are the very best, and in that the 1855 classification still has some relevance. All four of the original first growth châteaux would surely make it into a new classification, as would latecomer Mouton-Rothschild. Many believe that La Mission Haut-Brion from the Graves region deserves a place in the top ranking and a few might argue that Palmer, currently a third growth, could hold its own at the top table. And Ausone, Pétrus and Cheval Blanc from the right bank (north of the Dordogne River as opposed to left bank wines south of the Garonne and the Gironde Estuary) are uncontested stars. Buy them if you can afford them.
It’s lower down in the firmament that opinions diverge. Triage based on price alone, as in 1855, would propel a number of châteaux into the ranks of the grands crus. These include Châteaux Sociando-Mallet, Haut-Bailly, Pape Clément, Haut-Marbuzet and a number of others. But rating a wine is really not just about price. It’s about the reaction—almost chemical—between individual wines and wine drinkers. Bordeaux is not a homogenous region but a complex combination of different terroirs. Merlot is the dominant force on the right bank of the Dordogne—in Pomerol and Saint-Emilion—whereas cabernet sauvignon rules in the left bank Médoc. The advent of a skilled winemaker or owner with deep pockets can make the difference between an underperforming château and a rising star. Fashion plays a part, and so does publicity: in Asia a popular Japanese manga known as Kami no Shizuki (The Drops of God) has such a huge and faithful following that the mere mention of a wine in its pages can cause a buyers’ stampede.
So we thought a little subjectivity would not be amiss and asked three of our favorite experts to select some unclassified Bordeaux they believe are good enough to compete with the classified growths—the sort of wines that Anthony Barne of auction house Bonham’s calls “the likely lads”—wines that perform well year in and year out. His list: Sociando Mallet and Lannesan (Haut-Médoc); Labégorce (Margaux); Haut-Marbuzet and Les Ormes de Pez (Saint Estèphe); Bonalgue (Pomerol); Roc de Cambes (Côtes de Bourg); Maucaillou and Poujeaux (Moulis); and Moulin Saint-Georges (Saint Emilion).
Wine writer Jancis Robinson, of London’s Financial Times, has recently been tasting the 2006 vintage, with results you can find on jancisrobinson.com. Ten of her top-scoring lesser-known wines divide right down the middle, with five from Saint Emilion-Angélus, La Gomerie, L’Hermitage, Pavie Decesse and Tertre Roteboeuf—and five from Pomerol—L’Eglise-Clinet, Lafleur, L’Evangile, Valandraud and Vieux Château Certan.
And finally, Steven Spurrier, the expert and wine merchant who organized the notorious 1976 blind tasting in which upstart American wines outclassed some of France’s finest, has given us his top picks from the 2006 vintage: Phélan-Ségur (Saint Estèphe); Gloria (Saint Julien); Latour-Martillac and Branon (Pessac-Léognan); Joanin- Bécot (Côtes de Castillon); Clos Badon and L’Hermitage (Saint Emilion).
Obviously, expert opinions do diverge—only that last one, Château L’Hermitage, turns up on two out of the three lists. But you can rest assured, all these wines are good.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of France Today.