It is 150 years this year since the Bordeaux classification was first published. Jim Budd takes a look at that original listing and compares it with how a new classification might look today if it were created using the same criteria

The 1855 classification of the Médoc and Graves, drawn up in some haste for the Universal Exposition in Paris the same year, has remained essentially unchanged ever since. Apart from the inclusion of Cantemerle in September 1855 and the promotion of Mouton-Rothschild in 1973, there have been no alterations and no re-evaluation. On its 150th anniversary, should we toast those who drew up the longest-surviving wine-property classification still in use, or lambast their successors for not having the courage to reform a list that is now comically out of date?

As Dewey Markham Jr shows in his definitive study, 1855: A History of the Bordeaux Classification, there are a number of enduring myths attached to the classification. The notion that it was the emperor Napoleon III who requested it is perhaps both the most erroneous and the most potent. In reality, the 1855 classification was drawn up as an afterthought, and there was no intention that it would become the immutable order it now appears to be. Markham describes how the 1855 classification only became the classification decades after the Universal Exposition had closed its doors in November 1855.

The 1855 classification was far from the first attempt to classify Bordeaux wines, but it has proved unexpectedly to be the most enduring. It was the culmination of a number of classifications, which, as far as surviving records are concerned, started in 1647 with a list from the Bordeaux Jurade of prices achieved by the various communes. Gradually the emphasis moved from the communes to individual properties. Among the best-known classifications were those by Jefferson (1787), Jullien (1816, 1822, 1832), Franck (1824, 1845, 1853, 1860), Redding (1833) and Cocks (various editions from 1846). Most classifications ordered the leading properties into four or five classes, often with an order of merit within each class.

It is interesting to note that in various classifications before 1855, Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour and Margaux were undisputed first growths, while the position of Mouton-Rothschild (then called Branne Mouton) fluctuated wildly within the second class, with Jefferson listing it as a third. It was never considered a first, although an unsuccessful attempt was apparently made during the Universal Exposition to have it promoted. The genius of the 1855 classification was to base the classification solely on the price of the wine, rather than on tasting judgments. As Markham explains, the idea of showing wine at the Universal Exposition was very much an afterthought, since the theme of the Exposition, like that of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, was very much on new industrial products and inventions rather than traditional agricultural products such as wine. In mid-March 1854, Napoleon Jerome, a cousin of Napoleon III and president of the Imperial Commission for the Universal Exposition, ordered the prefects of France's 86 departments to set up regional committees to encourage, arrange and coordinate exhibits from throughout France. In all, 208 committees were established, including one for the Gironde. It was not, however, until November 1854 - when the departmental committee for the Côte d'Or informed its equivalent in Bordeaux that wines from Burgundy and Champagne were to be exhibited - that the possibility of including wines from Bordeaux was considered, even though Nathaniel Johnston - négociant and proprietor of several châteaux, including a share in Château Latour - was a member of the regional committee.

The regional committee quickly decided that it did not have the contacts and expertise to organise an exhibition of wines, and it was agreed that the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce would take over. Before it handed over responsibility for organising Bordeaux's display of wines to the Chamber of Commerce, however, the committee decided that making a selection by tasting would be too complicated and controversial. How right they were! Had the Chamber of Commerce chosen to select or classify by tasting, it is probable that the court cases would still be running 150 years on: witness the disputes that have arisen from the reclassification of the cru bourgeois in 2003.

Initially, the Chamber of Commerce concentrated on soliciting samples for the display. Early on they decided that, in order to avoid controversy, the wines displayed should not carry their customary labels but instead labels supplied by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce sent invitations to the leading properties and communes in the Gironde to supply samples both for the display and for the tasting that was to be held during the Exposition. Despite a reminder, the response from the châteaux was disappointing. In early April 1855, the Chamber of Commerce realised that a simple display of wine bottles was unlikely to grab the attention of visitors, so they decided that a large map of the Bordeaux vineyards and a classification of the leading wines would add the necessary interest to their stand.

On 5 April, the president of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce wrote to the Union of Brokers attached to the Bordeaux Commodities Market, asking for a list of 'all the red classed growths in the department, as exact and complete as possible, specifying to which of the five classes each of them belongs and in which commune they are located'. He asked for a similar classification for the 'great white wines'. The brokers sent their reply and the classification on 18 April. Such a rapid response suggests that this was a swift distillation of assessments built up over decades that the brokers used all the time. As Markham emphasises: 'There were no châteaux visits, no requests for samples, no tastings involved in the establishment of the rankings, nor was there any need of them. The 1855 classification was based on the readily available information that was used by the brokers in their daily transaction of business.'

There was no fanfare to announce the 'new' classification. It was not regarded as momentous, and it was quietly sent off to Paris for the Exposition along with the map and the wine samples. Indeed, many château owners were not aware of this classification until well after the end of the Exposition, something that suited the members of the Chamber of Commerce. The last thing they wanted was a chorus of complaint from the châteaux who had either been excluded or felt that they deserved to be in a higher class. Caroline de Villeneuve-Dufort, owner of Château Cantemerle, was one of the few who did know of its existence - and that Cantemerle was excluded. She appealed directly to the Union of Brokers. Until the 1854 vintage, Cantemerle had been sold to Dutch merchants, so the information the brokers had on Cantemerle's prices was sketchy. Villeneuve-Dufort convinced the brokers that Cantemerle was worthy of fifth-growth status and the property was added to the classification in September 1855, while the Universal Exposition was still on.

Over the second half of the 19th century, the 1855 classification gradually started to take on the status it has today, but not until the beginning of the 20th century was it made more formal. In 1901 the red-wine properties classified in 1855 set up the Union of Classed Growths in the Médoc. The Union of Classed Growths in Sauternes-Barsac followed.

The 1855 today

How accurate is the classification today? To try to answer this question I compiled a list of current prices over the last 19 vintages from 1985 to 2003, using case prices or caseprice equivalents. I then took the sum of the prices achieved by each property to test the current validity the 1855 classification, and I have used the results to suggest a new classification. I found that prior to the 1985 vintage, too many wines were either unavailable or sold at abnormally high prices, especially in poor vintages, because of their rarity. Since this difficulty did not arise with the first growths, there are results for them from 1961 to 2003 (see Table 1). As well as the 1855 properties, I have also included a selection of the leading cru bourgeois in the Médoc, including all nine of the new cru bourgeois exceptionnel, as well as some of the leading properties in Pessac-Léognan, Pomerol and St-Emilion. If no wine was offered in a particular vintage then it scored zero.

The majority of the prices come from brokers and merchants via wine-searcher.com, though I have also included some auction prices. Throughout, I chose the lowest reasonable price - excluding low auction estimates or optimistically low bids on Internet auction sites, as well as prices from brokers or merchants that appeared to be out of line. This revised classification is entirely on price; no account has been taken of reputation, and there is no tasting element. The results should be treated as indicative rather than conclusive - with more time and resources it would be possible for two or three people to compile an agreed list of prices for all of Bordeaux's leading properties.

THE RESULTS

Average price by class

In one sense, the 1855 classification is still valid. Although there are wide price variations among properties, the average sum achieved by each class (see Table 2) shows that the hierarchy remains intact. It is, however, a very close-run thing once we reach the fourth growths, with very little separating the fourths, fifths and leading cru bourgeois. It does confirm the gulf between the first growths and the rest.

In fact, the 1855 hierarchy is only maintained by the high prices achieved by Palmer among the thirds and Lynch-Bages among the fifths. If Palmer and Lynch-Bages are excluded, then the bunching of the lower categories is very evident, as column B shows. Now there is only £393 between the average sum total 1985-2003 achieved by the thirds and by the fifths; and significantly, the selection of leading cru bourgeois attain a higher average than the fifth growths.

Revised classification: 1855 properties only

In contrast to the average prices by class, the prices achieved by individual châteaux show very big variations on their 1855 positions (see Table 3). The results demonstrate that the five first growths are indeed a category apart, with a large gap between the first and second growths, while below the firsts a reclassification is essential. Some properties, such as Palmer and Lynch-Bages, clearly merit promotion, while others should be demoted and some excluded all together, since their price performance does not justify classed status. Although many seconds are in the upper third of the table, there is a wide range of prices in this class - from Léoville-Las-Cases at £11,573, to Durfort-Vivens at £2,892. Some seconds, such as Rauzan-Gassies and Durfort-Vivens, have performed particularly poorly. The gap between the best and the worst performers in the third and fifth growths is also large. Palmer accumulates £10,327 over the 19 vintages, while Marquis d'Alesme-Becker manages only £2,226 - a poor performance exacerbated by many vintages for which there is no current sales information. Among the fifths, the variation runs from Lynch- Bages at £8,841 to Camensac at £2,294.

In the recently published Bordeaux Châteaux (Flammarion, 2004), Markham states, 'The ranking system of Bordeaux's wines was based not on one year's results, nor even a half-dozen or so vintages; it was a long-term track record that earned a property its berth in the classification. If there was a sole reason why the properties appearing in the 1855 classification were included, it was simply because they deserved to be there.' The consistently low level of price achieved by certain classed châteaux over 20 years or so means that they no longer deserve inclusion, while the consistently high price achieved by others shows that they merit promotion.

I have retained the five classes, although with the bunching at the base of the pyramid, there is a case for combining the fourth and fifths. First growths are from £20,000 and above, seconds from £19,999 to £7,000, thirds from £6,999 to £5,000, fourths from £4,999 to £4,000, and fifths from £3,999 to £3,000. Properties below £3,000 are excluded. This cuts the number of classed growths to 49. It is ironic that Léoville-Barton becomes a top third growth - in part due to Anthony Barton's admirable policy of restraint over pricing.

Revised classification: 1855 properties plus some leading cru bourgeois

In light of the controversial recent revision of the cru bourgeois, it is intriguing to add in 13 of the leading estates to see how their price performance compares with that of the classed growths. As Table 1 already indicates, a number of the cru bourgeois merit classed-growth status (see Table 4). Sociando-Mallet comes in as the leading fourth growth along with Haut-Marbuzet and Siran, while Labégorce-Zédé would be the leading fifth and would be joined by seven other cru bourgeois. Of the 13, only Les Ormes de Pez and Potensac fail to qualify for classed-growth status, although their price performance is superior to that of seven classed growths. The results do, however, raise questions over the superiority of the bourgeois exceptionnels. Meyney and d'Angludet, two crus bourgeois supérieurs - the second category in the new classification - perform better than a number of exceptionnels. Both Sociando-Mallet and Gloria justify their owners' belief that their already high reputation makes it unnecessary to apply for cru-bourgeois classification.

Because of insufficient price evidence - only four current vintages were found on wine-searcher.com - it was unfortunately not possible to include Château Preuillac. This Médoc estate was bought by Yvon Mau and the Dutch liquor company Dirkzwager in September 1998. With the controversy over the new Cru Bourgeois classification, it would have been interesting to see how Preuillac fared in comparison with the leading cru bourgeois and the classed growths. Initially excluded from the new Cru Bourgeois classification, Preuillac was reinstated after a successful appeal to The Tribunal Administratif de Bordeaux.

Revised classification: Left and Right Banks In 1855, the wines of the Right Bank were not considered. The Right Bank had long made the commercial decision to trade with Dutch merchants, and concentrated on selling cheap wines. Table 5 adds a small sample of the top properties from the Right Bank, including Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Lafleur, Pétrus and Le Pin, as well as additional properties from Pessac-Léognan. This puts the 1855 classification into an entirely different perspective. The famous five are no longer at the top of the pyramid.

As Table 4 shows, the price gap between Margaux, the highest of the five existing first growths, and second-placed Le Pin is enormous - £67,408. In comparison, the gap between Margaux and Marquis d'Alesme-Becker, the lowliest château by price, is only £24,763. On this basis, it would be logical to make Pétrus and Le Pin the sole first growths and to classify Lafleur along with the five existing first growths as seconds. Politically, however, this course would be impossible, because of the objections that the current first growths and other demoted properties would surely make. The solution would be to take the precedent set by the Sauternes and Barsac 1855 classification, and the more recent St-Emilion classification, and make Pétrus and Le Pin premier cru supérieurs or first growth A, and the others premier cru or first growth B.

Although the first vintage of Valandraud was not until 1991, I have included it by averaging out the price between 1991 and 2003 and applying this to the missing earlier vintages. Since there was a series of good vintages, with the exception of 1987, from 1985 to 1990, it is reasonable to suppose that Valandraud would have performed then at least as well as its average price between 1991 and 2003. The price projection shows that Valandraud should be a first growth A, with only Margaux of the existing firsts performing better. Although Leoville-las-Cases is often seen as a super-second with pretensions to go higher, it is not a candidate for promotion to first-growth status. Instead La Mission Haut-Brion looks a better bet for future elevation.

In the combined table, Mouton Rothschild's claim to be a first growth is now open to some question. Since 1985, its price performance has been the least impressive of the first growths. Taking prices from 1973, when it was promoted, and 2003, Mouton remains the weakest of the first growths (see Table 5). Furthermore, its performance since 1985 is closer to La Mission Haut-Brion than Margaux: £6,240 against £5,746. It wouldn't, however, be logical to demote Mouton to second-growth status, since the gap between it and the rest of the second growths is very substantial - £9,019 to Angelus. However, going back to 1961, Mouton moves up to third place, just shading Lafite, with Haut-Brion a little further behind. Have standards slipped a little at Mouton following promotion?

Although Margaux has been the leading first growth since 1985, Latour takes over when you look at prices from either 1973 or 1961, showing its traditional consistency. The very significant price gap between Latour and the others from 1961 is largely due to the high price that the 1961 now fetches - £15,120 per case was the cheapest price quoted in October 2004.

The rise of the Right Bank has made the 1855 classification for red wines outdated, as the combined table shows. There should now be one overall classification for the red wines of Bordeaux, based solely on price, over as many years as is practical, with revisions every ten years. This classification could be constructed in Bordeaux, but the amount of information on the Internet means that it could, and should, be done virtually anywhere.