While Bordeaux's wine rules and regulations may seem like an intimidating web of overlapping restrictions and ongoing revisions, one does not need to be an AOC classification expert to know and enjoy the region's celebrated wines. Though the more you do know about how the wines are categorized the better your chances of finding wines that fit your specific style and palate preferences, along with individual budget requirements.
In general, Bordeaux's regional wine rules dictate what grape varieties may be grown where and how (no irrigation, all AOC wines are dry farmed) and to what levels of alcohol a wine may be made (14% is the max). If one doesn't want to play by the designated wine rules, they cannot enjoy all of the perks and privileges that go along with AOC labels and must be relegated to the simple status of "table wine." Chardonnay, for example, while known, grown and revered in Burgundy is not allowed in the AOC regions of Bordeaux. If someone has a particular passion for the Chardonnay grape and desires to experiment with it in Bordeaux, by all means. However, it will only be eligible for "table wine" label designations, regardless of quality, consistency or other indicators. If it's any consolation France also enforces AOC regulations on potatoes, butter and cheese, so it's not just wine that has to suffer through strict adherence to complex classifications.
Bordeaux Wine Classifications: Grapes vs. Place
The wines of Bordeaux are not labeled and sold by varietal but by terroir. To the Bordelais knowing where the grapes were grown is more important than knowing what grapes were grown. Case in point, the terms "left bank" and "right bank" are used liberally to refer to which side of the river, Gironde, and its tributaries the Garonne and Dordogne, the grapes are grown.
With Merlot being the most widely planted red grape in Bordeaux, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and rounded out with Cabernet Franc, grape-growing villages located on the right bank have historically made wines dominated with Merlot. These right bank wines enjoy plenty of support from Cab Franc, with some Cabernet Sauvignon also making its way into certain blends. The story on the left bank plays the opposite tune. The Bordeaux wines sourced from the left bank tend to star Cabernet Sauvignon in the starting lineup with Merlot and Cab Franc rounding out the second string.
While it would be nice and easy to box up the right bank as "Merlot" and left bank as "Cab," Bordeaux is always a blend and delicious exceptions abound on both banks. To add to the intimidation factor, Bordeaux's wines are subject to a cumbersome classification system. Originally intended to delineate the best Bordeaux for the 1855 International Exposition in Paris, Napoleon III asked brokers to pick the top Medoc wines to showcase at the fair. These wines were categorized by quality and price from 61 chateaus (60 from the Medoc, and Chateau Haut-Brion from Graves) and today the classification still stands, but in the company of several other regionally-driven classification systems.
Navigating Bordeaux's Wine Classification System
Bordeaux's glamorous wine reputation took extensive root with the Classification of 1855 and has reached forward to enjoy an exceptional modern-day following based on winemaking techniques that have revolutionized with the times and terroir that has stood the test of time. Bordeaux's stature has been built on the famous names of Margaux, Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild, these high-end, heavy-hitting wines referred to as First Growths have maintained a high-dollar, high-profile following for decades. However, these First Growths only represent a tiny fraction of the wine produced and enjoyed from Bordeaux. Though the prestigious First Growths sell in the $1000+ per bottle range, the majority of Bordeaux's wine offerings sell for considerably less, in the $10-30 tier, with affordable options available worldwide.
These less expensive wines from Bordeaux are often termed "petit chateau."
The Hierarchy of Bordeaux Wines
The 1855 Classification
This classification spotlights the 61 top chateaus in the Medoc (left bank) region of Bordeaux, and is also referred to as the Grand Cru Classé. The Classification of 1855 begins with the First Growths, labeled "Premier Cru," and represents the crème de la crème in French red wines. The five chateaus that make up the Premier Cru, are still revered as producers of the best of the best from Bordeaux, as classified in 1855 for the Paris Universal Exhibition. There are five First Growths and they include the estates of Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Haut-Brion and more recently (1973) Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.
The Medoc Classification of 1855 included rankings for the top five First Growths (Premier Cru), the next best 14 estates classified as Second Growths (Deuxiemes Crus), followed by the Third Growths (Troisiemes Crus) with another 14 chateaus weighing in, then the Fourth Growths (Quatriemes Crus) hosting 10 chateaus and finally the Fifth Growths (Cinquemes Crus) with 18 estates making the cut. The Medoc AOCs of Pauillac, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan, St. Julien, St. Estephe and Haut-Medoc are all represented by these Grand Cru Classé chateaus.
The Graves Classification
This wine classification system was initiated in 1953, revised in 1959, and spotlights 16 chateaus for their acclaimed reds and remarkable white wines.
The Saint-Emilion Classification
The Saint-Emilion Classification covers two AOC classifications, one for Saint-Emilion and the other for Saint-Emilion Grand Cru (which has been subdivided further into The Grand Cru Classe and Premier Grand Cru Classé). These classifications began in the 1950s and the chateaus are reviewed every decade.
Cru Bourgeois Classification
While the Bordeaux wine classification systems can get pretty complicated at first glance, they start to spiral into some semblance of sanity with the Cru Bourgeois Classification, a single-tier classification.
This classification picks up many of the Left Bank reds that didn't make it into the 1855 Classification of Grand Cru Classés, highlighting estates that have a solid track record of quality production.
Specific Appellations of Bordeaux
These are unclassified Bordeaux reds from a specific appellation. On the label, you will see appellations simply designated as "Medoc," "Cotes de Blaye" or "Fronsac." These wines are typically a good bet for solid, value-driven Bordeaux.
Wines Designated as "Bordeaux" and "Bordeaux Supérieur"
Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are the generic wines of Bordeaux and make up about 50% of the wines from the region. These wines may source grapes from all over the region and usually sell in the value wine category, with Bordeaux Supérieur priced on the higher end due to grapes sourced from older, more mature vines. The label designate will simply read, "Appellation Bordeaux Controlee." Perhaps the most well-known example is Mouton Cadet, a very drinkable bargain Bordeaux typically selling around $8 a bottle.
The District of Pomerol
Like a breath of fresh air, the Bordeaux district of Pomerol has avoided the complicated classification process. Wine labels will simply indicate "Appellation Pomerol Controlée." Merlot serves as the region's dominate grape varietal, producing wines with softer tannins, more forward fruit and ready to enjoy earlier than their Cab cousins. Pomerol is Bordeaux's smallest wine growing region, with production just over 5 million bottles. The most famous resident of Pomerol is Chateau Petrus, the celebrated maker of one of Bordeaux's most expensive red wines.
The Bottom Line on Bordeaux Wine Classifications
While navigating Bordeaux's wine classification system is not for the faint of heart, gaining a basic understanding of how the Bordelais sift through the wines on their own turf can help set some purchasing parameters and temper buying expectations. Keep in mind that Classified Growths only represent about 3% of Bordeaux's wine market, impacting the image of Bordeaux in mighty ways, but not necessarily a true representation of the tasty, table typical Bordeaux wines that the Bordelais themselves consume on a daily basis. The wine classifications are just another piece of the puzzle, they are not mission critical to knowing and enjoying Bordeaux wines.