The 1855 Classification and Second Wines
Jane Masters MW is Opimian’s Master of Wine
An increasing number of Bordeaux wine estates produce a second wine. Some produce third and even fourth wines. These are nothing new. There are records dating back to the 18th century of famous estates making second wines.
But second wines are not the sole preserve of famous or classified growths, they are made by many estates and can offer excellent wines at more affordable prices. The highest quality wines are made by estates that strive for excellence. Producing a second wine allows winemakers to use only the very best barrels of wine for the “Grand Vin”. The balance, those that don’t make the cut, are cascaded down to a lower level, available to go into producing a second, third or fourth wine. Some wine may even be sold anonymously on the bulk market. This assures the quality of the Grand Vin is maximized at the same time some cash flow is generated. The same care and expertise are employed in vineyard management and wines are made in much the same way conferring the house style. As consumers, we get high-quality wines ready for earlier drinking and an apercu of the Grand Vin.
Second wines are often produced from grapes from younger vines. Grape vines can live for centuries. Generally, older vines of 20+ years consistently produce grapes that create wines with greater complexity and depth. Younger vines can produce concentrated quality grapes and must be nurtured if they are to make great wines in future. Specific vineyard plots, which produce lighter styles or different flavours, may be designated to the second wine on an ongoing basis. Alternatively, plots may be declassified for one year due to particular growing conditions and weather events. Counterintuitively, the quality of second wines may actually increase in difficult years as a result of a greater proportion of wines cascaded down a level.
The Bordeaux region has the highest density of premium wine estates of any wine region in the world. Many of these have been traded internationally for centuries and a number of classification systems exist. The most famous of these is the 1855 classification ordered by Napoleon III to showcase the best of France at the Exposition Universelle de Paris. A group of négociants and brokers ranked the top 60 Bordeaux estates of the Médoc (including Haut-Brion) into five classes according to wine prices paid. The most expensive wines, namely Lafite, Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion, who had developed a strong reputation for quality and a loyal following, became the First Growths. Bordeaux sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac were ranked at the same time. The classification, reflecting the market’s view of relative quality, was simple and easy to understand and has stuck. It was based on the estate name rather than vineyard sites. This means that a classified growth purchasing a neighbouring vineyard from a non-classified estate can immediately incorporate it and increase the amount of wine they produce. Many classed growths have significantly increased their vineyard holdings since 1855. Wine quality can change over the years–in either direction–but the classification has remained the same, apart from the notable exception of Mouton Rothschild, which became a First Growth in 1973 after years of lobbying. Estates recognized for producing the highest quality wines command higher prices than their peers, such as the group of “super seconds” which includes Châteaux Pichon Baron and Ducru-Beaucaillou.
Despite a longer wine history that goes back to the Romans, the first classification of Saint-Émilion wines was not made until 1955. Trying to address some of the limitations of the 1855 system, Saint-Émilion classified specific vineyards based on soils and implemented reviews of the classification approximately every ten years. Despite their best intentions, the system is controversial and has created dissatisfaction, leading to several top estates withdrawing from the classification system. There are also classifications for Cru Bourgeois and the red and white wines of the Graves/Pessac Léognan region with different rules and criteria. Yet Pomerol, home to some of Bordeaux’s most expensive and sought-after wines, has none.
Any classification is a snapshot in time, not a guarantee of absolute quality. Not being classified doesn’t necessarily mean lower potential: there are high-potential sites that for whatever reason were never included in a classification. It takes time and resources to gain recognition. Being classed is certainly an advantage, but the smartest classed estates don’t rest on their laurels. They are continually looking for ways to improve wine quality, which continues to build reputation and demand, which in turn increases prices paid, allowing the estate to re-invest in quality and creating a virtuous circle.