There are approximately 10,000 chateaus that produce wine in Bordeaux today and in particular, the Bordeaux 1855 Classification singles out 58 of the finest Bordeaux wines – mainly from the district of Medoc – and gives them Grand Cru status. What many don’t know is that the classification was unofficially established well before 1855.
With a history spanning over 2,000 years, the popularity of wine from Bordeaux first took off in England in the 1600s. After a while, the Brits did not want just any generic Bordeaux wine, so they requested for merchants to acquire wine from specific areas within the region; by the end of the 17th century, buyers were even asking for specific wine brands.
It was during this time that the industry gradually grouped four of the best wines together and set the stage for the 1855 classification: “Premier Cru” denoted the first growth within the five Grand Cru Classe.
In the years that followed, a second group of wines (called second growth) was formed, and by the 1850s there were five well defined group classes. And when Napoleon III wanted a list of the best Bordeaux wines to be made public during France’s 1855 International Exhibition, winemakers turned naturally to the five growths system.
In effect, the 1855 classification recognised the popular wine brands at the time. 150 years on, the system has only had minor adjustments and is still very much relevant today. Although the 1855 classification is the most reputable, there are three other wine classifications in the Bordeaux district, one being the 1955 Saint Emilion classification, which is updated every 10 years or so.
EN PRIMEUR AND NEGOCIANTS
The best Bordeaux, and especially Grand Cru wine, are sold through the wines futures trade called en primeur. Here, wine growers sell their product two years in advance, way before the product is even bottled. En primeur takes place every spring and winemakers sell wine from the previous year, traditionally harvested in autumn.
As an example, the offer for the 2012 vintage just came to a close late last month, and buyers will receive their wine in spring of 2015. An important proponent of en primeur is the wine broker or merchant (negociants); these are the people buying the future wine from winemakers.
Negociants have the important role of marketing and distributing Bordeaux wine all around the world. From the estimated 150 negociants in Bordeaux, around 50 yield a great deal of power. Although some growers sell direct to buyers, negociants came to be mainly because many growers only own a relatively small parcel of land and can’t afford to invest in a worldwide marketing arm of their own. There is also the lucrative allure winemakers being able to pocket money two years in advance.