Medoc wines were first classified into categories or "growths" at the Universal Exposition of 1855 in Paris. Look on a label and you will see the ratings in descending order of prestige: Cru Classé, Cru Exceptionnnel, Cru Bourgeois Superiéur, and Cru Bourgeois. There are 61 chateaux with the highest level classification of Grand Cru Classé and more than 400 chateaux entitiled to be called Cru Bourgeois. Over the years the classifications have come to look like this:
- Médoc - 61 châteaux classified in 1855 as Grands, Crus Classés
- Médoc - 419 châteaux classified 1932-1978, as Crus Bourgeois
- Graves, 16 châteaux classified in 1959 as Grand Crus Classés
- Pomerol – no official classification
- Saint-Emilion classified in 1955 - 13 châteaux Premiers Grands Crus Classés and 55 châteaux Grands Crus Classes
The late Baron Philippe de Rothschild was the only person to successfully lobby for change of the 1855 ruling on classifications. Finally in 1973 Château Mouton-Rothschild’s classification moved from a 2nd to 1st growth. From then on the wine labels read, "First I am, second I was, Mouton does not change".
Wine is by far the most famous product of Bordeaux and owes its origins in large part to the impatience of the Romans. Between the 3rd and 4th century B.C., the port town of Burdigala (now Bordeaux) was dominated by the tribes of Gaul until Roman rule was established in 59BC. The precious Roman wines were always arriving late, not to mention becoming increasingly expensive. Tired of waiting, the Roman entrepreneurial instincts culminated in the production of acceptable local wine. The first recognized wine producer in the region was the Latin poet Ausonius (AD 310 -393).
Soon the Bordeaux shippers supplied wine to the emperors of Rome and much later to the lords and kings of England. It was actually the English who became the real connoisseurs of Bordeaux vines and established the pre-eminence of the wines before the French! One can thank Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 for starting the wine trade gushing towards England when she married the future king of England, Henry Plantaganet the Count of Anjou, bringing with her the lands of the Aquitaine region. This was the main event that established the Bordeaux wine industry and through trade to England made Bordeaux wine a rising star. By the 18th century Louis XV was enjoying these subtle and aristocratic wines introduced to him by the Maréchal de Richelieu and so favoured these wines that they became firmly established as the choicest wines all over France as well.
Aquitaine was an English province for three centuries and the early wines were shipped from the Graves area. The famous Médoc estates of Chateaux Latour, Lafite and Margaux were all probably planted in the last third of the 17th century. It was the Dutch who drained the wet lands of the Médoc creating a base for these now world famous reds. The 19th century saw the golden age of wine making and the greatest châteaux of the region were built. Some of these superb vines helped to establish vineyards as far away as Argentina and Chile. In France, horrifically, a series of plant plague, beginning with odium in 1852, and phylloxera in the 1870’s, infested, killed and continued to ravage the vines into the 20th century. It was not until the 1950’s that profits enabled some of the internationally known chateaux to stage the serious comeback that allows us to savour what are arguably the best wines in the world today.