This article is an attempt to try and explain, to summarize one of the most significant but misunderstood classifications in the world of wine: the classification of the all famous Saint-Emilion wines in the Bordeaux wine region of France.
Watch the Saint-Emilion Classification Explained in Video
What is the Classification of Saint-Emilion Wine…? And When?
There are 5 classifications of the different wines of Bordeaux, for different areas and quality levels.
There’s the 1855 classification of the wines from Médoc and Sauternes, and I made a whole video explaining this one that you should definitely watch to understand that part that I’ll leave aside for now.
There’s the 1959 classification of the Chateaus of Graves, so that’s the Southern part of the Bordeaux region.
There’s Cru Bourgeois and Cru Artisan that no one really understands anymore, but that’s another story, and then there’s the classification of the wineries in one of the best areas of Bordeaux, on the right bank of the Garonne river in this case, Saint-Emilion.
The wines of Saint-Emilion where first classified in 1955, yes that’s exactly 100 years after the famous 1855 classification of the wines from the left bank. And that’s essentially because before World War 2, wines from the right bank weren’t as prestigious or important for the wine trade so they didn’t really feel the need to classify them before that.
Then, unlike the 1855 classification that virtually has never changed (except for a few small changes, see that other video for that), the classification of Saint-Emilion has been regularly updated, I mean a few times in its 64 years of existence.
It was updated in 1969, 1986, 1996, 2006, and ultimately, the last version of the classification was done the same year as Queen Elizabeth’s Dimond Jubilee and the year Facebook went public in 2012.
I won’t go through the history of all of those updates, but we’ll stick to how the latest 2012 version was done, how where the chateaus classified, and why?
How where the Chateaus classified in 2012?
That’s where is gets a little confusing, but I’ll try to untangle things for you as much as I can, so bear with me and let me know in the comments in anything isn’t clear.
First you have to know that Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, which you probably see often on labels, does not mean that the chateaus were classified. Grand Cru in Saint-Emilion doesn’t mean a whole lot but I’ll have to make another video about this otherwise this is going to get to long.
To get the classified chateaus, you have to look for Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé on labels, so classified Saint-Emilions.
Now, within the classification are 3 levels: Premier Grand Cru Classé (the first growths), of which there are 2 categories A & B, so Premier Grand Cru Classé A and Premier Grand Cru Classé B.
That’s were some people get confused. Because in Burgundy, and virtually everywhere else, Grand Cru is better than Premier Cru.
But in Saint-Emilion, Premier means better because it’s not just Premier Cru but Premier Grand Cru. Does that make sense?
And then you have the Grand Cru Classés, those that were classified, unlike all the other Grand Crus that are not classified, you’re following?
To give you an idea, there are a little over 200 producers of Grand Cru in Saint-Emilion, of which 82 are classified. It’s estimated that about 15 to 20% of the Grand Cru production is classified, and that’s because those who aren’t classified make a lot more wine than those who are.
Now, how did they pick those 82 Classified wineries?
That’s where it gets even more mixed up, but that’s ok, you’re following…
To get classified, wineries had to apply and send out wines to whoever was running the show. They didn’t go after every winery to collect all the wines and then taste. No, wineries had to send samples.
The wineries who wanted to apply to the top category, the Premier Grand Cru Classé A, had to send wines from the previous 20 vintages. So, in 2012 that would have been, I don’t know, like 1990 to 2010 or so.
Those who felt a little less confident and applied to the second category, Premier Grand Cru Classé B, had to send 15 vintages.
And everyone else who didn’t think they were some of the very best, sent the 10 previous vintages, so roughly all the wines from the 2000s.
Then once they got all those wines, the judges didn’t simply taste them all and ranked them by descending order of quality, not at all, that would have been to straight-forward.
What they did is that they considered 4 factors:
- Quality of the wines after the tasting
- The reputation of the chateaus on the marketplace
- The terroir, how good the soil of the estate is
- The estate’s practices (how they grow their vines and how they make their wine).
With these 4 factors, they gave each winery a score out of 20. Those with a score of 17/20 and over were Premier Grand Cru A, with a score of 16/20 were Premier Grand Cru B, everyone above 14 was classified, and everyone else was rejected. Simple right?
Well, it is a little weird because in each category, the weight of each factor in the scoring was different.
For example, the quality of the wines themselves accounted for only 30% of the score for the wineries applying to Premier Grand Cru status. While everyone who only applied just to be classified not for Premier, saw the quality of their wines weight for 50% of the score. And every factor had a different weight in each category, which makes it strange to understand but that’s what we’ve got. The French have to do things they own way, don’t they?
My understanding is that it was kind of an attempt to make sure those who had a great reputation staid around the top, while giving a chance to those who made great wine to get classified just thanks the quality of their production, and perhaps to eliminate a few black sheep.
In the end, after this very precise and somewhat mysterious French patisserie crafting, well there were 4 Chateaus that were designated as Premier Grand Cru A, 14 Premier Grand Cru B, and 64 Classified Grand Crus, so 82 in total.
The big update of this 2012 classification was that while there had always been only two super first growths, so in the A category, those had been Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone, two Chateaus entered this elite club: Chateau Pavie who’s always been one of Robert Parker’s favorite wines, and Chateau Angelus.
Ok, now let’s have briefly, a word on why all of this mixture, at least some views on it…
Why a Saint-Emilion Classification?
Now, that’s a bit of a difficult question to answer.
Why do the people of Bordeaux always need to rank their wineries this way, while most other wine regions don’t and leave the market decide how good the wines are?
Well I guess part of the answer is that they’ve always done it since Napoleon ordered the 1855 classification of the wines from the left bank, just because he was Napoleon and you know, he wanted it.
Since there’s always been huge trade around the wines of Bordeaux, huge business, loads of politics too, big bucks and stuff, so the region has always felt the need to rank wineries for the trade, and a little bit for the consumer. Although, on that last point, everyone knows that these classifications do not really reflect or correlate perfectly with the quality of the wines.
Some chateaus that are not classified are better than many that are. Some have a lower rank sell for more that some around the top. It’s all a little confusing!
My take on it is that because there’s been one initial classification and people love it, well, Bordeaux has to keep trying to classify their chateaus.
But I’ll pass the question off to you?
What do you think of the Saint-Emilion classification, and of the Bordeaux wine classifications in general? I’d really love to hear your thoughts.
What does that do for you as a wine consumer? Helpful? Useless?
Let us know in the comments down below.
Learn more about Saint-Emilion wines: vins-saint-emilion.com
Header image curtesy of vins-saint-emilion.com
Learn more about the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux Wine in Video