What's Happening To The Price Of Bordeaux Wines?

Somebody asked me recently whether the deepening recession might halt the recent runaway price increases of the top wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. An interesting question.

Doing a bit of research led me to a recent attempt to re-classify the 1855 classification of clarets. Let me recap briefly on what the 1855 Classification means. Officially it means nothing at all, but unofficially it’s probably the most important ranking of wines in the world.

In response to The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, London, in 1851, Napolean III (Bonaparte’s nephew – see how nepotistic these revolutions invariably become?) decided he wanted one. The result was the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855. Obviously it wasn’t as good as ours, but as his centrepiece Napolean had asked for a definitive classification of the wines of Bordeaux.

The classification was compiled by the Bordeaux Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie. As time was short, the experts relied solely on price as a mechanism for ranking wines. Some may think this a bit shallow, but it worked remarkably well. It did introduce some anomalies. For example the port of Bordeaux had a monopoly on exporting the wines of the médoc, so to be a bit closer to Bordeaux was an advantage when touting to the wine merchants of the day. At the margin, a vineyard closer to Bordeaux was just a little bit more convenient, and therefore just a little bit more expensive, and finally just that little bit higher up the rankings.

But if the measure of a ranking system is whether it is used, then this one passes with honours. In total, 61 red wines were classified, in 5 groups, and their listing was in strict order from No.1 to No. 61, headed by Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and 3 other Premiere Grand Crus Classé (Margaux, Latour and Haut Brion).

But although the Grand Exposition finished 154 years ago, and there have been many subsequent attempts to classify these same wines, it’s the 1855 listing that lives on. Even more bizarrely, there have been some changes after the event, most famously Baron Philippe de Rothschild persuading the French Agriculture Minister in 1973 (Jacques Chirac – ring a bell?) to promote Mouton-Rothschild from 2nd to 1st growth.

I’m often intrigued by why people pay attention to this. By 1973, Mouton-Rothschild had become arguably the best and most expensive wine in the world, and certainly wasn’t hampered by its 2nd class ranking for an exhibition from 1855. And who is Jacques Chirac to change a ranking that had expired more than 50 years before he was born? The change was resisted for decades by Chateau Lafite-Rothschild – not only Philippe’s next-door neighbour, but also his cousin! But the change was made, and now everybody accepts it.

Click here for a surprisingly interesting article from Decanter Magazine, when they were lucky enough to interview the current owners of both these estates, Philippine de Rothschild, and Eric de Rothschild.

For all the anoraks out there, this is not the only change to the 1855 classification. In 1856 Château Cantemerle was added as a fifth growth, for reasons I can’t be bothered to find out, and more obscurely Château Dubignon, a third growth from St.-Julien, was removed when it became part of another estate.

Cornell University recently produced a revised ranking based on ratings given to the wines from 1970 to 2005. Among other interesting results they demoted Mouton Rothschild to 2nd. Have you learnt nothing? Don’t mess with the Moutons, life’s too short! But they did promote Chateau Lynch-Bages, where we visit on our Bordeaux Winetrail, to 2nd . So I like it.

The Liv-ex wine exchange attempted a more comprehensive set of revisions using the same criterion as in 1855, price. They also promoted Lynch-Bages to 2nd, as well as Mission Haut-Brion to 1st. But Mouton stays in the top tier – they’ve clearly paid more attention than Cornell, you simply don’t mess with them Moutons.

So what of the prices? Regardless of any guff you may have heard, prices of fine wines have fallen dramatically in the last year. As you would expect, the really fine vintages from the best estates have come closest to holding their value, but everything has fallen. Who knows, people may even stop buying classed growths for investment and drink them instead. A silver-lining in this dreadful cloud of recession.

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