Bordeaux 1855: A Guide to the Grands Crus Classés

Bordeaux 1855: A Guide to the Grands Crus Classés

Last month I discussed Sauternes, and I make no apology for returning to Bordeaux in this article, in which I review a new book: Bordeaux 1855: A Guide to the Grands Crus Classés', published by Flammarion.

There are many books written about Bordeaux and its wines, all of which discuss, to a greater or lesser extent, the properties listed in the famous 1855 Classification of the Médoc and Sauternes. However, whilst each work takes an individual approach, to date there has not been a book that looks at the châteaux that considers how they cater for the wine tourist. This is remedied in this great new publication.

First, some personal perceptions wine tourism in recent years. From the last two or so decades of the Twentieth Century, many wine regions, particularly in the New World saw the value of 'wine tourists', usually consumers with a lively interest in wine, and in many cases a deep love of fine wines. Indeed by the middle of the first decade of this century the wine tourism experience in New World Countries had been defined and refined. By way of example, the experience of the visitor to Leeuwin Estate in Australia's Margaret River might include a tasting of new and older vintages in the well-designed tasting room, lunch prepared by a highly-accomplished chef, a visit to the art gallery and even an open-air concert in the estate park. In 2004 I was a speaker at the International Wine Tourism Conference held in Margaret River, by far the largest gathering of professionals to date. Australasia was far from being alone in offering great experiences to wine tourists. In the first decade of this century I led many wine tours to South Africa, Chile and Argentina. A winery visit for my group might include a tour of the vineyards in a horse drawn carriage, stopping at impromptu tasting tasting tables, a barbecue lunch on the winery deck, matching the meal with estate wines, or a blending experience in a private, well-fitted tasting room.

Europe was beginning to catch up, perhaps spearheaded by wineries in Rioja and the opening in 2003 of the Hameau Dubeouf in Beaujolais, which remains Europe's largest wine theme park. However, Bordeaux placed itself above such vulgarities. Bordeaux, is without doubt the largest 'fine' wine region in the world, but whilst the wine trade and press has always been well received, until quite recently the wine loving consumer was not well catered for. I well recall having a conversation with the then owner of Mouton. Rothschild, the late Baronnne Philippine de Rothschild, when I detailed how New World wineries welcomed tourists. "Keith", she said, "you have to remember we are not running a theme park here in Bordeaux." The consumer, should they venture to a château was often seen as an inconvenience. There were some notable exceptions, particularly Château Prieurie-Lichine, where from 1952 the late, great, Alexis Lichine had a tasting room that was open 364 days a year! I believe that this was the first such tasting room for the general public anywhere in the world. Alexis was a pioneer, recognising that that if the visitor had an enjoyable and memorable experience, they would become an ambassador for the winery, and the entire wine region .

Bordeaux 1855: A Guide to the Grands Crus Classés

So, back to the book. It is the brainchild of the Conseil des Grands Crus Classé du Médoc in 1855. As such, the approach taken is from a positive stance, but the work in no way comes across as advertorial. A large number of contributors are credited in the Acknowledgements section, but the editors credits (Ronite Tubiana/Helen Adedotun) are understated. There is a Foreword by Stephane Bérn. The book is published by Flammarion.

This a delightfully designed, beautifully illustrated and uplifting work. The cover is a tactile, semi-hardback in a deep maroon/purple colour that immediately leaves me longing for a small glass of maturing Médoc, The book opens with a couple of short chapters on the history of the city, region and its wines, including some fascinating information about the relationship with the United States. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson, devised a classification divided into three categories of grand crus? The chapter Bordeaux, An Essential Destination details the 'must see' sites and museums in the city. For the wine lover these include the CIVB (Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux) operated Bar à Vin, where great value Bordeaux wines can be tasted, accompanied by boards or charcuterie or cheese.

The heart of the book comprises short chapters that profile the individual châteaux included in the 1855 Classification which welcome wine tourists. For both the Médoc and Sauternes the properties represent just under a half of those classified in 1855. It is particularly good news that these include some of the most prestigious, most beautiful, most interesting and whose wines are the most exciting today. There are still estates that shy away from receiving consumers generally - indeed at Mouton, little seems to have changed.

There is most helpful practical information for each property, including the types of tour, tasting or other experiences offered, together with contact details and price indication. As well as the 'traditional' wine tastings, some châteaux offer 'hands-on' experiences, such as the blending workshops at Château La Tour Carnet, where participants can blend their own wine from proved core varietal components, and even take away their unique bottle, labelled accordingly! Some properties offer guest rooms or have a restaurant, and these are detailed. There are maps showing the location of the wineries in each chapter, together with a useful loose map. I should stress that it is advisable, and in many cases necessary, to contact a château to arrange a visit!

Towards the end of the book there some 'ad hoc' sections with information such as the terroirs of the Médoc and Sauternes, bottle sizes, and a worthwhile vintage chart. The Chapter entitled Visitors' Guide includes golf, wine excursions, sports events and products from the region of Nouvelle Aquitaine. The short chapter_ Addresses_ gives contact details for some restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts at châteaux and wine bars. This list is very selective. The work concludes with a useful directory of all the 1855 Crus Classés.

There are a few errors and typos, which is a pity as the detail is generally very accurate. Importantly, the vineyard area is stated as 29,000 acres - this should be 290,000 acres, although the stated figure in hectares is correct.

This book will prove very valuable to any wine lover planning a visit to Bordeaux, its vineyards and châteaux. Highly recommended.

'Bordeaux 1855: A Guide to the Grands Crus Classés', published by Flammarion. Price: £22

Bordeaux 1855: A Guide to the Grands Crus Classés

At many times in recent years, and by many writers and critics, the validity and relevance of the 1855 Classification has been called into question. Some individuals, for example 'the emperor of wine', the now retired Robert Parker Junior, have attempted to draw up their own classification. Parker, probably more than any other living person, did more to raise the profile of châteaux that produce wines in the style that he likes. He has expounded: 'unbridled density of fruit'; 'it's hard to believe the wine is this concentrated and rich'; 'the wine has great concentration, a magnificent, full-bodied mouthfeel,....' Other properties, whose wines are terroir driven, unlike the fruit bombs favoured but Parker, perhaps did not receive the recognition they deserved.

Of course in the (nearly) 170 years since the classification, there have been many changes to the listed châteaux, but only one major and one minor change to the list. The Phylloxera louse invaded the vineyards, properties have changed hands, have expanded or contracted (any increase in the land under vine must always be within the appellation), and yields today are generally higher. At times some of the châteaux went off form, and even fell into disrepair, but the investment in the last couple of decade has been phenomenal.

We live in a time when many of the foundation stones, and pillars of our culture and beliefs seem to have been torn away. Trust in governments, the police, the press, and the medical profession seems to be a distant memory. For lovers of Bordeaux and its wines it is comforting that the landmark 1855 classification of the wines of the Médoc and Sauternes is still in place. And, on the whole, it is as valid today as it has ever been.