Jeffrey Cohen, Wine Specialist

The 1855 Classification:

In 1855, Napoleon III, emperor of France, decided to throw a Universal Exposition in Paris, a kind of world’s fair, and wanted all the country’s wines represented. He invited Bordeaux’s Chamber of Commerce to arrange an exhibit. The members of the Chamber knew a hornet’s nest when they saw one, so they passed the buck. They agreed, according to their records, to present “all our crus classés, up to the fifth-growths,” but asked the Syndicat des Courtiers, an organization of wine merchants, to draw up “an exact and complete list of all the red wines of the Gironde that specifies in which class they belong.”

The courtiers hardly even paused to think; two weeks later, they turned in the famous list. It included 58 châteaus: four first-growths, 12 seconds, 14 thirds, 11 fourths and 17 fifths. They expected controversy. “You know as well as we do, Sirs, that this classification is a delicate task and bound to raise questions; remember that we have not tried to create an official ranking, but only to offer you a sketch drawn from the very best sources.”

Curiously, all of the courtiers’ selections came from the Médoc, with the single exception of Haut-Brion (they also ranked the sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac). It’s not that other wine regions weren’t active; the Graves boasted a much longer history, and Cheval-Blanc in Saint-Émilion and Canon in Fronsac were highly regarded by the early 19th century. But the 18th century revolution in wine quality took hold first and most firmly in the Médoc.

Reaction to the classification was heated. The courtiers’ original list ranked the châteaus by quality within each class, so, for example, Mouton Rothschild appeared at the head of the seconds. But undoubtedly responding to criticism, they wrote the chamber in early September insisting that no such hierarchy had been intended, so the chamber rearranged the list of each class into alphabetical order.

Since 1855, many changes have occurred in the châteaus’ names, owners, vineyards and wine quality, and because of divisions in the original estates, there are now 61 châteaus on the list. But if an estate can trace its lineage to the classification, it retains its claim to crus classé status. The only formal revision came in 1973 when, after half a century of unceasing effort, Baron Philippe de Rothschild succeeded in having Mouton elevated to first-growth status.

I wanted to give just a little bit of history of how things are classified in the world of wine, mainly France. Over the course of the year, many of these wines have been procured by the Club for your dining enjoyment. It is a challenge to get these wines regularly and as soon as they are consumed it leaves me trying to find replacements. Some of the wines to talk about are the Château Haut-Brion, Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and the Château Lynch-Bages. These all are Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wines. Another that was just brought in was the Château Angélus, which is a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru that will be Merlot dominant. All of these wines are made in an old-world style that will totally encompass the “place.” They might seem earthy at first before the fruit comes through. These are quite different than the domestic wines where the winemaking is made to be all about the fruit. Whichever style you like, all of these wines will pair nicely with beef and game.

One dish that is well known is the Beef Wellington. It is perfect for the French wines. I will break down the ingredients and why it will be so harmonious. First you start with a super lean beef tenderloin. A mushroom-duxelles is added to the top of your tenderloin with fresh truffles. These both bring out the earthiness of the wine. The richness comes from the buttery, flaky, puff pastry, which will surround the steak as it bakes to a perfect golden brown. It is also traditional to finish off with some sort of rich sauce like a port wine demi-glace. To complement the wine even further, dark berries can be added to the demi-glace. 

If there is wine left over, you can certainly pair the rest with dessert or have a second bottle. A deep dark chocolate torte will certainly be nice. The tannins from the chocolate will balance with the wine’s tannins. Another dessert that will work, are chocolate covered strawberries!    

Happy holidays to all of you and let’s all wish for a happy and healthy New Year!Jeffrey Cohen is the Wine Specialist at The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch. He can be reached at jcohen@cordilleraranch.com.

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