The 1855 Médoc classification has become an irrelevance, but can modern-day attempts to rank the leading wineries of a region do any better? David Williams considers the new Pomerol Classification and The California List
Wine classifications are the vinous equivalent of the caste system. Hierarchical throwbacks that are almost feudal in the way they separate the haves from the have-nots.
Still the wine trade can’t seem to do without them. This year alone we’ve already had the launch of two new 1855-alikes for regions that have hitherto been resistant to the idea of the immutable ranking.
The first, The California List, arrived in March, an attempt by the UK branch of the Wine Institute of California to, in the Institute’s own words, focus “on the producers that have been the most important in creating and driving the California wine category in the UK. A list of exceptional California producers renowned for their quality and overall impact in the UK”.
The list, which was put together by a panel comprising Jancis Robinson MW, Mark Andrew MW, Sarah Knowles MW, Ronan Sayburn MS and Stephen Brook, was whittled down to a final 51 from a longlist of 200. It differs from the 1855 Classification, or a similar ranking such as the Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine, in focusing on the producers, their “reputation and performance”, rather than individual wines or vineyards.
According to the Institute, there was no insistence that judges should settle on a round number, although the fact that the final list numbers 51 producers was apparently the result of disagreements about which producer would be left out in a putative 50.
And for California wine-lovers casting their eyes down the list, from Roederer in Mendocino to Williams-Selyem in Sonoma County, it’s certainly hard to argue that each of the names deserves their place.
All the expected names are there, but it’s far from conservative: from what might be called the “New California” of Arnot Roberts, Kutch or Domaine de la Côte, to the Judgement of Paris classical old guard of Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena, to the glossy cult names of Screaming Eagle and Sine Qua Non, there are representatives of each of California wine’s various winemaking “schools” or genres. Any quibbling about its composition is likely to concern the omitted rather than the included.
The Pomerol Nine
Something similar can be said about the other high-profile new ranking that emerged this spring. Like the California List, discussion about Le Figaro’s classification of the greatest estates of Pomerol is inevitably going to focus on who missed out, rather than who made the cut.
Unlike the California List, the Pomerol Classification, which used the historical price and wine critic score data collected by UK wine writer Ella Lister’s Wine Lister website (now part of Le Figaro stable), has a clear hierarchy, ranking estates from one to nine: 1. Pétrus, 2. Château Lafleur, 3. Vieux Château Certan, 4. Château La Conseillante, 5. Le Pin, 6. Château L’Évangile, 7. Château Trotanoy, 8. Château L’Église-Clinet, 9. Château La Fleur-Pétrus.
But it was a seemingly throwaway line in Le Figaro’s commentary on the classification, about why the list stretched only as far as nine rather than a neater 10 estates, that has piqued the interest of Bordeaux lovers and winemakers and château owners in Pomerol itself.
“We noticed a significant difference in level between the property in ninth position and the one in tenth, [so] our classification only covers nine châteaux.” Cue speculation about the identity of numéro dix and the extent of the gap to the relegation places.
Other than provoking pedantic/intellectually stimulating (delete as appropriate) discussions over their precise make-up, is there anything more to such lists than a publicity stunt? Do they actually serve a useful purpose for the general wine-drinking public?
To me it all rather depends on how flexible the list is, with the most successful and useful regional classifications all having mechanisms for adapting to change.
That’s very much not the case with 1855, of course, which has famously had but three alterations in its 177 years of existence: the inclusion of Château Cantmerle after it was unintentionally left out when the list was first drawn up; the promotion of Mouton-Rothschild from second to first growth in 1973; and the loss of Margaux third growth Château Dubignon after it was absorbed by Château Malescot St-Exupéry.
Of course, anyone familiar with Bordeaux, and certainly those who regularly buy from the region, will know that the bulk of the 1855 rankings are no longer accurate, and that many châteaux outside the classification are producing consistently better wines (and, just as relevantly, at higher prices) than many of those still officially inside. But despite its manifest obsolescence, its influence remains strong in merchant marketing and press coverage.
As the climate crisis bites, the aristocratic land registry that is the classification system in Burgundy and Champagne is also starting to feel increasingly anachronistic. As growers look to supposedly lesser crus or (village or region-level AC land) higher up the slopes to mitigate rising temperatures and shorter growing seasons, so the map of where the best wines come from is being rapidly if unofficially redrawn.
Happily, both the Pomerol Classification and The California List do offer scope for change. Indeed, The Wine Institute of California’s UK directors, Damien Jackson and Justine McGovern, are clearly aspiring to steer clear of officially sanctioned complacency.
As the pair put it in the statement accompanying The California List’s launch: “The California List is intended to be a snapshot of California wine in the UK market at a single moment in time, so the inaugural list, this Edition 1, reflects the current state of play.
“In the years to come, we will undertake this process again to discover new producers who the judges believe are now worthy of a place on the list, and perhaps even some who no longer hold their spot.”
A classification based on transparency, and democratic, meritocratic principles? Sacré bleu! It’ll never catch on.