FRENCH WINE- Classifications

When I first decided to touch on the topic of French wines I thought it was a great idea and I slowly came to realize I might have lost my mind. It is such an infinitely complex topic hindered by French ‘rules’, classifications and labels that seemingly tell you nothing … but here goes… There is a signpost with some basic facts that should be considered.

First of all, the French base their system by geographical regions as opposed to grape varietals- what that means is there are no labels that say “Chardonnay”- rather you might see Chardonnay wine labeled “Chablis”, because it comes from that region. Nor will they say “Pinot Noir”, those would be “Burgundy” red’s because they are named after that town where they are grown around or the region they are grown in. This category system is wrapped around a French concept called “terroir” which really means a recognition of the environment and its role on influencing the final flavor profile of the finished wine. A belief system predisposed to the notion that vineyards adjacent to each other are so different as to demand separate classifications. Just for the record, there are, of course, noticeable differences between most vineyards, I guess the real question that I’ve heard asked is: Are there enough differences to justify a classification system?

The French classification system actually dates back to 1855 and the original concept, some say, was inspired by the British Monarchy who purchased vast quantities of Bordeaux wines, which they called Claret. However in reality, it was the Gironde Chamber of Commerce who ordered the official classification inspired by Napoléon III and his desire to showcase the best of France at The Exposition Universelle de Paris.

This system identified five levels or ‘Growths’ covering 61 different Chateaux’s south of the Siene River, or “Left Bank”, with the “First Growth” classification being the most extraordinary quality, and garnering the highest price tags. From there Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Growths’ follow. You can imagine, of course, how this assists the modern day wine brokers immensely.

Without going into which Chateaux fits into which Growth, we’ll save that for another time; it should be noted there are levels of quality within each growth. In an effort not to devalue their brands, estates make multiple wines using declassified fruit that didn’t make it into their flagship wine. These are considered the “Second” and “Third” labels of these estates, which are successively less expensive and more accessible.

A Second wine is not typically labelled ‘Chateau’ and is a more affordable version of the prized wine of the Chateaux. An example could be seen in the photo below:

This collection of wines below are all 2nd labels produced, one from a 2nd Growth producer. The last falls outside the above classification despite being Margaux and one of the largest Chateau’s. We’ll save that for another time as well!

  • Les Griffons de Pinchon. Baron- 2015 2nd label of 2nd growth
    Big, rich, impressive dark fruits. Cellar to 2035. 93pt K&L $64.99
  • Reserve de la Contessa. Pauillac- 2015. 2nd label
    Impressive second wine! Cabernet based blend. Black fruits, chocolate and cherry. Will cellar out to 2025. 93pt JS. $59.99
  • Blason D’Issan, Margaux- 2015 2nd label
    Cabernet based blend. Great balance and silky texture. Great second wine. $39.99
  • Les Fiefs de Lagrange, St Julian- 2015 2nd label
    Impressive second wine! Cab / Merlot / Petite Verdot. Cellar to 2030. $36.99
  • Echo de Lynch Bages- 2015 2nd label
    Round, soft and seductive with outstanding potential for cellaring. Dark fruits, sweet oak and all Pauillic in nature. $64.99
  • Chateau Labegorce Margaux- 2015
    Bold, rich wine, dark fruits. Will age well!! 2025 onwards. 95pt WE. $44.99

Right Bank wines are not included in the official wine classifications but can of course produce exceptional wines including: 

So, although the French classification can be complex and has a rather long history, what isn’t complicated is idea that the very best of what the top wine producers in the world are offering, can easily be found, affordably and deliciously, if you just know a few basics. And if you don’t, no worries, that’s what we’re here for!!

Peter Ryan
Wine Director
Vine & Table


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 Vine & Table #301