French Wine Guide

France. The Holy Grail of Wine. The Mecca of Fine Wines--has one complicated history and set of rules that set the standards for wine across the world.

The Down Low: France – all about where it’s grown and what is allowed to grow there.

A Brief Lesson on French Wine History:

It is commonly acknowledged that wine was brought to France by way of the Mediterranean through Provence (what the Italians fondly referred to as nostra provincial). Grape vines were imported from an ancient civilization of central Italy –the Estruscans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church took over vineyards in France and expanded growing regions. With the rise of Napoleon and the Revolution of 1789, many of the vineyards owned by the Church were sold and given away. Where the Church was especially powerful, rules of inheritance were established—in regions like Burgundy, all children were to inherit equally, thus the birth of the negociant system.

In the beginning, Bordeaux wines were only sold with “Bordeaux” on the label, then as various regions began developing a reputation and followings, the need for negociants was born. Negociants, who were originally Dutch, were first just wine brokers, their sole job was to sell Bordeaux wine. Most of the chateaux were owned by members of the royal family or nobles, it was a costly affair to maintain the vineyards and make wine. Negociants took over from there: gaining of wine, bottling, sales, and distribution. In short, the nobles didn’t want to interact with common wine drinkers…it was unrefined. It was a symbiotic system, negociants would buy the wine in advance to bottling and sales (en primeur/futures – wine sold in the barrel several months after harvest), thereby insuring the chateaux owner needed income to maintain their property.

In the past few negociants owned vineyards, then in the 1960s -1970s negociant houses became wine growers. Maison Sichel, pioneers of the Bordeaux wine industry, acquired the illustrious Chateau Palmer. Through continuous investment and passion for making terroir driven wine, Chateau Palmer is viewed as one of the flagship estates of the Médoc region.

1855 Classification

Napoleon III asked Bordeaux’s top chateau owners to rate their wines from best to worst for the Exhibition. Wine rankings were based on how much they sold for. The purpose of the 1855 Classification was to inform consumers which Bordeaux wines were the best and to promote Bordeaux as a region. It was to help the wealthy purchase the best wines.

The 1855 Classification ranked the top sixty chateaux in Médoc and one in Pessac-Leognan, Graves (Chateaux Haut-Brion).

Sauternes and Barsac were also include in the classification, but follow their own set of rules,. There was only one producer, considered to be the best Sauterne—Chateay d’Yquem, the only Premier Cru Superieur Classé (First Classified Growth), First Growth (second best), and Second Growth (3rd best).

These classifications were NEVER to be revised.

Chateaux were divided into five categories based, labeled by “growths.” First Growths (Premier Cru) was considered the best and quality declined from there, until the Fifth Growth (Cinquième Cru).

Reclassifications: There have been many debates about the 1855 Classification and possible revisions. Modern advances in vinifcation technology have allowed various growths to advance in position, though not officially. Chateau Palmer, owned by the Sichel Family (Maison Sichel), which is considered a Third Growth of the 1855 Classification, is now considered to be a Second Growth wine.

Classifications/Laws of French Bordeaux in a Nutshell

Bordeaux Wine Map, courtesy of Wine Folly

Bordeaux Wine Map, courtesy of Wine Folly

The Medoc

  • 1855 Classification – sixty chateaux were classified; one from Graves (Pessac-Leognan)
  • Five Growths – from premier cru to cinquièmes cru

Sauternes and Barsac

  • 1855 Classification – three classes
  • Premier Cru Superieur Classe (First Great Classified Growth) – only one chateau in this classification – Chateau d’Yquem
  • Premier Cru Classe (Second best)
  • Deuxiemes Cru Classès (Third best)


  • 1953 and 1959 – no rankings
  • All wines classified called “Grand Cru Classès”


St. Emilion

  • Own classification 1954
  • Classifications were revised every 10 years
  • Two classifications
  • Premier Grands Crus Classès (A Level, B Level) – the Best
  • Grand Cru Classè
  • Last Revision was in 2012

Pomerol – never classified