Reclassifying Bordeaux

 

Using Wine Advocate ratings

 

 

Introduction

 

 

Buying Bordeaux seems like a lottery: Thousands of different chateaux, numerous appellations and a lot of differences in price and quality. A high price tag doesn’t automatically mean that the content of the bottle is top quality. To make things easier for consumers, the Bordelaises have established a number of classifications over the past two centuries. In practice, this makes buying wine even more difficult. Next to the price, the classification of the bottle might not mean a thing. To help consumers who want to buy classical, top quality, cabernet sauvignon based Bordeaux, I will reclassify the best chateaux of the Médoc and Graves districts. First, I’ll explain a bit more on why I came to do this. Then I’ll motivate why I chose the ratings given by Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate as a source for the quality of a specific wine. After that I’ll explain how I did the reclassification. I’ll end with results and conclusions.

 

 

Some thoughts on the subject

 

 

The 1855 Classification of the Wines of the Gironde is a controversial attempt to attach a quality mark on the top producers of red Bordeaux wine from the left bank. 61 Producers were awarded a Grand Cru status. These producers were divided into 5 different quality classes: first-growth being the best, then second-growth, third-growth, fourth-growth and fifth-growth. This classification was based mainly on the selling price of the wines produced by the chateaux. Only one chateau managed to get a higher classification since 1855: Mouton-Rothschild was elevated in 1973 to first-growth status.

 

A lot is being said and written about the 1855 Classification. Producers with a high classification are able to demand high prices for their wine, a price that doesn’t always reflect the quality of the wine. Chateaux that make first quality wine but have no Grand Cru status will hardly be able to sell their wine at a price comparable to a Grand Cru wine. A number of Grand Cru chateaux even make wine at levels that are hardly worthy for their appellation! A number of chateaux that didn’t make it in 1855 actually produce wine of Grand Cru quality. As long as the 1855 Classification remains a static one, it will not help consumers get valuable information on the quality of the wine in the bottle. This makes buying wine a gamble for the wine lover who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on reading about wine but prefers to spend time enjoying wine.

 

It seems quite amazing that chateau owners still are taking an almost 150-year-old classification serious. It has to be said that, however, a surprising number of chateaux actually produce wine with a quality that more or less reflects their classification. The world changed a lot more than the differences between the wines produced in the Médoc and Graves over the last one and a half century. This supports the notion that terroir is an (the most) important aspect for the possible quality of a wine. If terroir were the only important issue, it would be perfectly normal for a classification to remain representative for more the one and a half century. But the influence of the owners proved to play a very important role. On balance, consumers could very much use an updated 1855 Classification to make it easier to purchase the sort of wines they desire.

 

In this article, I will do a reclassification of the Bordeaux left bank based on quality instead of price. I will use quality ratings on long series of vintages for individual wines. A prestigious title like Grand Cru should only be given to producers that have shown a long track record on quality. The sometimes-stratospheric prices for Bordeaux wines don’t reflect the cost of production. In fact, the largest part of the price the consumer pays for a bottle of wine consists of goodwill. I think that a consumer, who pays a lot of goodwill for a bottle with a prestigious label, deserves a quality that is consistent with the label and the price.

 

 

Why use Parker’s ratings?

 

 

As I explained, a representative classification is something consumers could very much use for buying wine. In this article, I will use the ratings given by Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate to reclassify the Bordeaux left bank. This classification will be purely quantitative. There is a lot to be said against a quantitative approach: wine cannot be judged by numbers, wine is something to enjoy with your heart, wine expresses feelings, you cannot compare two good wines and say one is better, etc. A quantitative approach on the other hand has numerous advantages: you can compare different wines, it gives measurable results, the way results are calculated is transparent, it’s easy to understand for novice and connoisseur alike. And even more important: if you have a very large database over a long period in time, the average rating for a certain chateau of all the ratings it obtained over various vintages will give a very good indication of how the quality of the wine relates to the wines produced by it’s peers.

 

I will use Robert Parker’s ratings for different reasons:

-They are widely accepted as being the most influential in the wine market. That means that these ratings are regarded as the most accurate approach to the quality of a certain wine, by trade and consumer alike.

-The 100-point scale used by Parker provides ratings that can be used for statistical analysis. In his system, quality wines receive ratings between 85 and 100 points. This system makes a lot of difference between wines that are both good, but not equally good. To compare: The 5 star system used by the English wine magazine Decanter gives recommended wines either three, four or five stars. So there are only three possible quality marks, whereas the 100-point scale has 16 different quality marks (85 to 100). 16 Possible ratings might seem outrageous to describe something difficult as the quality of one individual, good wine. But if you rate hundreds of wines for 30 vintages in a row like Parker, this whole set of observations will provide you with very precise and detailed information. Doing analysis on a large number of observations will average small inconsistencies for individual observations away.

-Since Parker has tasted so many Bordeaux wines, year after year, for so long, his ratings form the most representative database for the purpose of this article. The database on www.erobertparker.com is easily accessible and flexible in use. I have used the latest rating for individual wines up until the June 2004 Wine Advocate issue as provided by the website for analysis in this article.

-The Wine Advocate is an independent source. Most publications on wine accept advertisement by the wine trade or the producers. The Wine Advocate doesn’t. By choosing not to, Robert Parker can write about wine whatever he likes. He is not going to loose income if a certain chateau gets a low rating on it’s latest vintage and decides not to advertise any more. His income solely depends on what the consumer wants to pay for his publication. From my experience in investment banking I have learnt that an independent opinion is extremely important. For example: There will be a big difference in the opinion on the price of the stock of certain company between a completely independent analyst and an analyst whose employer depends on income from other services rendered to the company whose stock he is evaluating. The not-so-independent analyst will always have a more positive opinion on the stock, and will easily forget to mention important negative aspects. Needless to say that the independent opinion, that includes negative aspects as well, has a far greater value to a possible investor. The same might be true for wine journalists. For the purpose of evaluating or buying wine, it’s safer to take the ratings provided by the independent wine writer.

-Robert Parker’s ratings are his. There is always the same taster for the new Bordeaux vintage, which makes the data consistent. If one uses panel ratings, the panel might change year after year. Thus it is impossible to compare different vintages, because different people judge them. It is also hard to check the reputation of the individual tasters in the panel. Depending on one taster is not ideal as well, since this person’s taste will differ from the consumer’s taste in some degree. But at least the ratings are consistent, and by actually reading the tasting notes one can determine if the style of a certain wine suits his preferences. As mentioned before, Robert Parker’s ratings and tasting notes are accepted by trade, consumers and perhaps even producers and other wine publications as being the benchmark for their purpose. So, in fact, it wouldn’t make sense to use other ratings.

 

 

Reclassifying the left bank

 

 

In this section I will explain how I came to a new classification. Consider this first: Bordeaux wines from the left bank are wines that need time to fully develop. Most of the wines are approachable in their youth and will provide you with some pleasure when young. Bordeaux wines however tend to improve with age. As a rule of thumb you could say that the optimum plateau of maturity for a high quality Médoc or Graves wine would be between ten and twenty years after the vintage. By buying recent vintages that are still available or by buying en primeur, the consumer invests in wine that should be drunk about ten years after purchase. Further on, I think that a chateau should have proved that its wines are able to age. A prestigious label with Grand Cru on it implies that the producer makes wine of the best quality, has done so for ages and probably will do so for years and years to come. All this indicates that one should take a look at the performance of a chateau over a long period of time before it has a right to apply for Grand Cru status.

I will use 1982 as a start for the classification. Robert Parker himself writes in his book Bordeaux (3rd edition, page 1349) about the vintages he uses for his own classification of Bordeaux wines: “It is based on the performance of these chateaux from 1961 to 1997. More weight has been given to the direction the property is heading and the quality of wine produced from 1982 to 1997…this is done simply because today is the golden age of Bordeaux”. Since Bordeaux wines have longevity of about 20 years, it seems logical to start at beginning of the golden age. I included the tasting notes on the barrel samples of the 2003 vintage.

So there are 22 different vintages to judge. Of these 22 vintages, I skipped the worst four vintages: 1984, 1987, 1991 and 1992. Not many wines received ratings in these very difficult years. If I would include them, the properties that actually got a rating would have extra observations. The ratings would obviously be low compared to other vintages of these chateaux. The other chateaux that didn’t get a rating would not suffer from this. This would be a disadvantage for the chateaux that did get ratings, usually only the top producers. Also, these vintages were so “difficult” (or better: “bad”), a consumer shouldn’t buy wine at all from these vintages for future pleasure. Alors, it’s better to include just the normal and good vintages in the database.

Parker’s database is large, but it isn’t perfect. Only 45 chateaux have 18 out of 18 possible observations during the period under review: 1982-2003, excluding 1984, 1987, 1991 and 1992. Those that did not get rated might have produced an inferior wine or were not rated for other reasons. It’s impossible to say if it is an advantage to have a rating for each year or not. One thing that can be said for sure is that there must be a minimum of observations to prove quality. I decided to take a minimum of 14 observations for the period under review as a restriction to be included in the reclassification.

In order to establish a level of quality for a chateau, I just took the average rating of all ratings available for the period under review. Some chateaux have received very stable ratings for different vintages over time (Saint-Pierre, Hortevie). Others have very different ratings for different vintages (Brane-Cantenac, d’Issan). Stability is also an aspect of quality, but I didn’t get any plausible results when I included measures of stability in my calculations. Thus, a very simple average rating will be the basis on which I will classify the chateaux.

For a chateau to become premier grand cru, average quality has to be outstanding. Those that score 92.5 or better will become first growth. When buying a second growth, I think the consumer has the right to expect an outstanding wine. Those chateaux that score between 90.0 and 92.4 on average will become second growths. Third growths will have an average rating of 88.0 to 89.9, fourth growths will score on average between 86.5 and 87.9 and lastly fifth growth will score between 85.0 and 86.4 on average, which is still “very good” according to Parker’s rating system.

In short, I followed the following scheme to come to a reclassification of the left bank:

-I included ratings on the following appellations:

            Graves

            Haut-Médoc

            Listrac

            Margaux

            Médoc

            Moulis

            Pauillac

            Pessac-Léognan

            St.-Estèphe

            St.-Julien

I also included second wines of chateaux, like Les Forts de Latour of chateau Latour.

-A chateau needed at least 14 observations during the period 1982-2003, excluding 1984, 1987, 1991 and 1992 to be included in the group of eligible chateaux.

-I calculated the averages of the ratings the individual chateaux in the group of eligible chateaux received during the period under review, average ratings were rounded to 1 digit. I took the in case of ratings for barrel tastings. Parker gives a range instead of number if he does barrel tastings. For example, I will translate a rating of (94-97) to 95.5.


 

-I reclassified the chateaux using the following scheme:

Average rating

Classification

92.5 or better

First growth

90.0 to 92.4

Second growth

88.0 to 89.9

Third growth

86.5 to 87.9

Fourth growth

85.0 to 86.4

Fifth growth

 

Results

 

I have listed the original classification and my new classification in the following tables. I have included the average rating the chateaux received in my classification. In parentheses I included the old classification the chateau had. If it was a Grand Cru from Pessac-Léognan, I abbreviated it to GC. If the chateau was classified in June 2003 as a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, I abbreviated it to CBE, a Cru Bourgeois Supérieur is noted as CBS. If the wine didn’t have a classification, I marked it AOC. The order is alphabetic.

 

First growths

 

1855 classification

Reclassification

Score

Haut-Brion

Lafite-Rothschild

Latour

Margaux

Mouton-Rothschild

Haut-Brion (1st)

Lafite-Rothschild (1st)

Latour (1st)

Leoville-Las Cases (2nd)

Margaux (1st)

Mouton-Rothschild (1st)

93.8

94.6

93.5

94.1

93.9

92.9

 

Second growths

 

1855 classification

Reclassification

Score

Brane-Cantenac

Cos d’Estournel

Ducru-Beaucaillou

Durfort-Vivens

Gruaud-Larose

Lascombes

Léoville-Barton

Léoville-Las Cases

Léoville-Poyferré

Montrose

Pichon-Longueville Baron

Pichon-Longueville Lalande

Rauzan-Gassies

Rauzan-Ségla

Cos d’Estournel (2nd)

Ducru-Beaucaillou (2nd)

Léoville-Barton (2nd)

Lynch-Bages (5th)

La Mission-Haut-Brion (GC)

Montrose (2nd)

Pichon-Longueville Baron (2nd)

Pichon-Longueville Lalande (2nd)

91.1

90.6

90.6

90.8

92.2

90.7

90.1

91.6

 

Third growths

 

1855 classification

Reclassification

Score

Boyd-Cantenac

Calon-Ségur

Cantenac-Brown

Desmirail

Ferrière

Giscours

D’Issan

Kirwan

Lagrange

La Lagune

Langoa-Barton

Malescot St.-Exupéry

Marquis d’Alesme-Becker

Palmer

Branaire-Ducru (4th)

Calon-Ségur (3rd)

Clerc-Milon (5th)

Clos du Marquis (AOC)

Duhert-Milon-Rothschild (4th)

Les Forts de Latour (AOC)

Grand-Puy-Lacoste (5th)

Gruaud-Larose (2nd)

Lagrange (3rd)

Léoville-Poyferré (2nd)

Palmer (3rd)

Pape-Clément (GC)

Pontet-Canet (5th)

Rauzan-Ségla (2nd)

St.-Pierre (4th)

Smith-Haut-Lafitte (GC)

Sociando-Mallet (AOC)

Talbot (4th)

88.3

88.9

88.5

88.2

88.2

88.2

89.9

89.7

88.7

89.8

89.9

88.2

88.6

88.4

88.2

88.1

89.8

88.6

 

Fourth growths

 

1855 classification

Reclassification

Score

Beychevelle

Branaire-Ducru

Duhart-Milon

Lafon-Rochet

Marquis-de-Terme

Pouget

Prieuré-Lichine

St.-Pierre

Talbot

La Tour-Carnet

D’Armailhac (5th)

Bahans-Haut-Brion (AOC)

Les Carmes Haut-Brion (AOC)

De Fieuzal (GC)

Gloria (AOC)

Haut-Bailly (GC)

Haut-Marbuzet (CBE)

Lafon-Rochet (4th)

La Lagune (3rd)

Langoa-Barton (3rd)

La Louviere (AOC)

Malescot St.-Exupéry (3rd)

Potensac (CBE)

Poujeaux (CBE)

Du Tertre (5th)

La Tour-Haut-Brion (GC)

87.4

87.8

87.9

87.2

86.5

87.6

87.8

87.7

86.9

87

87.4

87.0

87.0

87.4

87.5

87.9

 

Fifth growths

 

1855 classification

Reclassification

Score

D’Amailhac

Batailley

Belgrave

Camensac

Cantemerle

Clerc-Milon

Cos Labory

Croizet-Bages

Dauzac

Grand-Puy-Ducasse

Grand-Puy-Lacoste

Haut-Bages-Libéral

Haut-Batailley

Lynch-Bages

Lynch-Moussas

Pédesclaux

Pontet-Canet

De Tertre

D’Angludet (CBS)

Batailley (5th)

Beychevelle (4th)

Brane-Cantenac (2nd)

Cantemerle (5th)

Carbonnieux (GC)

Domaine de Chevalier (GC)

Giscours (3rd)

Grand-Puy-Ducasse (5th)

Haut-Bages-Libéral (5th)

Haut-Batailley (5th)

Hortevie (AOC)

D’Issan (3rd)

Kirwan (3rd)

Marquis-de-Terme (4th)

Meyney (CBS)

Monbrison (CBS)

Les-Ormes-de-Pez (CBE)

Phélan-Ségur (CBE)

Prieuré-Lichine (4th)

Siran (CBE)

85.1

85.6

86.4

85.3

86.1

85.2

85.6

86.0

86.1

86.3

86.4

86.4

85.1

86.3

85.6

85.1

85.1

85.7

85.9

85.7

85.9

 

The results show that at the top level, not a lot has changed. Only Léoville-Las Cases clearly produces wine of first growth quality. In fact, it is one of the better first growths. At second growth level, a number of chateaux didn’t make it. In case of Léoville-Poyferré and Gruaud-Larose it was a small difference. Close to second growth level from a more humble classification or just appellation level are Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Palmer and Sociando-Mallet. Third, fourth and fifth growth level show a lot of difference with the original classification.

 

There is total number of 69 chateaux that actually produce wine of Grand Cru level. The 1855 Classification and the 1959 Graves Classification rewarded some 74 chateaux with a Grand Cru title. Not a big difference there. As one will find out when buying wine, there is a lot of difference in price between different chateaux at equal quality level. I hope consumers will find this classification helpful in determining how to spend their money on which wine. I will conclude with two tables. The first contains the chateaux that don’t make wine at Grand Cru level any more. The second contains wines without classification that deserve one.

 

Grand Crus that didn’t make it in the reclassification

 

Chateau

Classification

Appellation

Durfort-Vivens

2nd

Margaux

Lascombes

2nd

Margaux

Rauzan-Gassies

2nd

Margaux

Boyd-Cantenac

3rd

Margaux

Cantenac-Brown

3rd

Margaux

Desmirail

3rd

Margaux

Ferrière

3rd

Margaux

Marquis d’Alesme-Becker

3rd

Margaux

Pouget

4th

Margaux

La Tour-Carnet

4th

Haut-Médoc

Belgrave

5th

Haut-Médoc

Camensac

5th

Haut-Médoc

Cos Labory

5th

St.-Estèphe

Croizet-Bages

5th

Pauillac

Dauzac

5th

Margaux

Lynch-Moussas

5th

Pauillac

Pédesclaux

5th

Pauillac

Bouscaut

GC

Pessac-Léognan

Malartic-Lagravière

GC

Pessac-Léognan

Olivier

GC

Pessac-Léognan

La Tour-Martillac

GC

Pessac-Léognan

 

Chateaux without classification that make Grand Cru quality wine

 

Chateau

Deserved Classification

Appellation

Clos du Marquis

3rd

St.-Julien, 2nd wine Las Cases

Les Forts de Latour

3rd

Pauillac, 2nd wine Latour

Sociando-Mallet

3rd

Haut-Médoc

Bahans-Haut-Brion

4th

Pessac-Léognan, 2nd wine Haut-Brion

Les Carmes Haut-Brion

4th

Pessac-Léognan

Gloria

4th

St.-Julien

Haut-Marbuzet

4th

St.-Estéphe, CBE

La Louviere

4th

Pessac-Léognan

Potensac

4th

Médoc, CBE

Poujeaux

4th

Moulis, CBE

D’Angludet

5th

Margaux, CBS

Hortevie

5th

St.-Julien

Meyney

5th

St.-Estèphe, CBS

Monbrison

5th

Margaux, CBS

Les-Ormes-de-Pez

5th

St.-Estèphe, CBE

Phélan-Ségur

5th

St.-Estèphe, CBE

Siran

5th

Margaux, CBE

 

CBE means Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, (new law as of June 2003)

CBS means Cru Bourgeois Supérieur, (new law as of June 2003)

 

Conclusion

 

A lot has changed since the 1855 classification. This article provides insight into those chateaux that didn’t perform well the last two decades and those that deserve your attention. The database I used is very good, but not perfect. There will always be wines that didn’t get the attention they deserved. But as a useful approach to top quality Bordeaux wine, the tables in this article come in very handy.

 

Aspects to look at in the future are:

-How does quality evolve in time per Grand Cru level or per appellation?

-Prices: which chateaux are expensive for their quality and which not? Does price depend on quality or classification? Are prices dependent on weather conditions and/or Parker points? Are prices depending on other things, like the economy? Or on the performance of stock markets?

-Which chateaux are performing better than before over the last five or ten years?

-Right bank: which chateaux make which quality?

-Other areas in France and the rest of the world: which wines are of Grand Cru quality?