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1855 And All That - The Curse of Classification

1855 And All That – The Curse of Classification

“You’re a good kither,” said Violet Elizabeth Bott.

“Thanks muchly,” said William, gulping, flushed.

They were down in the wood. He’d never really expected she would agree to a country stroll, but she had. He’d run out of script….

French Wine Tours Blog Wine Classification

“But not ath good ath Roger. Let’th go back, I’m getting cold.”

Don’t you feel for William? We’re all judged, classified, either in formal exams where results are anaesthetic in their probity, or in social situations where an arched eyebrow a pursed lip or a twitched shoulder, one degree this way or the other, indicate instant opinions which over time solidify like the ageless drip of a stalactite. Opinions obey gravity, go with the flow. Easier like that.

Odd, life. There you are, Napoléon III, everything going your way in the brave new world of 1855, then some bright spark comes up with the idea of an International Exhibition to be held in Paris. Invite all the great and good of the whole world to admire (and buy) all we have to offer. Oh crikey, s’pose I’d better show willing, Nap3 said to himself. That’s my job, non? Actually, what’s a job? Anyway he was put in charge of the wine stand. But what to do? How to make sense of all the wines in France for a bunch of foreign johnnies? He put the matter to his factotum, Corleone Rizzo.

‘We must whittle the problem down, sir,’ Rizzo said, running a thin finger through his greased hair.

‘Whittling down. Yes, I like it. Carry on Rizzo. Whittle down to what?’

‘The best of our wines, sir, those of Bordeaux.’

‘Right. Those are the ones I have with …’ he looked for a clue.

‘With red meat sir. We call them
clairet. The English refer to them as claret.’

‘That’s the chappy. Clairet. Claret. Whatever. But aren’t there an awful lot of them? I mean, that’s hardly whittling, what?’

‘I was thinking of a list sir.’

‘A list! Sacré bleu! I like a good list. Tick things off. Remember stuff. So how does that, er, help us…?’

‘Leave it with me sir.’

The sun was setting over the Garonne river. Chauncey Jardinier sat with his wine merchant friend Nicolas Le Pin in the first floor parlour of his townhouse in the Chartrons quarter of the great city of Bordeaux, glass in hand, with the voluptuous knowledge that two floors below his feet, in the cool of his expansive cellars, lay his barrel-bound fortune.

‘He wants what?’

‘A list of our best wines. It’s for some cockamamie expo they’re cooking up in gay Paree. They party, we work our balls off.’ Nicolas sucked at an oyster, downed his glass of Bollinger, and signalled for another bottle.

‘And when does the little runt want it?’

‘Oh, this time yesterday.’

‘This is intolerable! What are we supposed to do? Trundle up and down the Médoc tasting this that and the other wine giving marks out of a hundred? Have you seen the state of the roads? It’ll take forever.’ Jardinier took a silk handkerchief to his brow.

‘Calm yourself, CJ. There exists the simplest of solutions. For more than a hundred years we have been classifying wines by price. Price, mon ami. That is to say if the upper crust are willing to pay more for wine x than for wine y then, ipso facto, wine x is better than wine y.’

‘You interest me, Pépé. So no trundling up and down the Médoc?’

‘Non. Do not fret my dear chap. To make it look more scientific we will split the wines into, oh, how many categories?’ He raised a hand to the moon which had just appeared from behind a scudding cloud. ‘Five! Five my friend!’ He counted his fingers, curling them back one by one into his palm.

OK, enough fantastical nonsense. Except that, apart from the poetic licence I’m sure you’ll give me, the above is a pretty true account of how the famous 1855 Classification came about. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry. If you have and you think it’s the bees-knees, worry. It’s an historical document which has little relevance to the present day. I say ‘little’ relevance because amazingly enough the ‘First Growths’ are still, qualitatively and price-wise, the same now as they were then: Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, with the addition of Mouton-Rothschild. Below that there would be much jostling for position, except that it’s never going to change and no one cares. When I was much younger with much more water behind my ears I would ask the owners of such chateaux as Lynch-Bages and Pontet-Canet, both great wines but both Fifth Growth, why they didn’t complain about their obvious misranking. The reply was simple enough: no point knocking your head against the proverbial, and why bother anyway when everyone knows the worth and quality of my wine?

The point of the above is that should you ever come across anyone who uses the 1855 Classification as some kind of current guide you will know better.

Wine type of the month

This month I’m daring you to try a
vin jaune from the Jura region in the far east, not far from Geneva. The most famous version comes from the Chateau-Chalon area. It’s made from the signature local white grape variety savagnin which is picked late, ferments as per normal, but then is put into old casks where a film of yeast is allowed to develop on the surface. This is similar to the sherry making process and not surprisingly gives similar results. Expect complex flavours and aromas – walnut, hazelnut, almond, honey, cinnamon… the list can go on. Nap 3 (yes, him again) called it ‘the best wine in the world’, bless him. It is typically associated with trout or chicken (truite au vin jaune or coq au vin jaune), but open your mind to trying it with certain curries or sushi. If our heatwave is making you a bit doolally celebrate our ‘special relationship’ with an all-American sherry cobbler, simply substituting vin jaune for sherry: mix sugar syrup and some orange slices, muddle them (ie gouge them around a bit), add vin jaune.

Happy holidays!


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