Many wine lovers are well acquainted with the world’s most famous wine classification: Le classement de 1855, which set a pecking order for red Bordeaux that has proved remarkably accurate over the ensuing century and a half. Prepared for the Paris Universal Exposition of that same year, it has since become a fixture in the world of wine and remains the single most important influence on public perceptions of the relative stature of Bordeaux reds. Yet even sophisticated wine enthusiasts are often unaware that this historic classification also identifies top producers of the marvelous sweet white wines of Sauternes.
The history of the Sauternes classification is both interesting and important, and deserves to be more widely known--just as the wonderful wines themselves deserve broader and deeper appreciation.
Back in 1855, both the red and the Sauternes classifications were composed at the request of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, which sought to add interest to a simple display of wine bottles at the Exposition by including a list ranking the best Bordeaux châteaux. They entrusted the task of drawing up this document to Bordeaux’s Commercial Brokers’ Syndicate, the trade group best positioned to assess the region’s wines in an informed yet disinterested manner. On April 18, 1855, the brokers dutifully delivered their lists of “Classified Red Wines of the Gironde” and “Classified White Wines of the Gironde.”
Both documents were far less comprehensive than their titles suggest. The red classification, which consisted of five levels (first to fifth growths), was actually a list of what the brokers considered the top properties of the Médoc. With the sole exception of Haut-Brion, all other reds--from the Graves, Saint-Emilion and everywhere else in the vast Gironde department--were excluded.
Similarly, the white classification was limited to sweet whites produced in the four communes then associated with Sauternes: Barsac, Bommes, Preignac and Sauternes. It was essentially a two-tier affair of first and second growths, with Château d’Yquem accorded the singular title of First Great Growth. (Yquem’s supremacy over all other Sauternes wines has been virtually undisputed since the 18th century; today, for example, critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., regards it as “Bordeaux’s single most compelling wine.”)
The Sauternes classification has never been revised aside from alterations reflecting changes in ownership, whereas the Médoc listing has changed twice. But in terms of quality and commercial success, Sauternes has proved far more mercurial than red Médoc, which goes a long way toward explaining the discrepancy in fame dividing the two lists.
To be sure, when climatic conditions are favorable, Sauternes wines are so stunningly delicious they almost sell themselves. A great rendition is a sort of sensory smorgasbord in a glass, showing gorgeous golden color, aromas of apricots, honey, caramel and woodsmoke, with a host of flavors layered over a sweet, richly textured base that is balanced by bright acidity.
Achieving this result on any sort of a regular basis, however, is extraordinarily difficult. Full ripening is important to reds but absolutely crucial for Sauternes, and producers cannot delay the harvest into or beyond October without risking ruin due to the autumnal rains and frosts that often plague the region.
Moreover, ripe fruit alone will rarely make a truly great Sauternes. Greatness requires the effects of botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot,” a fungus that concentrates sugars in the grape and produces chemical reactions that enhance quality. Unfortunately, the same humid conditions necessary for noble rot (which are indeed common along the Garonne and its tributary, the Ciron) are also conducive to malevolent gray rot--which is every bit as ignoble as it sounds.
And even in years when rain and frost and gray rot do not hit a Sauternes vineyard, there is still no guarantee that la pourriture noble will ever develop. As Stephen Brook (an occasional guest columnist here on WRO) writes in his book Sauternes, noble rot is “a hit and miss affair. It is reasonable to expect that, at most, the Sauternes region will be blessed with it in one vintage out of two. It is hard to base an industry on chance.”
Likewise, it is hard to base a quality classification on chance. Such rankings are only as good as they are reliable, and since Sauternes simply cannot be produced as reliably as Médoc reds over any given time span, it is perhaps not so surprising that the 1855 white classification has never gained anything approaching the fame of its red counterpart.
In addition to this uneven playing field, Sauternes has also had to contend with devastating disease, not to mention the vagaries of politics and commerce. In the late 1850s, the region was struck with oidium, a destructive fungus. Next in line was the phylloxera blight, which resulted in a total replanting of phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks around the turn of the century.
Then came the dislocations of World War I, followed in close succession by the loss of two important markets: Sales to famously sweet-toothed Russia ended with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and Prohibition wiped out sales to the United States two years later. Worldwide economic depression hit in the late 1920s and ran through the 1930s, only to be followed by another World War and Occupation.
Of course, most of these setbacks afflicted Médoc producers as well, but Sauternes winemakers suffered more deeply, given the region’s already undependable returns from year to year. Similarly, the costs of fighting disease or replanting vineyards were harder to bear in Sauternes because of its much higher production costs and much lower crop yields. In years when noble rot does arrive, for example, it often develops slowly and unevenly; vineyards must be harvested repeatedly, requiring producers to retain teams of well-trained pickers for as long as two months.
During the star-crossed years after 1855, even promising commercial developments sometimes boomeranged. For example, Stephen Brook notes that consumer demand for sweet wines spiked during the World Wars and again after World War II. However, those spikes arose from the bottom end of the market, and it seems likely that sweet wines were sought either for nutritional value in very lean times or for their novelty in years when sugar was tightly rationed. Instead of helping those struggling but serious Sauternes producers who “were trying to maintain high standards in the face of a sales slump, the glut of cheap and mostly nasty sweet wine had the opposite effect, wrecking the reputation of Sauternes.”
Better times did finally arrive in the 1980s. An excellent vintage in 1983 spurred interest among wine lovers, especially in the United States. Many Sauternes proprietors wisely reinvested the proceeds in their vineyards and wineries, and their conscientiousness was rewarded with a great vintage in 1986. Prices rose, but the wines still sold, further bolstering the producers, who could now enjoy returns more in line with their costs.
The rebound continued with sensational results in 1988 and 1990 sandwiching a very good year in 1989. Difficult years followed from 1991 through 1994, but since then, Sauternes has enjoyed an amazing run of success that probably has no historical precedent. Almost every year from 1995 has been at least quite good, and excellent vintages were enjoyed 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013. The wines are not inexpensive due to low crop yields and labor-intensive winemaking, but they are quite fairly priced with respect to production costs, and are so concentrated and intense that a half-bottle of 375 ml can satisfy four friends.
Now that better days have returned to Sauternes, is the 1855 classification a mere historical curiosity, or a listing with continuing merit? Given that it has never been updated, perhaps the best way to answer this question is to compare the list with the most recent classification of this region’s wines by Robert M. Parker, Jr. His writing may be controversial, but he clearly remains the world’s most influential wine critic--and even his detractors grant that his expertise on Bordeaux is exceedingly strong.
In Bordeaux (Simon & Schuster), Parker offers “consumer’s classifications” of Bordeaux reds as well as the whites of Sauternes. Only 47 of the 61 red wine producers from the 1855 classification figure in his ranking, whereas 25 of the original 26 Sauternes producers grace his list. After a century and a half of enormous difficulties, that is sweet revenge indeed.