The Médoc, a flat spur of land on the left bank of the Gironde estuary as its widens out to meet the sea, is Bordeaux's most famous wine district, and the Cabernet Sauvignon vine's homeland. It is also home to most of Bordeaux's famous large estates, most of which have built up their international reputations for the last two centuries. (To put the scale of fine wine production here into perspective, the Médoc with its neighbour and partner the Graves district produces almost exactly 100 times as much as all the grands crus of Burgundy put together.) The four most famous parishes, or communes, of the Médoc, are, going north from Bordeaux, Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe. In theory each of these communes produces wines of a distinctive character – silky and fragrant, perfectly balanced, minerals and cassis, and slightly austere respectively. In practice, in this era in which there is the public wine scoreboard of points and praise awarded by an international wine press, all too many producers seem to be making their wines to the same, eye-catching and palate-grabbing formula, resulting in deep-coloured, full-bodied, flatteringly oaky wines. Huge quantities of new oak barrels travel up the Médoc each year.
Many is the wine-minded visitor who has navigated his or her way through the northern suburbs of Bordeaux to worship the world's starriest wine district, only to find an undistinguished plateau sloping imperceptibly towards the grey Gironde estuary broken only by the odd copse or huddle of houses carrying one of the names he or she reveres most. True, there are some magnificent railings with some impressively turreted nineteenth-century country houses behind them, but there is still relatively little to welcome the visitor thirsty for wine knowledge and bottles. All but the tiniest fraction of wine produced here is sold, via complicated layers of commissions and brokers, to the wholesale merchants who have been based in and around Bordeaux for centuries. Ch Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux and Ch Pichon-Longueville Baron in Pauillac are exceptional in positively welcoming visitors from the D2, the little road that snakes its way up the Médoc (although the locals thought the late Alexis Lichine was being horribly commercial when he first erected his signs outside Margaux welcoming tourists to Ch Prieuré-Lichine).
This is a district with a carefully stratified society. Only a handful of owners actually live there (Anthony Barton of Chx Langoa Barton and Léoville Barton is an exception). Most estates are run by several ranks of manager, although at last some of the most talented winemaking managers have acquired a certain status. Every now and then the owners descend to entertain wine merchants, wine writers and influential friends and the châteaux are transformed into bustling country houses, their most important rooms the dining room and extremely formal salon. (It took me a long time to work out why so few of these large houses seemed to have anywhere to relax.)
For much of the 20th century, these large wine estates made very little money, but the world economy and a succession of very successful vintages in the 1980s changed all that. During the 1980s and 1990s the Médoc crawled with architects and builders renovating cellars, vineyards and, often most spectacularly, the château buildings themselves. However, reduced consumption at home, increased competition from other parts of the wine world, expansion of the vineyards in the 1990s and a series of rather up and down vintages have made financial success more elusive for all but the very top layer of properties, who seem to be able to call the tune on prices. The gap in demand for the best and for the rest continues to widen. Marketing has never been Bordeaux’s – or France’s – strong point.
The most obvious stratification of Bordeaux’s wines was drawn up, doubtless without any realisation of quite how influential it was to be, in 1855. Just before Napoleon III's Universal Exhibition in Paris, the organisers asked the Bordeaux merchants to draw up a quality ranking of the top wine châteaux. What emerged was a five-division list of 61 Médoc wines which had already established their reputation, together with Ch Haut-Brion, the most famous property in the Graves district. Click here for an up-to-date version, which takes account of the fact that some estates have virtually disappeared, their land having been acquired by other proprietors. Otherwise, there has been no significant change to the classification since 1855 apart from the promotion of Ch Mouton Rothschild from second to first growth in 1973. Baron Philippe de Rothschild, one of the wine world's few marketing geniuses, responsible for the branded wine Mouton Cadet and the growth of château bottling, finally nagged the authorities into it.
Very unusually for a cosmopolitan aristocrat of his period, he had devoted much of the previous four decades to his family's wine estates in the Médoc, and the wine was well worthy of first growth status. But the heavy price premium which a first growth can command over a second (even greater than a second can command over a third, etc.) suggests that there is a certain element of self-perpetuation about the 1855 classification. Properties with a higher rank can afford more drainage ditches (vital for quality in this district that was a marsh before the Dutch drained it in the 16th century), enough pickers that they can choose exactly when to harvest which plot, more new barrels, and more fastidious selection than those whose status and therefore selling prices are lower down the scale. Estate owners would claim that their particular land is unique, but many of them would have to admit that there has been a considerable amount of inter-château vineyard exchange since 1855.