It’s a bit amazing to look at how many books, columns and handy “wallet cards” exist today that attempt to rank the wines of various regions, vintages, varieties and marketing “brands”. All exist supposedly to aid the consumer in the understanding of the relative value and/or quality of what’s in the boCle that they are considering purchasing. Purchasing wines based on someone else’s hoped-‐-‐for expertise has become an obsession, or maybe a necessity, for many less-‐-‐than-‐-‐confident consumers, and with good reason. Through October 2020, more than 100,000 individual wine labels were approved by the TTB, the U.S. federal agency responsible for regulating the national trading of alcoholic beverages. Anyone would be overwhelmed to have all that information safely stored in their memory – or even in their computer’s memory! But this information overload could lead one to wonder where this need for conﬁdent wine purchasing might have started.
I might suggest that we can blame it all on the French. I am assuming that most of you who are reading this column have probably heard the term “classified growth”. The term is based on a compilation of assorted vineyard holdings in the Médoc region of Bordeaux. With market pricing as determined or recorded by the wine brokers trading in the wines of the region, this “classification” of these Bordeaux wines was presented in France, at the “Universal Exposition of 1855”, ordained by the French Emperor, Napoleon III. Wine was a minor player in the overall mission of this gigantic “trade show”, which showcased all the various manufacturing and production available from almost all the nations experiencing the “Industrial Revolution”. But for wines, this event became more and more important in the succeeding years and has played a prominent role even today, more than 165 years later.
The original classification system was based almost entirely on the history of prices consistently achieved over more than two centuries of sales, whose records were maintained by the merchants and brokers in the Bordeaux winegrowing region. The consistency of pricing reflects not only the market history, but also the negotiating power of the respective forces (namely, the owners of the various châteaux and those responsible – wine merchants and wine brokers -for the local and export sales of the production coming from those properties.) Remarkably, in that “Classification”, which includes only 57 châteaux, there have only been TWO significant changes in its long history: the addition of Château Cantemerle to the Fifth Growths, just in time for the oﬀicial rankings that were published in 1856, and the long-‐anticipated promotion of Château Mouton-‐Rothschild from Second Growth to First Growth in 1973. (Mouton’s motto was: “First I Cannot Be; Second I Do Not Deign to Be”). A few properties simply disappeared, or were absorbed during the passage of time from 1855 until modern times. Even more remarkable is the fact that there are more than 8,000 Bordeaux châteaux.
So much of the economic history of the sales of wine has been a result of this exposition that it really merits attention. Those of us who have grown up in the American wine market are perhaps inclined to look at these “classified wines” as being incomprehensibly expensive. Particularly at the First and Second Growth categories. The solid economic lesson here is “supply and demand”.
For example, one of the most highly sought-after “First Growth” wines in the world, Château Lafite-Rothschild, produces only about 12,500 9-liter cases of wine in an average year – for the WHOLE WORLD! That breaks down to 150,000 750ml bottles. For the WHOLE WORLD! As other economies of the world have been more and more successful at growing oligarchs, with their attendant appetites for all things representing status, it is no surprise that rarities like limited production anything becomes a symbol of success. China alone has more than 650 billionaires and more than 3.5 million millionaires! So only about 1 in 25 of those Chinese millionaires could own a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild! Where does that leave the rest of us?
It’s not only the Médoc that has a classification system. Most of the great European winegrowing regions have some sort of quality recognition scheme. Burgundy has a vineyard classification system, too. Grand Cru, Premier Cru vineyards lead the way. Cru Exceptionelle pops in too. Champagne also has Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards. Other regions might use systems that recognize not only region, but also bottle aging. Italy and Spain use variations on this theme. All these Old World methods exist primarily to aid in the selling the wines of their regions in a highly competitive marketplace.
Which brings us to the United States. We really don’t have a classification system in place in the U.S. We seem to have adopted a value system of “What Grape Was It and Where Was the Grape Grown?”, also known as the American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) system. None of the AVA’s have a mandated hierarchy of producers. They all have rules as to what grapes might be allowed, or percentages of grapes that must be present to merit a certain named wine, or a minimum alcoholic strength, etc. This has led American consumers to a loose hierarchy of wine selections. “Do you want the best Cabernet Sauvignon? You need to head to the Napa Valley. Do you want the best Chardonnay? You need to head to the Russian River Valley of Sonoma. Do you want the best Pinot Noir? You need to head to …” Oh-oh. What do you mean that there are a whole bunch of places, not only in California, but like Oregon and Washington that are growing those grapes, and they ALL make some amazing wines? What? Even New York and Virginia are making great wines? What am I supposed to do NOW?
So, I guess that brings us back to square one. Chicago Wine Press reviews dozens of highly rated wines recommended by our panel of experts in every issue. Also, maybe it IS a good idea to subscribe to some of those wine reviewers, with a staff of people whose job it is to sift through the 100,000-plus bottles that get loosed upon the public every year to try to make some sense of what tastes good. Happy shopping!