THE 1855 Bordeaux Classification has pretty much stood the test of time despite its being 167 years old. It was created upon the behest of Napoleon III and first unveiled during the Exposition Universelle de Paris, an important showcase world fair for France.
The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, which was in charge of the Bordeaux presence at the Paris fair, decided to feature a list of the region’s best wines based on the best prices fetched at that time by the Bordeaux’s Union of Brokers. On the red wine side, 61 chateaux were given classifications from the highest Premiers Crus (1st growths) to the lowest Cinquièmes Crus (5th growths). Sixty crus were from the Médoc and one from Pessac-Léognan (namely Chateau Haut-Brion).
The only revision to this classification came in 1973, 118 years later, when previous 2nd growth Chateau Mouton-Rothschild got promoted to first growth status. There are five Premiers Crus, 14 Deuxièmes Crus (2nd growths), 14 Troisièmes Crus (3rd growths), 10 Quatrièmes Crus (4th growths) and 18 Cinquièmes Crus.
Because 60 of the 61 classified growths are from Medoc, and other Bordeaux regions like St.-Emilion and Pessac-Léognan have their own Grand Cru classifications — which started in 1955 and the 1959 respectively — the 1855 Classification is better known as the Medoc Grand Cru Classification.
The 1855 Bordeaux Classification also included a white wine counterpart that was centered on sweet wines from the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac, both from the Graves region, not Medoc.
Twenty-seven crus of the Sauternes and Barsac appellations were classified: one Premier Cru Supérieur, 11 Premiers Crus and 15 Deuxièmes Crus. Chateau d’Yquem is the sole Premier Crus Supérieur on the white wine side.
Despite hundreds of ownership changes since the 1855 Classification, somehow the majority of the chateaux included in this list still deliver on their quality promise. Many could argue that some 5th growths should have been 4th, 3rd, and perhaps even 2nd growth, like a Chateau Lynch-Bages, and some 4th growths should have been 3rd or 2nd growth, like a Chateau Beychevelle, but on the flipside, few would take some chateaux out of this list completely. And there is no argument on the five 1st Growths, namely Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. In this sense, the classification is still quite reliable and bankable in terms of quality.
Making this 1855 list was like hitting a lottery pension, not as a one-time jackpot, but a lifetime payout due to higher prices one can peg on the wines with this Grand Cru title. Obviously, the commercial side of this classification cannot be understated and that is why ownerships change hands often, and when new chateau ownership takes over, the ultimate goal of the new management will always be to keep the integrity of the inclusion of the chateau in this 1855 classification. We have seen this with almost all the chateaux in this classification.
Not getting into this exclusive Medoc club is, however, not a death sentence, especially for the relatively younger chateaux that came to existence during or just after the 1855 classification. But these chateaux will have a harder time selling their wines at better prices.
And I must hand it to the French (or just the Bordelais perhaps) as by 1932, another classification was created — the Cru Bourgeois du Medoc. This classification has, however, been revised several times since 1932, the latest being the 2015 classification.
Titles given aside from the Cru Bourgeois AOC are the Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (highest tier) and Cru Bourgeois Superieur. I have not tried a lot, but some good ones I tasted included Chateau Phelan Segur (St.-Estèphe), Chateau Siran (Margaux), Chateau Citran (Haut-Medoc), Chateau Clark (Haut-Medoc and owned by Baron Edmond de Rothschild), and, very recently, Chateau Meyney (St.-Estèphe).
Chateau Meyney is part of the CA Grands Crus, a subsidiary of the Crédit Agricole Group. The Crédit Agricole Group is a huge retail bank — in fact it is the No. 1 retail bank in the European Union, the bank is also the No. 1 insurance company in France. Chateau Meyney was one of the non-Grand Cru brands that I’d often hear about, perhaps it is due to their long heritage as it existed centuries before the 1855 classification. For Chateau Meyney to be excluded from the 1855 classification seemed strange for me if it already had that pedigree that far in the past. Fortunately, David Launay, Commercial Director of CA Grands Crus, was in town a few weeks back, and I was able to sit down with him ask him during an interview.
THE INTERVIEWQuestion: Despite Chateau Meyney’s centuries of existence, long history of wine tradition, and also being one of the oldest chateaux in Medoc, why do you think Chateau Meyney was excluded from this sacred 1855 Medoc Bordeaux wine classification?
David Launay: Chateau Meyney and Chateau Calon Segur are the two oldest estates in St.-Estèphe, as a piece of the vineyard of Chateau Meyney [dates back to the] 14th century.
In 1625, Pierre Forton bequeathed his property to the Cistercians monks called Les Peres Feuillants. The monks expanded the size of the vineyard up to 51 hectares as a single vineyard facing the Gironde estuary. In 1662, they built a small monastery — this date you could see on the label of Chateau Meyney.
In 1791, Jacques Luetkens, from a Dutch wine-merchant family related to the king’s family in France, came to Bordeaux to invest in wineries. Among several, they acquired Chateau La Tour Carnet and Chateau Meyney. The children would run these estates after the death of Jacques Luetkens. The son, Oscar, took over Chateau La Tour Carnet, as he was also the mayor of the nearest town. The two sisters, who became widows, would run Chateau Meyney. Oscar Luetkens was very connected to the négociants and courtiers, as a mayor and a lawyer unlike his sisters, who struggled to manage Chateau Meyney. Without enough transactions with négociants, the price of Meyney was too low to apply for the Classification. (Author’s Note: Chateau La Tour Carnet made the 1855 Classification as a 4th Growth.)
But to me, Chateau Meyney is in the league of the Grand Cru chateaux that made the 1855 list. For one, the soils and location confirmed that Chateau Meyney is the only non-classified estate to have its vineyard close to the river, like esteemed Grand Crus Chateau Latour in Pauillac, Chateau Leoville Las Cases in St.-Julien, and Chateau Montrose, its neighbor in St.-Estèphe.
Chateau Meyney is one the rare vineyards to have some “blue” clay soil on the slope facing the water, which only a few Grand Crus possess in their terroir. The blue soil gives wine a creamy and velvety touch with some black truffles notes too as the wine ages. The most famous vineyard with this specific “blue” clay soil is Chateau Pétrus. That is the reason why Michel Bettane, a famous journalist and wine critic, has called Chateau Meyney the “Petrus of St.-Estèphe.”
Q: What has CA Grand Crus done with Chateau Meyney since their acquisition of this estate in 2004 to improve the quality of the wines?
DL: The company respected even more the vineyard and the Chateau Meyney’s ecosystem by using organic methods for more than 10 years already.
We replanted vines with the best adequation between soils and grape varieties in order to get the best expression in the wine: Cabernet Sauvignon for gravel soil, Merlot for the clay, and Petit Verdot on a combination of clay, sand, and gravel.
We also take some risks by picking the grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, a little bit later, thus sacrificing some yield to acquire perfect maturity.
We also brought more precision to winemaking by investing in smaller stainless-steel vats and doing optic sorting. We adapt our extractions during the vinification on the potential of the vintage before us. Science and technology are behind the further improvements made on Chateau Meyney.
Q: I noticed a more than usual percentage of Petit Verdot in Chateau Meyney. Why is this important in creating the taste or quality profile of Chateau Meyney? And what do you want consumers to taste and experience when they try Chateau Meyney?
David: Petit Verdot and Chateau Meyney is a very long love affair as the first vines of Petit Verdot were planted in 1928 by Désiré Cordier, owner at the same time of Chateau Talbot and Chateau Gruaud-Larose (he bought these two St.-Julien chateaux in 1917, and in 1919, he added Chateau Meyney). Then, his son, Jean Cordier, replanted some Petit Verdot at Chateau Meyney in the early 1950s, hand-crafting from the vines of Talbot and Gruaud-Larose.
Chateau Meyney has currently 15% of Petit Verdot with most of them old vines of around 70 years old. The vineyard is made of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot.
Petit Verdot adds complexity, color, freshness, tannins and acidity to the wines.
Q: Since the start of the new millennium, what would you say are the best vintages of Chateau Meyney?
DL: A difficult question — it is like asking which of your children you love the most! For Chateau Meyney, I like them all. They just have a different personality.
I would rather the question be, which ones are ready to drink or to hold and keep. Here is my answer then:
Ready to drink and enjoy: 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012. 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018. To hold and keep: 2010. 2014, 2016, 2019 and 2020.
I truly believed in the 1855 Medoc Grand Cru classification. But as a hardcore wine guy, I always believe in legacy, heritage, reputation and longevity, aside from the obvious quality aspect. When you buy one of these wines, you are not drinking a wine from a winery that was built only in the 1990s, but one with centuries and centuries of winemaking experience — and that should count for something, as wine is not just a beverage to drink, but an indulgence and a story-telling engagement. Chateau Meyney unfortunately did not make the 1855 classification, but from what I drank and what I learned from David Launay, Chateau Meyney may well be a Grand Cru that was omitted due to unforeseen circumstances.
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