Last night a sublime and elegant wine poured out of the bottle you see in the picture. It was ruby red in color, with an instantly recognizable Bordeaux nose, and a smooth, clean, multi-phase presentation in the palate. It had perfect balance of fruit, alcohol and acidity. It carried no hint of roughness. It was by all measures, a grand Bordeaux wine. And yet Chateau Gloria, well known and well respected among Bordeaux lovers, does not belong in the elite group of 61 chateaux classified under the famed 1855 list, and is merely a Cru Bourgeois.
The fate of Gloria is a stark example of the chasm between the haves and have nots among French wine producers, and how it is largely tied to cliques established by tradition.
First a word about the most famous year in wine history. French ruler Louis Napoleon III was looking for wines that would best represent France in an International Exposition held in Paris in 1855, a major event in its time, when he approached Bordeaux wine producers and requested a tiered classification of their best wines. Little did he know that long after the Exposition was gone and forgotten, his simple, pragmatic request would inaugurate a foundational cornerstone in the wine world, the so-called 1855 Classification of Bordeaux wines. In a wonderful example of traditional Old World rigidity this classification has withstood the effects of 150-plus years of wine evolution, and has only been subject to a single modification in 1973, when Baron Phillippe de Rotschild, sore about having his Chateau Mouton classified in the second tier, successfully lobbied for its elevation to First Growth.
Gloria was not included in the list because it did not exist in 1855. Founded in 1942 by Henri Martin, an iconic figure in the Medoc, whose name appears on the bottle label, Gloria was made from grapes grown in 48 hectares of property Martin bought in the commune of St. Julien, where he was also to serve as mayor for nearly 40 years. He bought his vineyard lands from such well respected St. Julien wineries as Beychevelles, Leoville-Poyferre, Gruaud-Larose, Leoville Barton, Lagrange, Ducru-Beaucaillou and others. Most of these names populate the Second Growth tier of the 1855 Classification, St Julien being very strongly represented in the Second and Fourth Growths.
Martin took great pains with the quality of his product and acquired a reputation for producing well-regarded wines that equaled those included in the 1855 clique. As a leader in his community Henri Martin spent his entire life trying to break into this club with his Gloria, and was unsuccessful. Eventually he settled for buying a label already in the classification at age 78, St. Pierre. After his death in 1991, the quality of Gloria remained excellent, as our experience last night with a 1998 attests.
Rigid cliquish exclusion of talented newcomers is not unique to Bordeaux, the motive being fierce protection of exclusivity and trademark to maintain high price. It occurs elsewhere in the Old World, most notably for me in Chateauneuf du Pape, where one can tell the wanna-be’s from the embossing on their bottles which cannot have the traditional pope hat with the crossing keys below. The labels thus excluded from the old guard cannot command eye popping prices, and are therefore good bargains.
The 1855 Classification is one of the most enduring marketing schemes created by modern Western society, rivalled only by diamonds which have successfully become associated with love and marriage, a worse piece of nonsense that the folly of the Bordelais. Nonetheless, what it excludes is our gain as consumers, because it allows us access to similar quality at better prices. It is up to us to seek these out, and not be blinded by the false glitter of arbitrary ranking.