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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bordeaux’s Hierarchy---the World’s Most Ingenious Marketing Plan

In the 1850’s the French launched a 450 mile railway from Paris to Bordeaux, a great engineering coup at the time. Marketing gurus of the period were tasked with developing a strategy on how to attract travelers to Bordeaux.  The idea they came up with has changed the course of international wine.

Bordeaux, located in the southwest part of the country, had direct access to the Atlantic.  The town was heavily involved at the time in shipping wine to England.  As the voracious Brits were particularly fond of red wines, most growers surrounding the city of Bordeaux had planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and a now rather obscure variety called Petite Verdot.  When plans for the new rail line were disclosed, several prominent financiers in Paris predicted an influx to Bordeaux after the rail line was built, and began to purchase property around the area…many of them  bought wine-making chateaux.  Leading the pack were Mouton Rothchild and Lafite Rothchild.

The marketing folks decided to capitalize on Bordeaux’s relatively unknown wine industry within France…and the rest is history.  Their marketing strategy for enticing Frenchmen to Bordeaux involved creating a hoopla around the “best wineries.”  A hierarchy of the top producers was constructed.  Note that the criteria for this pecking order was NOT based on any wine tastings.  It was solely based on the price of the wine.  Quality did not enter into the equation.

Four of the wine chateaux had prices that far exceeded all the others.  These four (Latour, Haut Brion, Margaux, and Lafite Rothschild), were awarded the top status which they called “Premier Cru” (1st growth in French).   This top tier was followed by four other tiers: 2nd Growth, 3rd Growth, 4th Growth and 5th Growth.  All were clustered and based on price in descending order (e.g.  5th Growths were the least costly of all).   There were 61 wineries in total chosen and this marketing plan was called “The 1855 Classification.”  These 61 were all called "Grand Cru Classe."   At the time, there were hundreds of other wine producing chateaux in the Bordeaux area, however, their prices were significantly lower than those singled out for “Grand Cru Classe” status, so these wineries were not even referenced in the 1855 Classification.

Fortuitously, Paris was having a huge exposition in 1855.  The Grand Cru of Bordeaux were unveiled here to promote rail travel to Bordeaux.   It worked.  Anyone with a bucket of francs rushed to Bordeaux via rail to buy their status symbol wine.  Today, Bordeaux Premier Crus remain one of the most coveted wines in the world often commanding wines in the thousands of dollars for a new release (add a zero or two if it’s aged).  The same five red grapes referenced above remain the only red varietals still allowed by law.  Amazingly, there’s been only one change to the original 1855 Classification:  Mouton Rothschild was elevated from a 2nd Growth to a 1st Growth.   Viva la France for the greatest marketing maneuver of the wine world. 

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