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Napoléon III

Napoléon III

In 1855, the Emperor of the French, Napoléon III, decided to organize a World Fair in Paris to show the wealth of France to the world.

At this juncture, the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux had to propose a satisfactory representation of the wines from the area. The Chamber appealed to the brokers' union to create a list of 68 red growths divided in 5 classes and a list of 21 white growths divided in 3 classes. This classification is based on the wines' sales prices as recorded by the brokers over the previous century.

The original document drawn up by the Bordeaux brokers and sent to the Chamber of Commerce on 18 April, 1855 is written in large, regular characters that are easy to read. The list of red wine producers covers three pages, starting with Château Lafite at the head of the first growths and finishing with Croizet-Bages at the end of the fifth growths. Immediately below Croizet-Bages, a line has been drawn almost three inches in length. Three small inches that decided the fate of Bordeaux's red wine producers between classed and un-classed growths. But in a completely different handwriting, smaller and squeezed above the fatal line, is written "Cantemerle, Mme de Villeneuve Durfort, Macau ". Someone other than the writer of the original list evidently wrote this phrase after the 18th of April. Cantemerle does not appear on the wine map created in the month of May and put on display at the World Fair in Paris.

This absence in the original list is explained by the brokers' ignorance about the Cantemerle sales price. Actually, Cantemerle had maintained a long-standing trading relation with Holland: the entire production was sold directly to Dutch buyers, thus by-passing the brokers and merchants in the Bordeaux wine market. Guillaume Lawton remarked on this practice of direct export in 1816, commenting that "(Villeneuve is in) the leading position in this parish. His wines fare well in Holland and he ships them there". The brokers, therefore, knew next-to-nothing of the details of transactions between Villeneuve Durfort and the Dutch (in particular, the prices at which his wine sold). However, since the property was one of the principal producers in Macau, the brokers tried to keep track of Cantemerle as best they could with the little information they had at hand. In the records that were habitually kept in minute detail by Guillaume Lawton and his successors, the entries relating to this property were largely limited to the number of Bordeaux casks produced and, for those years in which no other information was available, the entry simply reads 'Holland'. On a few very rare occasions, the selling price was noted but, in general, entries relating to Cantemerle were conspicuous by their absence (for the eighty years from 1775 to 1854, only six prices were recorded).

For the 1854 vintage, Caroline de Villeneuve Durfort made a decision that represented a significant break with the past - Cantemerle wines were henceforth to be sold on the Bordeaux market through the traditional network of brokers. For the first time in thirty years, Tastet and Lawton recorded a selling price for the estate in their books - 2,100 francs for a tun. This was 100 francs more than Croizet-Bages, the last on the list of estates featuring in the brokers' classification, definitively drawn up on the 18th of April. That is not surprising if we know that Cantemerle's wine had procured prices equivalent to the fifth growths for decades. The price of Cantemerle recorded by Tastet and Lawton in 1825 was 1500 francs a tun - that is, the same as for Croizet-Bages.

In 1819, Cantemerle sold at 850 francs - 100 francs more than Croizet. The previous year, Croizet had come out on top at 1000 francs against only 710 for Cantemerle, but in 1815, the difference was much smaller, with Croizet-Bages at 950 francs and Cantemerle at 850. And, in 1775, prices recorded by Guillaume Lawton were 300-330 for Cantemerle and 270-300 for Croizet-Bages.

As soon as Caroline de Villeneuve Durfort learned that Cantemerle was not on the list presented at the World's Fair, she reacted. In order to maintain the reputation of her estate, she demanded that she be included amongst the fifth growths, not by approaching the Chamber of Commerce, as others did months afterwards, but by going directly to the source - the brokers' union. Doubtless armed with a historical record of Cantemerle's selling prices that was far more complete than that held by the brokers, the dossier she officially submitted was apparently irreproachable.

On 16 September 1855, when the World's Fair was still open to visitors and long before anyone could imagine for a moment that this commercial classification would have a greater impact or importance than all of its predecessors, Cantemerle was added to the list of fifth growths. As such, it constituted the first modification to the 1855 classification, the promotion of Mouton Rothschild in 1973 being the second.