It is a sad fact of wine life that many consumers find French wine terms confusing. Often it is not the fact that they are in French, as much as they are confusing concepts to translate. Cru Classé, Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé, Premier Cru, Premier Grand Cru Classé all have a meaning that gets somewhat lost in translation. What is more, the same word or phrase can mean subtly different things in various regions of France.
I often tell my students not to go looking for logic in French wine terminology, as that way madness lies.
I really think it is best not to translate them and just to accept them as they are. Strangely I was taught that Cru means ‘growth’, which always struck me as odd and not an easy word to sell to the consumer. Happily, I have researched it myself and discovered that one of its meanings is ‘vineyard’, which is altogether more satisfying and simple to understand.
Replace Cru with vineyard, as well as translating classé and you have; Classified Vineyard, Great Vineyard, Classified Great Vineyard, Premier Vineyard and Premier Classified Vineyard. Which nearly make sense, anyone can tell that these words on a wine label imply that the bottle contains something that is highly regarded by someone.
Of course, it would help to know who by and who did the classifying?
Anyway, now there is a new term that will start appearing on 243 Bordeaux wine labels from the 2008 vintage, specifically wines from the Médoc – Cru Bourgeois.
A Bit of History
I say new, but actually it is an old term, very old in fact. Throughout my time in the wine trade Cru Bourgeois was used to classify, or rank, good wines that were just below the Cru Classés of the 1855 Médoc Classification. I think I knew once, but have long forgotten how they were classified, or who carried it out.
I know that a list of them appeared in 1932 and although it was never official and was not regulated, it remained in use as a term of reference until 2003 and appeared on the labels of the 444 wines that were on the list.
It seems that the phrase was already in unofficial use by the 1860s to describe good wines that were considered just below Cru Classé level – a sort of 6ième Cru Classé if you will.
Further back in Medieval times the bourgeois of Bordeaux, the merchants, artisans and professionals were able to buy some of the best lands. The vineyards on these sites became known as the Cru des Bourgeois – vineyards of the middle classes, which is certainly the origin of the term.
So much for the ancient history.
In 1979 the EU ruled in favour of the continued use of the term Cru Bourgeois on wine labels, provided it was defined and controlled by French law.
This was eventually done and in 2003 the first official and regulated classification of the Cru Bourgeois of the Médoc came into being.
Sadly it was a flawed system with many of the owners and winemakers of the Château concerned actually serving on the tasting panels that judged the wines. As a consequence some of the losers took it to court and won.
As a consequence Cru Bourgeois was put on hold while they sought out a way of making it water tight and totally above board.
Cru Bourgeois reborn
Well the wait is now over – Cru Bourgeois is reborn with the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc. The first vintage of the new system is the 2008 – not the best perhaps, but I think the wines show far better than most people believe with better fruit and concentration than many critics admit to. As with 2007 the vintage was saved from utter disaster by a wonderful Indian Summer.
They have sought to simplify things by sticking just to Cru Bourgeois at this stage, so the Cru Bourgeois Exceptional and Cru Bourgeois Supérior ranks have been abolished.
The chief thing about the new Cru Bourgeois is that it is not a classification. It does not apply to the Château, as is traditional in Bordeaux and it does not apply to the land, as in Burgundy or Alsace. It applies solely to the wine and can only be attained by submitting a sample to the official tasting panel.
Cru Bourgeois status can therefore be lost in any particular vintage – as well as won.
The panel is strictly vetted to ensure they have no links to the properties, but are all wine professionals, so far only from Bordeaux, but they have no objection to spreading the net wider.
Applications are open to any Château that produces wine in the 8 appellations contrôlée of the Médoc area north of the city of Bordeaux, the 2 district appellations and the 6 communes:
Interestingly only the Grand Vin is eligible to apply, not the second wine and not special cuvées, it has to be the bulk of the estate and it is the finished wine that must be submitted for tasting – not a cuvée journaliste. To this end the tastings start some 18 months after harvest, for instance the tasting panels for the 2009 vintage will start in July 2011 and finish in September 2011.
The tastings are blind and conducted in silence, with no verbal comments made. The marks are examined and computed by an outside organisation, called Veritias – who are the only people who know what score is needed to attain Cru Bourgeois status.
Samples are retained by the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc and they will be randomly checking bottles that are for sale against the samples held, to ensure they really are the same wine.
As another control, the number of labels with the Cru Bourgeois logo is controlled and the owners cannot print more than the production they declared when submitting their samples.
In addition everything must be Château bottled, strangely when the Chairman of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc was asked if bag-in-box was permitted he replied simply, ‘no’ – but the tone clearly implied that a silent ‘of course not’ was missing. I understand, but do not think I agree with such a restriction, why not allow decent Claret in a box, or any other vessel come to think of it?
So, the words on the label remain the same as in the past, but the use of them is heavily regulated and the whole concept is a radical departure – it is the wine being judged. Wine from a specific vintage at that, it is not the Château, not the owner’s reputation, not the price achieved, but the quality of the wine as judged in a blind tasting.
Perhaps a new term should have been chosen to replace Cru Bourgeois, but they took the view that it better to have a name with some history. Better a bad history than none at all, I was told.
What they are seeking to do for the consumer is to give a guarantee of quality, to create an umbrella brand to help consumers feel confident about buying these mid-priced clarets.
For the Bordeaux wine industry, of course, they seek to create a little excitement, by making the annual declaration, of who is in and who is out, something of an event.
Will it work and will the change be clear to consumers? Or will it just be seen as another French phrase on a wine label that is barely noticed, let alone understood?
I do not know, only time will tell, but I wish them luck with it and it does show that they are listening and trying to drag some of their traditions into the modern wine world. Of course it isn’t easy as French tasters look for different characteristics from British ones, winemakers look for different things from journalists and Bordelais expect different things from Burgundians, but it is a brave effort that is to be applauded.
Here is a short film of François Nony explaining how the Cru Bourgeois classification works – as he sees it. As well as being part of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc François is also the owner of the famous Château Caronne Ste Gemme.
I was fortunate enough to taste a selection of the new Cru Bourgeois wines the other day and here are some rough notes of my highlights:
Richer purpley colour.
Rich nose with black/red fruit and some real fragrance.
Lovely texture, lush with some real weight of fruit as well as elegance, delicate spice notes and smooth chalky tannins that flatter the palate and don’t dry it out.
Very good Claret – 91/100 points.
2008 Château Larose-Trintaudon
Lean colour, red rather than black.
Chalky mineral nose with some red fruit too.
Pretty good fruit actually with some real texture and succulence, red and black backed up by a little oak spice, some savoury notes and and gentle tannins, good acidity too.
Pretty vibrant blackberry finish.
This is a supple, attractive easy drinking Claret – 88/100 points.
Nice fresh red colour, I get tired of black wines.
Good nose, nice perfume and fruit backed by oak spice.
The palate shows lovely fresh red fruit supported by a crispness, supple tannins and some weight.
Attractive and drinkable wine – 88/100 points.
Deep black red colour, translucent.
Good nose, richer fruit with some depth and spice.
Good texture and supple weight, nice acidity and fruit balance, gentle oak and balanced tannins.
Good wine, a pretty classic Claret – 89/100 points.
Lovely bright colour, reddy purple.
Good perfume, plums and spice.
Nice texture, succulent good acidity, balanced dry spicy oak and smooth tannins.
A very attractive, if light Claret – 89/100 points.
Deep colour with a browny reddy black look.
Firm nose, quite mineral with not much generosity, except oak and spice.
The palate has a smooth texture and is quite plush and attractive with nice acidity, gentle fruit, but quite a bit of oak towards the back palate.
Needs time, but pretty classy, despite having a hard finish right now – 90/100 points.
Great colour, not opaque, but concentrated rich plummy purple.
Perfumed nose with violets and gentle oak spice.
The palate has a full fat, rich texture with fresh fruit, good acid , balanced oak and supple chalky tannins.
Good wine, but needs time – 91/100 points.
2008 Château La Tour de Mons
Good deep colour.
Enticing nose of cherry, plum, spice and coffee oak.
The palate offers a nice texture and structure, a bit lean, but clean and mineral with chalky tannins on the finish.
A fresh and crisp wine, quite light, but very attractive – 88/100 points.
2008 Château Paveil de Luze
Nice depth of colour, looks promising.
The nose has attractive red/black fruit and a touch of cedary spice.
Nice weight on the palate, good fruit, smooth tannins, this is astonishingly precious, attractive, supple and elegant – 90/100 points.
Deep black red fruit, opaque.
Blackberry fruit, some spice, oak and savoury notes on the nose.
The palate has a good texture, some weight, smooth tannins, fresh lively acidity and attractive fruit.
Back palate has some oak and chalky tannins too, with charred oak on the finish.
Pretty good, needs a little time yet – 89/100 points.
Very attractive colour, pretty deep, but just off opaque.
Rich nose, quite raspberry and spicy – almost lifted.
The palate has soft red fruit, nice oak integration and balanced acidity, with clean, attractive chalky tannins on the finish
A really good Claret – 91/100 points.
2008 Château Tour de Pez
Very deep colour, an opaque red/blue/purple.
On the nose plums, cassis and mint are to the fore with a little coffee and toast.
The texture is the thing here, with lots of succulent red/black fruit.
Oak and coffee tones somewhat dominate right now, with a bite of tannins on the finish, but it is rescued by the acidity freshening everything up.
This needs time or a meal, but is very good – 91/100 points.
If you are looking for a decent bottle of Claret, you could do a great deal worse than start with one of these Cru Bourgeois wines. Let’s hope that the new classification makes some waves and attracts consumers to some of the lesser known wines of the Médoc.