First published in the Gilbert & Gaillard International Magazine
Everyone has heard of the 1855 Grand Cru classification of the Médoc, many recognize Médoc’s other classification, the Cru Bourgeois but it was only recently that it was officially recognized. We follow the fall and rise of the Cru Bourgeois classification and hear from the new classification’s organisers and varying views from the wine producers themselves about the challenges they face today of being part of the New Cru Bourgeois club.
The term Cru Bourgeois goes back to mediaeval times during English rule, when wine merchants based in the “Bourg” of Bordeaux city were an affluent and influential class in their own right. They had numerous privileges such as being exempt from paying the high taxes levied on wine from their vineyards and having the priority when exporting their wines, passing before other producers. Such privileges gave them an advantage commercially and enabled them to invest early on in land, to plant vineyards and create large wine estates. The wines they produced were the “cru” wines of the Bourgeois and often noted to be of a superior quality. A text dating back to 1740 includes the first selection of these wines and shows their higher prices.
To be eligible to be Cru Bourgeois your property needs to be based in one of the Médoc’s eight communes. The Médoc is a strip of land that ‘goes nowhere’, dividing the Atlantic and the Gironde Estuary. It takes an hour and three quarters from Bordeaux city centre to arrive at its tip, a 100 kilometre drive. If you take the D2, the small Route de Châteaux you will pass through some of the world’s most well-known wine villages such as Margaux, St Julien and Pauillac, home to some of the most famous châteaux in the world; the neoclassical Château Margaux, the fairy tale castle of Pichon Longueville and the dumpy tower of Château Latour. These are members of a prestigious club, the 60 or so Grand Cru Classé elite. This is also the home to over 1000 other châteaux that share similar terroir and climate, over 200 of these are Cru Bourgeois today.
Frédérique Dutheillet de Lamothe, Director of the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois du Médoc explains the recent chequered history of this ancient classification
“I started working as Communications Director for the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois du Médoc in June 2007, five days before the 2003 classification was annulled. One month later, the St Emilion classification of 2006 fell too, but rather than being cancelled totally as was our case the classification reverted to the 1996 one. We have had to start completely from zero and create a system that did not exist before based on the quality of an individual wine. We had a dark period of three years between 2007 and 2010 when we had no official existence. We had to find our way in the dark but our members stood by us with Thierry Gardinier, our president leading the way for six years. Today Frédéric de Luze is president.
Over the past years we have fought alongside the wine producers to protect the valuable heritage that is the Cru Bourgeois classification. The current system is a beginning and we are doing it step by step.”
The Cru Bourgeois Time Line
12th Century: Development of the Bourgeois class of wine merchants in Bordeaux with superior rights and privileges
15th Century: First mention of the “Crus” owned by the “Bourgeois” of Bordeaux
1932: First list of 444 Cru Bourgeois châteaux drawn up by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Gironde’s Chamber of Industry ranked in three categories (Cru Bourgeois Superior Exceptionnel, Cru Bourgeois Superior, Cru Bourgeois). The classification however was never formally approved by the Minister of Agriculture.
1962: Creation of the Cru Bourgeois Syndicate (now the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois du Médoc)
2003: The first ‘official’ classification (with ministerial decree) of 247 Cru Bourgeois châteaux ranked in three categories as before
2004: The Cru Bourgeois Syndicate becomes the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois de Médoc with Thierry Gardinier of Château Phelan Ségur as President
2007: Classification of 2003 annulled by the Administrative Court of Bordeaux due to procedural faults (propelled by the group of 78 producers who had been excluded from the 2003 classification)
September 2010: New Classification System put in place by the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois governed by a rigorous set of guidelines (“le cahier des charges”).
First Official Classification of the 243 Cru Bourgeois du Médoc for the 2008 vintage
What was new?
· Properties are checked for eligibility as a first step
· A single tier classification of Cru Bourgeois
· An annual quality assessment of the wines not the property or terroir
· An independent panel of professional tasters determine the selection from March to July
· All procedures carried out by an independent organization “Bureau Veritas”
· Sampling of a wine that has been uniformly blended
· A selection of a representative benchmark wine each year which serves as the reference for the tasters
· Wines are classified two years after the harvest
September 2011: Official Classification of 246 Cru Bourgeois du Médoc for the 2009 vintage
September 2012: Official Classification of Cru Bourgeois du Médoc for the 2010 vintage
The Cru Bourgeois du Médoc Classification of the 2009 Vintage
Total of 246 properties divided over 8 communes of the Médoc
Médoc : 99
Haut Médoc : 85
Listrac : 13
Moulis : 16
Margaux : 9
Pauillac : 5
Saint-Estephe : 19
St Julien : 0
A few facts and figures about the Cru Bourgeois – 2009 vintage
- 246 château recognised as Cru Bourgeois
- 4300 hectares of vines (26% of vineyard area in the Médoc)
- 32 million bottles (38% of the production of the Médoc)
- An increase in volume of nearly 30% compared to the 2008 vintage (218 châteaux).
A Word on Classifications
The desire to give wine properties in a given wine region, a hierarchy is an age old one. The goal is to help the consumer select a wine in preference to another when faced with a bewildering choice. Alsace or Burgundy’s Grand Cru is not equivalent to St Emilion’s Grand Cru. Pomerol has never had a classification and does not seem to miss it. Do classifications further complicate the picture or help the consumer to choose? There is a need for clear classifications that the consumer can understand and can rely on as a sign of quality particularly for wines that are too “small” to have their own recognizable branding.
1855 Classification of the Médoc & Sauternes : 61 properties selected on price, five tier hierarchy, “static” classification
Cru Artisan; traditional classification of 44 small family properties in the Médoc with often less than 5 hectares.
Classification Systems in other regions of Bordeaux
St Emilion Classification: Two tier Premier Grand Cru Classé (15 existing) and Grand Cru Classé (61 existing). Reviewed every ten years since 1955. ‘Fell’ at the same time as the Cru Bourgeois with the 2006 classification being cancelled and a return to the classification of 1996 (later those eight properties that were promoted to Premier Cru Classé were able keep their new status and those that were demoted were able to stay within – a slight mockery of the classification. We await the new classification in 2012 to see what will happen (96 châteaux have applied!)
Péssac-Leognan Classification:one tier unchanging classification since 1959
What does Cru Bourgeois mean to you?
- Frédérique Dutheillet de Lamothe, Director of the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois du Médoc
“Having Cru Bourgeois on your label adds value, according to wine merchants prices can be increased from 10 to 20%. Retail prices in France vary from 8€ to 25€ plus. There is the need for a classification system for the wines that fall between Cru Classé and Cru Artisan. With today’s climate and increased competition the Cru Bourgeois classification is a tremendous chance to ‘stand out from the crowd’.
We organize many press and trade events for our members, the presentation of the new vintage in Bordeaux, les primeurs for example and most recently with many of our Cru Bourgeois châteaux in China – in the cities of Shanghai, Canton and Peking. In emerging markets such as these, any sign of authenticity is reassuring for the new wine consumer. From the 2010 vintage a small label of authentication with hologram and traceability number will be required on each bottle (previously printed on the back label).
It is a true Alliance and our members are consulted before any decisions are made. We like to see ourselves as one big family which helps in terms of visibility in export markets. We are open to improvements, we are flexible and we try to listen and take on board the suggestions and reactions of our wine producer members.
We work with an independent body called “Bureau Veritas”. It is they that impose the rules and regulations to ensure that the results are impartial and just. They advised that an annual classification was the most reliable way of ensuring the quality of a product that changes each year in accordance with the vintage. This annual system is time-consuming but it is representative and a good way to start.
The fact that the current system is a one tier classification has caused some criticism. We wanted to securely build the ground floor of our castle if you like, before adding five or six floors.
The historic Cru Bourgeois classification is a precious tool and worth fighting for!”
Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc
- Isabelle Davin, Oenologist, Château Le Crock, AOC Saint Estephe
“I am the oenologist for the Cuvelier family for both of their properties, Château Leoville Poyferré St Julien, a second growth in the 1855 classification and for Château Le Crock, Saint Estephe which is a Cru Bourgeois, a classification with even older origins. For us being a Cru Bourgeois is historic, and that is very important for le Crock.
The same work methods are used for both properties (even the yellow label with rounded corners are similar), so any technical constraints are negligible for us. I can appreciate that some smaller wine producers are alarmed at the weight of some of the demands. There are many things that are imposed and that I understand could be difficult for some producers to take on. We were all given a copy of the “cahier des charges” before it was accepted, now we have to play by the rules of the game.
Saying that, I do make sure to pass on any difficulties that arise, such as the need for a homogenous vat sample at a time when I am still ageing the wine in barrel. I understand it, but sometimes practically it can be difficult and the goal at the end is to not be prevented to produce the very best wine we can. The good thing is that there is the opportunity of being heard.
Having Cru Bourgeois on the label continues to be, for sure, a sign of quality.
I am very confident that in the future, once we have passed this test period, the practical demands of the classification will become less onerous and that will attract other properties to become, or return to being, Cru Bourgeois.”
Château Le Crock, AOC Saint Estephe
- Ludovic and Julien Meffre, Joint Directors of Château du Glana AOC St Julien, Château Lalande AOC St Julien, Château Bellegrave AOC Pauillac
“We have the chance to be in very prestigious appellations and have made the choice since the 2009 vintage to communicate under our own brands and opt out of the Cru Bourgeois classification.
We feel that too few of the criteria are concern with the production of quality (for example in terms of grape sorting after harvest, barrel ageing). There are too many heavy administrative procedures particularly in terms of labeling and technical constraints. We work with Denis Dubourdieu to bring out the wonderful differences of our wines and their terroir. The idea of a benchmark wine that are wines are compared to, seems to be working towards the opposite – standardization. The absence of any hierarchy within the classification means that there is no quality distinction between the different Cru Bourgeois which removes the desire for healthy competition. For us the classification has become the equivalent to be awarded a medal.
Our distributors have confirmed what we feel and that Cru Bourgeois for us represents little interest in traditional distribution. We prefer to respond to the actual demands of our customers which correspond to the real demands of the market today.
We are not alone. In St Julien there are no more Cru Bourgeois remaining and many of the former elite of the Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels such as Poujeaux, Chasse Spleen andSiran have chosen to do the same and focus on their own brand following. What this does mean is that we have to organize our own communication with the world press and trade. For the last primeurs we organized tastings here at Château du Glana with the other ex-Cru Bourgeois châteaux of St Julien. There is much work to be done to build our individual brands on the world markets.
Château du Glana, AOC St Julien
Château Bellegrave, AOC Pauillac
Château Lalande, AOC St Julien
- Bernard Segond, Château Lousteauneuf, AOC Médoc
“At our level, a family property of 28 hectares, we do not have the notoriety of estates such as Poujeaux to be able to promote our wines on our own. Being part of the Cru Bourgeois is a good trampoline for Lousteauneuf. For example for the Primeurs we have the same visibility as the Cru Classés. The Alliance organizes a tasting during the three days for the thousands of buyers and press from around the world. My press book is filled with press from such events organized by the Alliance. There is a real visibility and exposure that I would not otherwise have. I am involved in the practical aspects of growing and making wine so I have not the time to dedicate for press and general communication.
There is a market for Cru Bourgeois, it is a brand in its own right. In markets such as China I have found that to have Cru Bourgeois on your label is a marker, an assurance of a certain level of quality.
The new Cru Bourgeois classification is a beginning. It is important that as members the wine producers continue to communicate with the Alliance about ways to improve the system. There are many opportunities to speak out, but sometimes there is more speaking in the corridor once the meeting is over than during it!
I do not find the labeling requirements restrictive. In this climate you need to anticipate, to be equipped to the minimum before it is required. You get nothing for nothing.”
Château Lousteauneuf, 33340 Valeyrac
The History of the Médoc
The Médoc, or Middle country was an isolated forested marshy area devoid of vines until the Middle Ages when vines were planted around the religious priories such as Cantenac and Macau, most of the vineyards were close to the city of Bordeaux. It was not until the 17th century that the Dutch with their skills of draining their own low country or Pays Bas that drained the marsh and enabled the expansion of vineyards in the Médoc.
The Oceanic Climate of the Médoc
The Medoc is sandwiched between two water masses, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde Estuary which regulate temperatures making the climate mild and temperate. In addition the region benefits from the warm Gulf Stream from the Caribbean. A pine forest planted by Napoleon III protects the vineyards from winds and storms off the Atlantic. Rain falls mainly in the winter months and otherwise the region is warm with regular sunshine.
The unique sedimentary soils of the Médoc
Some 50 million years ago the Aquitaine basin was part of a large tropical sea. Over time various several layers of sedimentary deposits were laid down over the limestone bedrock of the sea bed to form a peninsular. These are made up of a mixture of gravel of quartz, small rounded pebbles, sandstone, clay and silt brought by the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers from the Pyrenees and the Massif Central. These make up the sub-soils and soils of the Médoc which over time have become eroded over time to form undulating gravel outcrops with perfect natural drainage. The vine’s roots plunge down to the water table for a supply of enough but never too much water.