With the new Cru Bourgeois unveiled I thought it would be useful to have a look at it and see what is what. Originally wines from Bordeaux’s Médoc that were called Cru Bourgeois were those that had not made it into the 1855 Classification but were too good not to be recognised in some way. They represented the “best of the rest” in the 1860s. In 1932 the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Chamber of Agriculture drew up an unofficial list of 444 Cru Bourgeois châteaux and this remained unchanged until 2003.
The 1932 list badly needed updating and regulating as it was outdated and the range in quality was quite diverse. In the official list of 2003 only 247 châteaux were included out of the 490 that were submitted. These were divided into 3 tiers: Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (9), Cru Bourgeois Supérieur (87) and Cru Bourgeois (151), with Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel being the top wines. As you can imagine this created an uproar (as has the Saint Emilion Classification) with 78 properties that lost their ranking bitterly complaining that the judges were not impartial and filing court action. The result was that the Cru Bourgeois was annulled in 2007 and it has taken 3 years to sort it out.
The New Cru Bourgeois (Alliance des Crus Bourgeois) now applies to 243 châteaux for their 2008 vintage (290 applied). It is awarded to the vintage and not to the vineyard or to the chateau which means that each year a chateau can lose or gain Cru Bourgeois status depending on whether the wine of that vintage makes the grade or not. Obviously some châteaux are fairly consistent so I would not expect to see a great number lose out due to a poor vintage but some definitely will fluctuate.
To ensure impartiality, an independent agency called Bureau Veritas, will check that all applicants are worthy, examining the state of their grounds, vineyards and wine making facilities. It is also in charge of supervising blind tastings of each vintage by a jury of trade professionals – who are not chateau owners.
The new system does not include tiers so the higher-ranking Cru Bourgeois Superieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel categories that were used in the 2003 ranking are defunct.
Any chateau can apply for Cru Bourgeois status but only their Grand Vin can be submitted ie no second wines or special cuvées.
The aim of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois is to recognise benchmark wines and to offer a guarantee of quality to the consumer – as well as create a brand. There is some criticism that this will create wines that will taste too uniform and châteaux will produce wines to a formula intended to please the Alliance but I think the sheer diversity of the châteaux and their terroirs will conquer this argument.
However all is not straight forward (is it ever in Bordeaux?). The owners of 6 of the 9 former Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel estates are not happy about their apparent demotion and have refused to participate. They have instead formed their own group – Les Exceptionnels – which includes Chasse Spleen, Ormes de Pez, Pez, Potensac, Poujeaux and Siran. Chateau Labegorce-Zede was not permitted to join Les Exceptionnels owing to a merger, whilst former Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel members Phelan Segur and Haut Marbuzet elected not to form part of either of the new alliances.
Also one estate that did qualify for the new Cru Bourgeois, Château La Tour de By, has already announced its withdrawal. “After much reflection, we decided to inform the Alliance that we are giving up the use of this term as it no longer represents a genuine high standard of quality,” said winemaker and owner Frederic Le Clerc. He added that he thinks the new system is flawed because it judges estates by the wine and not the terroir.
There is some talk that the Cru Bourgeois might consider adding a new
level in the future – Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Preuillac told Decanter that the classification has his ‘full support’ but he agreed the next step should be to add a new level: “If you have wines of €4 on the same level as wines of €40, then you will eventually find only the smaller properties will want to put Cru Bourgeois on their label.”
There is also the fact that the 243 châteaux selected for Cru Bourgeois status represent 44% of the 7200 hectares in the Médoc – ie just under half the châteaux that exist there . . . that’s 38.5 million bottles! Whether you like it or not I think the tier system was a good idea but concerning the Alliance I think their criteria is a welcome change . . . wine should be judged independently and on its own merits.