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Jefford on Monday: A Growth Spurt

Provided French agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire signs on the dotted line, it looks as if there will soon be a new baby squealing and mewling in the illustrious maternity ward of France’s Grands Crus ('great growths'): Quarts de Chaume.

Grand Crus

Photo: Brigitte Haberl

At all of 54 ha, with authorised yields dropping from 25 hl/ha down to 20 hl/ha for this botrytised dessert wine, and with just 19 producers using the AOC, the elevation won’t change the face of wine retailing. It does, though, serve as a reminder as to how vexed the status of Grand Cru is in French wine legislation. Let me resume the inconsistencies.

Burgundy’s 33 Grands Crus are - and should be - the model for others. The Quarts de Chaume promotion is firmly in the Burgundian model: a small, single-terroir appellation; plenty of historical evidence for its uniqueness; more stringent production conditions than for the appellations which surround it. Grand Cru in Alsace draws on the same vein of inspiration, though the region’s status as a pawn in assorted Franco-German wars broke many of the historical threads, and the vineyard boundaries created between 1975 and 1992 were slacker than in Burgundy.

Grand Cru in Champagne enlarges the optic yet again: no longer a single vineyard or terroir, but now an entire village (though note that there is only one AOC in Champagne: Champagne itself). In a region of tiny parcels where blending has long been the norm, though, this pragmatic vagueness seemed all that was viable. Maybe we can do better in the future.

By contrast ‘Grand Cru’ in St Emilion, as I have written before, is an embarrassment, since any producer within the huge St Emilion AOC can claim it for a bottled wine made with a slightly lowered yield and with 14 months’ ageing, providing it is thought to taste ‘typical’. Much the same applies to Banyuls Grand Cru (the term merely implies longer ageing and a higher minimum percentage of Grenache). Recent efforts, meanwhile, to flag up ten sub-regions of Languedoc as ‘Grands Crus’ has met with official disapproval, and is a marketing initiative unlikely ever to see the light of day.

It’s important to draw a distinction, of course, between property classification systems (such as the Médoc’s nineteenth-century warhorse, or the no-less-outdated system of Provence crus classés, amazingly given official sanction back in 1955 when the area was still a VDQS) and terroir classification systems (such as Grand Cru).

Grand Cru and Premier Cru (and their equivalents in other languages) are terms which should be reserved for the very finest zones of a nation’s entire vineyard stock, regardless of ownership. It is a classification of potential.

Cru Classé and the like, by contrast, refer to a property, and a commercial trajectory within a market: it is a classification of achievement.

The two may overlap – but any ‘classed growth’ which wanted itself considered as a Grand Cru should be ready to have all of its parcels assessed, and the weakest ones excluded. Would the Bordeaux First Growths be ready to do that? The definition of Grand Cru as representing potential is also why we have to put up with underperformers in Grand Cru zones, though properly drafted production regulations (and a strict appellation tasting panel) should squeeze them towards fulfilment.

The Loire Valley promotion, of course, means that the Grand Cru game should be open to all French producers. Here’s my list of those French AOCs in regions without a Grand Cru system at present which should, in whole or in part, now aspire to the acquisition of Grand Cru status.

There’s a blue whale of a problem, though. Most of the relevant appellations contain some land of potential Grand Cru quality – but plenty more which is only of Premier Cru or ‘Villages’ potential. There will be losers, in other words, as well as winners.

France’s Grands-Crus-In-Waiting

  • Savennières/Coulée de Serrant
  • Sancerre Lieux-Dits (defined hill sites)
  • Pouilly-Fumé Lieux-Dits (defined hill sites)
  • Côte Rôtie
  • Condrieu/Château Grillet
  • Hermitage
  • Châteauneuf du Pape Lieux-Dits (defined sub-zones)
  • Croupes de St Estèphe (defined gravel rises)
  • Croupes de Pauillac (defined gravel rises)
  • Croupes de St Julien (defined gravel rises)
  • Croupes de Margaux (defined gravel rises)
  • Croupes de Pessac-Léognan (defined gravel rises)
  • Croupes de Sauternes et de Barsac (defined gravel rises)
  • St Emilion La Côte
  • St Emilion Terrasse de Figeac
  • Pomerol Haute Terrasse (the former ‘Günz gravels’)
  • Cahors Troisième Terrasse
  • Madiran Lieux-Dits (defined hill sites)
  • Bandol Lieux-Dits (defined hill sites)

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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