Just what is happening to the Crus Bourgeois?

  • Thursday 21 August 2008

After the reclassification and the court cases, one can understand consumer
confusion. So, do the crus bourgeois even exist any more? JAMES LAWTHER MW explains all

After the reclassification and the court cases, one can understand consumer confusion. So, do the crus bourgeois even exist any more? JAMES LAWTHER MW explains all.

A civil war has been raging among the crus bourgeois of the Médoc for the last four years. Since the announcement of a new classification in 2003, protagonists for and against the revised order have been firing writs, law suits, claims, counter claims and press statements at each other. The final shots, though, were delivered by the French legal establishment and fraud office last year.

he 2003 classification was officially annulled and the term ‘cru bourgeois’ banned from use. A right royal war of words had ended in stalemate, with both parties on the losing side. But there’s nothing like adversity to reunite feuding factions, and the latest word is that the cru bourgeois qualification is to be revived – but this time as a yearly certification rather than a government stamped classification that lasts 10 years. Will any of it make any difference? And does the term have any relevance to the consumer today?

The title ‘cru bourgeois’ was coined at the end of the 15th century to denote properties owned by the well-to-do middle classes as opposed to the aristocrats of the city. Over the centuries the list became more democratic, and a hierarchy was established which was eventually formalised as a classification by the wine brokers or courtiers in 1932. The list, which contained 444 estates ranked in three categories, was instigated at a difficult economic juncture when most were in need of a promotional legup to help procure sales. It should be no surprise to find that the cru bourgeois 'brand’ has the same function today.

Decline and fall

The problem was that the listing began to run out of control. Policing and standards declined and there were just too many châteaux (with a large differential in quality and price) using the cru bourgeois tag. The new classification inaugurated in 2003 was supposed to rectify the problem. It was a step in the right direction, with stiffer controls and a reduction in numbers.

All told, 247 châteaux (from 490 potential candidates) were ranked in ascending order as crus bourgeois (151), crus bourgeois supérieurs (87) and crus bourgeois exceptionnels (nine). The rejected applicants, however, wereless content.

Accusations of cronyism followed the revelation that four of the 18-member professional jury convened for the review owned châteaux that had been classified. Other producers were unhappy that the period of reflection and tasting (1994–99) did not take into account more recent changes in ownership and improvement. The upshot was legal action and the eventual suppression of the classification and cru bourgeois name last year.

Does it really matter? Established brands like Châteaux Gloria and Sociando-Mallet had already manifested their disinterest in the label by not applying for the 2003 classification. Another 20 or so châteaux, including the nine crus bourgeois exceptionnels (2003), probably feel secure enough not to need the support of the grouping today. One or two châteaux rejected in 2003 also voice a similar opinion.

‘It’s no longer fundamental for me, but does help in markets like France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany where the wines are listed as such,’ says Jean-Christophe Mau of Château Preuillac in AC Médoc.

Négociant Bill Blatch of Vintex echoes this view: ‘Producers and their customers are worried in markets that are close to the classification, like France and Japan, but less so in the UK and US.’ He cites as an example Château Larose-Trintaudon in AC Haut-Médoc – this, he says, is the most widely sold cru bourgeois in the US, and with no reference made to its status; price, distribution and regularity are what count. Fellow négociant Jeffrey Davies of Signature Selections is even more dismissive: ‘A good Parker score is better than any classification.’

The UK market is perhaps a little more ambivalent. ‘We never use the term in our communications as it’s meaningless to our customers, but the reputation of these wines needs to be bolstered, because this is what people will be drinking as the prices of the crus classés becomes ever more prohibitive,’ says The Wine Society’s chief buyer, Sebastian Payne MW. At Decanter’s London offices the cru bourgeois tasting is an annual event. The latest, of the 2005 vintage (reported in the March 2008 edition), lists 156 wines andsome less well-known faces in the four and five-star categories. The fact is that despite its negative connotations ‘cru bourgeois’ has become firmly entrenched as the generic brand name for a mass of properties united by their region, style and history, the framework covering 40%–50% of the production and surface area of the Médoc.

In limbo

So what does the future hold? Firstly, though nothing has yet been put into writing, there’s an unofficial administrative tolerance of the cru bourgeois label to be used on vintages up to and including 2006. Hence the reason producers and consumers will presently have felt little fall-out from 2007’s legal sanction.

One word of warning, however – the regulatory clemency applies to everyone, including those rejected from the 2003 classification. Certain producers wishing to highlight the fact that they were classified in 2003 make reference to the date on the label. It’s from the 2007 vintage (or 2009 when the wines are in bottle and for sale) that producers feel most threatened. But the shock of the court ruling has thrown the warring parties together in order to find a rapid solution. On the table now is the creation of a cru bourgeois certificate awarded yearly and administered by an independent body. Any plans for a new classification have been shelved.

‘A classification means acquiring recognition by ministerial decree and at present the French government just doesn’t want to know,’ explains Consumers have been left confused by the annulment of the cru bourgeois classification Thierry Gardinier, president of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc, the federating wine growers’ association which is steering the new project. With growers from all sides in unity,

the guidelines for the new cru bourgeois certificate were unanimously agreed by secret ballot in February. It will be an annual qualification open to all established

crus in the eight appellations of the Médoc (Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe). Failure to acquire the

certificate one year will not pre-empt further application in following years. The château will be held to a set of rules governing production (capacity of tanks and barrels for adequate ageing, hygiene, bottling at the domaine) and the wine judged by a professional tasting panel when in bottle, which will be no sooner than the second February following the harvest. Hence the first vintage concerned will be the 2007, to be judged in 2009. Both the tasting and code for production will be administered by an accredited independent organisation.

Stumbling blocks that have yet to be resolved include the minimum volume of wine presented for the label. The figures under discussion range from 12,000 to 36,000 bottles. ‘If producers with acertain volume put forward a single lot, it just won’t be representative of the estate,’ opines Patrick Bernard, head of négociant Millésima and owner of Château Peyrabon in Haut-Médoc. The other contentious issue is the labelling aspect of a château bottling the cru bourgeois ‘selection’ and another wine under the same name. Any thoughts of a hierarchy within the certification have also been quelled for now. ‘We first need to construct the foundations of the new system, create a dynamic and prove it works, and then wecan see about implementing a ranking,’ says Gardinier.

Keeping control

With the cru bourgeois certificate open to all-comers in the Médoc, including the coops, there’s also the fear that numbers could be excessive, thereby rendering the certificate meaningless. The present membership of the Alliance totals 300 growers, and Gardinier feels the number of certified crus bourgeois in a given year will not be in excess of this. Much depends on the rules for selection and how severely they are imposed. The producers appear to be galvanised, but the certificate is still far from a forgone conclusion. The final draft of the production code has to be agreed, and validation from the French authorities obtained. If all goes according to plan it is hoped that the framework for the certificate will be in place by September. Individual châteaux with a strong branded image and quality will not be affected by the turn of events and neither will consumers that follow their wines. But the Médoc in general hasn’t been an easy sell lately and the cru bourgeois label is an arm of communication that producers are reluctant to abandon. Vincent Mulliez, owner of Château Belle-Vue in Haut-Médoc, is among those who want to retain the cru bourgeois status. ‘We need a collective promotional instrument to attract

customers and press, and the cru bourgeois brand with its mix of Médoc appellations must be preserved.’ It’s up to the producers to make it something the consumer can respect.

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