A Class of Their Own
- Tuesday 16 December 2003
The new classification of the Médoc’s crus bourgeois, which saw the light of day in June, is, surprisingly, the first official classification of these wines. The original list, created in 1932, had no legal bearing, but merely allowed certain châteaux to put ‘cru bourgeois’ on their labels.
The work, the parameters of which are set out below, took 18 months to compile, and resulted in 247 châteaux being selected – nine crus bourgeois exceptionnels, 87 crus bourgeois supérieurs and 151 crus bourgeois – from 490 applications. The gradings are now law, signed by the office of the Minister for Agriculture and published in the journal officiel, and will be strictly applied from the 2003 vintage. Yet some have questioned the fairness of the results. Despite the fact that the
parameters were observed, that the tasters, drawn from across the Bordeaux wine business, were of exceptional quality, and that a new classification will appear every 12 years, the complaints rumble on. It is worth looking at the facts.
Bourgeois, to the French, means ‘well-to-do, but not aristocratic’. That well describes the châteaux that did not make it into the Almanach de Gotha that is the 1855 classification. This, based on the quality, reputation and price of the finest crus of the Haut-Médoc, has only been changed once, in 1972, when Château Mouton Rothschild was raised from a second growth to a first. That no attempt was made to reclassify the remaining 56 châteaux underlines the daunting – and necessary – task that lay before those involved in the 2003 classification of the Médoc’s and Haut-Médoc’s crus bourgeois.
The first classification of the crus bourgeois was established in 1932 by the Syndicat des Courtiers en Vins de Bordeaux, the Chamber of Agriculture of the Gironde and the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux. A total of 444 châteaux or crus were admitted, a number which began to diminish immediately, due to the successive crises of the Depression, World War II and a run of bad vintages in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, the whole of the Médoc, which had 25,000ha (hectares) under vine at the start of the century, had shrunk to 6,500ha. Many châteaux had given up their independence to regroup under the umbrella of the local caves cooperatives, or had simply ceased to exist.
In 1962, the majority of the estates producing wine under their own name established a new classification, admitting certain châteaux that had not been part of the original list into the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois. In 1966, awaiting an official classification that would take 37 years to achieve, the Syndicat issued its first ‘honours list’ of 101 châteaux, divided into 18 crus grands bourgeois exceptionnels, 45 crus grands bourgeois and 38 crus bourgeois. In 1978 a second list was issued, of 117 member châteaux, divided 18/41/58. Their cause suffered a serious setback the following year, when new European laws on wine labelling banned them from using any form except cru bourgeois and refused the Médoc the exclusive use of this designation.
By the time work began on the new classification, in January 2002, there were 331 member châteaux. Other châteaux taking advantage of the uncontrolled appellation brought the number to 419 properties, against the 1932 number of 444. Between them, they represent 7,500ha of vines, (about half of Médoc’s acreage) totalling 63% of the region’s estates and producing 40% of its total revenue.
At a London tasting in April 2002, Dominique Hessel, president of the Syndicat and owner of Château Moulin-a-Vent in Moulis, admitted that, ‘the term bourgeois has become synonymous with the notion of conventionality. It is our job to change this perception of the work and convey what it really stands for: quality, authenticity and modernity.’
On 30 November 2000 there appeared in the journal officiel of the French Republic a decree that set out the rules for classifying for the first time the crus bourgeois of the Médoc. Organised by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Gironde Chamber of Agriculture and the Fédération des Grands Vins de Bordeaux – a panel
similar to that convened in 1855 – the decree demanded that the châteaux be classified in three categories: crus bourgeois exceptionnels; crus bourgeois supérieurs and crus bourgeois. They would be drawn from the eight appellations of the Médoc: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, Pauillac, St-Estèphe and St-Julien. The châteaux applying for classification had to provide the following information:
-Presentation and history of the property
-Record of grape varieties planted
-Characteristics of the vineyard
-Characteristics of vinification and ageing of the wine submitted
-Conditions of sale (ie, price) and proof thereof
-Awards and prizes received
-Mentions in wine guides and in the press
-Attestation of the truthfulness of the information submitted
Châteaux were also requested to submit samples of the six vintages from 1999 to 1994. Samples of 2000 were not accepted many of these wines were not yet bottled when work on the new classification began in January 2002.
The tasting panel comprised 18 tasters, all local, and drawn from the Oenological Faculty of Bordeaux, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Syndicat des Negociants, and the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois itself.
As noted above, 247 crus were retained: nine crus bourgeois exceptionnels, 87 crus bourgeois supérieurs and 151 crus bourgeois. The biggest shock was that the first group had been halved from the 18 crus on the 1978 ‘honours list’, given that this judgement had been made on the 1994–1999 vintages, a time of great progress for the Médoc.
Of the nine top châteaux (see panel, p48), the surprise inclusion was Château Potensac, for AC Médocs had been excluded from the exceptionnels in
previous rankings. The quality and longevity of the wines from this vineyard (my last few bottles of 1970 are still holding up) – under the same management as Château Léoville Las Cases – was not in doubt, but that it succeeded where the Sichel-owned Château d’Angludet did not, certainly raised a few eyebrows.
Other crus conspicuous by their absence were Châteaux Sociando-Mallet (known as the Latour of the Haut-Médoc) and Gloria. Neither put themselves forward, the former apparently feeling it no longer needed a classification that it might have profited from in the past; the latter since, following the purchase of cru classé Château St-Pierre, its wine had more or less ceased to be produced from a specific vineyard, one of the main tenets of the classification.
These rules allow more than one wine to be vinified in a single chai (witness the very successful Médoc ACs Châteaux La Cardonne and Ramafort), but state that a cru bourgeois must be from specifically identifiable plots of vines. Further, the classification has banned alternative or second wines from calling themselves crus bourgeois. Since Château Potensac is also sold under the names Châteaux Lassalle, Goudy-La-Cardonne and Gallais-Bellevue, one can see how quickly the numbers are reduced to 247 crus, before quality is even taken into account.
Those in favour
Supporters of the new classification are legion. Bill Blatch, managing director of négociants Vintex, whose company specialises in crus bourgeois, said simply: ‘It is better to get the less good ones out, which was the point of the exercise’.
Support also came from Pierre-Gilles Gromond d’Evry of Château de Lamarque, who maintained his supérieur status: ‘Of course I am unhappy for those who have been “guillotined”, but the cru bourgeois offer is now much more precise, more controlled.’ He even accepted the decision that any second wine that carried the name of the château but had not been registered prior to 1983 (which includes his well-promoted Donjon de Lamarque) would now be banned from marketing itself as cru bourgeois to avoid confusion.
Particularly in favour was Eric Miailhe, son of the patriarch, Jean, who regretted the proliferation of brands and lesser quality wine in the past that the Syndicat had no way of controlling. He applauds the fact that a third fewer châteaux can carry the cru bourgeois label from 2003 and points out that the classification will be reviewed every 12 years – ‘unlike the 1855 classification, which we have had to accept, with a single change, for a century and a half’.
The most vociferous opponent of the results is Jean-Christophe Mau, whose family purchased the 30ha Château Preuillac in the northern Médoc in 1998 and has spent a fortune raising it to classed-growth standards. The panel rejected his samples – only the 1999 being made under the Mau regime – on more than one tasting, yet no visit was made to the property to check on current quality, as had been set out in the parameters.
Mau is seeking a re-addressment of the decision through the law courts.
Less wounded, perhaps because it has not used cru bourgeois on labels of its Château d’Angludet for two decades, is the Sichel family, which made an official request in July to find out why its wine was declassified from exceptionnel (there was no visit to the vineyard in this case, either). The family is still awaiting a reply.
The Syndicat’s position
Much of this could be dismissed as just another Bordeaux round of positioning, were it not for the behaviour of the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois itself. In order that the new classification be upheld and defended, it is necessary for the existing members of the Syndicat to resign and for a new set of members to be appointed. However, on 23 July this year the members voted by 124 votes to 116, with 16 abstentions, against the dissolution of the current committee. This creates the bizarre situation of the classification remaining unsupported by the same members who voted for it in 2000.
If this stand-off continues until the en primeur tastings in March 2004, Jean-Christophe Mau can then present Château Preuillac as a cru bourgeois, confident in the knowledge that a new Syndicat has not been elected to attack him for doing so.
The vast majority of crus in or out of the classification are branded châteaux whose price is determined not by rank but by quality. Since 1985 – although it was suspended after 1999, in case the results ‘influenced the workings of the tasting committee’ – a competition known as La Coupe des Crus Bourgeois has been held. It is judged by sommeliers, wine merchants and journalists, who are perhaps less concerned about longevity than the tasters for the classification. Over 15 years, only six of the winners and six of the runners-up find themselves in the exceptionnel category today.
The future is predicted by Christian Seely, owner of Château Pibran, a Pauillac that has twice won La Coupe: ‘I think it’s reasonable to accept the verdict of a committee of very good tasters… but the main thing is to make great wine, and then the market will decide which category we are in. The new classification was a good idea, for it was necessary to reinforce confidence in the crus bourgeois, which have so much to offer Bordeaux drinkers.’
A personal view is that an official classification was very necessary and will result in the raising of standards. This has to be in the interests of
producer and consumer alike.