Class action

Class action People & Places Articles
  • Monday 1 July 2002

The legal battle to establish the crus bourgeois classification has been long, but the end is in sight. Margaret Rand reports on the final skirmishes.

The middle classes of Bordeaux are on the march. They're fed up and they're taking matters into their own hands. I refer, of course, to the vinous middle classes: the crus bourgeois of the Médoc, who came into being in 1932 and have been trying ever since to get legal status for themselves. Over the years, they've been blocked in this on all sides – by the EU, by trademark law, by the crus classés – but now they can finally thumb their noses at all those who have thrown obstacles in their way, because the classification of the crus bourgeois will, as from some time in 2003, have the same legal status as the 1855 classification. Until now the term 'cru bourgeois' on a label has meant very little. So little, in fact, that some châteaux – Angludet, for example – have abandoned the term altogether, feeling that it does them no credit. They point to the slackness of the rules; the fact that you can put cru bourgeois on the label of your second, or even your third wine; that you can sell your wine to a négociant who then bottles it under a different label and still calls it cru bourgeois; that the bulk price for cru bourgeois Médoc is only a whisker higher than for basic Médoc; that actually there are no controls at all over who puts cru bourgeois on their label. You or I could do it and the Syndicat couldn't stop us. A dozen châteaux in Bourg and Blaye are doing it and the Syndicat can't stop them, either.

One of the many avenues the Syndicat explored in its efforts to protect the term was an attempt in 1990 to register it as a trademark. This failed because the relevant authorities decided that the term cru bourgeois was not the property of the Syndicat. This followed the decision of the crus classés, back in the 1970s, not to press ahead with a full updating of the 1855 classification, which would in turn have led to a legal classification of the crus bourgeois. And then in 1976 the Common Market ruled that the categories of cru bourgeois supérieur or cru bourgeois exceptionnel could no longer be used.

Achieving legal status for cru bourgeois was looking like a hopeless cause, but now that is all about to change. The French government has finally agreed that the crus bourgeois can go legal and, even as you read this, a jury of 18 wine professionals – brokers, merchants and growers – is poring over 475 or so applications for bourgeois status. Part of what it has to do is relatively straightforward – divide the successful candidates into basic cru bourgeois, somewhat better cru bourgeois supèrieur and better still cru bourgeois exceptionnel – but the tricky bit is deciding how many should get through and how they should be divided. And on this, outside the jury (and for all anyone knows inside as well) there is no consensus whatsoever.

Defining moment

Everything hangs on what a cru bourgeois is supposed to be. Is it supposed to be anything just above petit château status? Or should it be an acknowledgment that a few châteaux are just below the crus classés in quality? If you go for the first definition, then you'll want every château that applies to come away with a party bag and a classification of some sort. If you favour the second, then you'll want a smaller number of châteaux to get through and you'll want a far more rigorous standard of quality to be applied even to the basic cru bourgeois. At the last count there were some 335 members of the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc. In addition, some 70 properties, which belonged to the Syndicat in 1932 but have since dropped out, can also use the term. New properties join the Syndicat every year and some cynics say that the Syndicat has been keener on taking the fees than on maintaining standards. The fact remains, though, that if a particular château is a member of the Syndicat, then somebody somewhere has decided that its wine has reached the cru bourgeois standard. And that being so, it will now be very difficult for the jury to throw out any existing Syndicat member.

Broker Bill Bolter is firmly on the side of a smaller, more exacting classification. His ideal total would be 80 châteaux, divided into three groups. This would be in proportion to the numbers of classed growths and more coherent than the grand cru classification in St-Emilion. Celine Villars of Chasse-Spleen would be happy with this, too. 'I would hope to see about 15 châteaux in the top class and then perhaps 30 crus bourgeois supèrieurs,' she says.

Hard decisions

However, we are dealing with the real world and real people and, to date, no Bordeaux classification has been ruthless enough to discard 75% of its applicants, most of whom already have some right to use the classification for which they are applying. When Saint-Emilion reclassifies its top wines every 10 years or so, it usually promotes or demotes a wine or two, but no more than that. In fact, there seems to be little appetite among the crus bourgeois for very stringent judgements. 'I don't think anybody will be thrown out,' says Charles Sichel of négociant Maison Sichel. Many people point out that this new classification will, like that of Saint-Emilion's classed growths, be revised every 10 years. Anomalies, they say, can be adjusted then. So what are the jury's criteria? Interestingly, the taste of the wine is only one of them. At the top of the list is the terroir, giving a strong signal that this is not going to be a situation where flashy winemaking will win the day. The growers speak darkly of the fears of those château proprietors who have less good terroirs.

Pricing question

Whether prices will rise as a result of the reclassification is a moot point. 'If your wine is good and you have the distribution, if you put the price up, customers will pay it, regardless of the classification,' says Sichel. On the other hand, the reverse is also true, and there is no shortage of wine in Bordeaux and no shortage of cru bourgeois wine either. At the moment, cru bourgeois accounts for 53% of production of AC Médoc and 73% of the production of AC Haut-Médoc, so lesser wines no longer have an easy ride, whatever the label says. The jury is due to complete its deliberations by the beginning of 2003 and the details of the new classification will finally be published in June of that year. My guess is that perhaps a few new applicants will be turned away and told to reapply in 10 years' time, but that, on the whole, it will be a reclassification of what already exists. However, for the first time in many years, the system will actually mean something.

Margaret Rand is a freelance wine writer

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