Crus controls, Champagne

Champagne revels in its exclusivity, yet its 17 grand cru vineyards remain largely unknown. GILES FALLOWFIELD asks what each brings to the table, and why they don’t appear on the label.

Champagne has many similarities with Burgundy, its nearest vineyard neighbour. They have the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape varieties in common and thus, if you can look beyond the bubbles in Champagne, produce wines with a similar taste profile. Both use the same quality rating system, with the top vineyards in each appellation designated as grand cru, and premier cru the next level down.

However, while in Burgundy the terms grand and premier cru are clearly written on the labels of the vast majority of the wines entitled to use them, they don’t appear on many bottles of Champagne.Why not? Partly because in the modern era, Champagne sales are dominated by brand names like Moët & Chandon, Laurent-Perrier and Veuve Clicquot. As a result, the concept of grand cru Champagne hasn’t really been developed. But consumers are more likely to come across these terms in the future.

So what is grand cru Champagne, why aren’t more wines sold as such? And why are Champagne’s top vineyards not as well known as the likes of Chambertin, Clos Vougeot and Le Montrachet?

In Champagne, all 318 villages are quality rated in the Echelle des Crus system (literally ‘ladder of growths’) and given a classification rating between 100 and 80% (the lowest rating). Some 257 of these are assessed somewhere between 80 and 89. One rung higher come the 44 premiers crus, which range in their classification from 90 to 99. Top of the pile are the 17 grand cru villages, all rated 100% on the Echelle des Crus.