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Anson: New Cru Bourgeois ranking – will it hold up?

Jane Anson looks at the new Cru Bourgeois classification system in Bordeaux, and reports on the estates that have made the top tier of the ranking...

The Cru Bourgeois classification has returned to a three-tier ranking in 2020 and all involved should be congratulated on their perseverance.

But, the new list doesn’t include any of the nine Bordeaux estates that were named ‘Exceptional’ back when the ranking was first reformed along these lines in 2003.

For example, there’s no Château Poujeaux, no Chasse Spleen, no Sociando-Mallet, no Potensac, no Ormes-de-Pez, no Phelan Ségur and no Gloria.

‘We’re not going to pretend that we aren’t missing some names that we would like,’ said Olivier Cuvelier, president of the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois du Médoc at the launch of the latest Bordeaux wine ranking.

‘It is now up to us to prove its worth. We hope to see them with us in 2025.’

First, the good news.

Following several false starts and years of trying, the new Cru Bourgeois classification is up and running.

After just over a decade of being a yearly ‘stamp of quality’ that essentially judged the characteristics of individual vintages, it has now returned to being an official classification that rewards châteaux for five-year periods.

It is split across three levels and the 2020 ranking contains 249 châteaux, including:

  • 14 Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel
  • 56 Cru Bourgeois Supérieur
  • 179 Cru Bourgeois

This will hold across the Bordeaux vintages of 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.


The criteria

According to the Alliance, the first step to classification involved a blind tasting of five vintages of the estate’s wine.

To be automatically labelled Cru Bourgeois in the new system, a wine must have been recognised as Cru Bourgeois at least five times between 2008 and 2016.

If an estate wished to be considered for Cru Bourgeois Supérieur or Exceptionnel in the 2020 ranking, it had to create a dossier explaining its practices and terroir, as well as other elements.

A tasting was first carried out to ensure minimum quality, followed by visits to the estate by a panel of experts.

The three areas for assessment, beyond the tasting, were:

  • Environment – All of the ‘Exceptionnel’ and ‘Supérieur’ estates had to be certified at the highest level of the three-tier Haute Valeur Environmentale sustainability scheme. This is known as HVE3. Meanwhile, standard Cru Bourgeois estates had to achieve HVE2 certification.
  • Technical – This includes checks on vineyard and harvest methods, cellars, bottling and conditioning, and overall quality.
  • Marketing/promotion – Criteria included how an estate welcomed visitors, its work on promotion, its distribution and its price.

The jury was headed up by Gilles de Revel and Bill Blatch.

All wines were tasted by two separate juries of five people. If the results were contested, two separate juries of five people were brought in.

France’s ministry of agriculture oversaw the drawing up of the process, and individual controls were carried out locally by Quali-Bordeaux Vérification.


The new ranking is intended to provide reassurance to drinkers looking for quality and value in the Médoc.

It is also intended to be an answer to a real and pressing issue; a single-level Cru Bourgeois classification was bringing prices down for everyone, and so causing very real struggles for properties who were investing heavily in the quality of their wine and yet not being rewarded for it by the market.

It’s one of the problems of the Bordeaux system.

The best Cru Bourgeois estates have levels of investment in both viticulture and vinification that differ very little, if at all, from the 1855 classified châteaux that they neighbour. And yet the prices they can hope to receive differ widely.

Here are the 14 ‘Exceptionnel’ estates:

Haut-Médoc

  • Château d’agassac
  • Château Arnauld
  • Château Belle-Vue
  • Château Cambon la Pelouse
  • Château Charmail
  • Château MalesCasse
  • Château de Malleret
  • Château du Taillan

Listrac-Médoc

  • Château Lestage

Margaux

  • Château d’Arsac
  • Château Paveil de Luze

St-Estèphe

  • Château le Boscq
  • Château le Crock
  • Château Lilian Ladouys

‘We did not realise it at first,’ one owner told me recently, prior to becoming a Cru Bourgeois Supérieur in the new ranking. ‘But within a few years of abandoning the previous three-tier system, when we analysed the effect on pricing, we saw that entry-price Crus Bourgeois were the real winners of the new game.

‘They were able to convert their production previously sold as bulk either partly or entirely to bottle, and thus became at last profitable after a miserable decade.

‘The Cru Bourgeois numbers grew rapidly as a result, but the higher-quality Cru Bourgeois estates saw their profitability was heavily damaged, because consumers expected all wines with the Cru Bourgeois label to be priced similarly. It became clear that this was not sustainable.’

It was a similar story for the Alliance vice-president, Armelle Cruse, also of Château du Taillan, which has just become a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel.

‘Our distributors were always querying our price, saying “we have another Cru Bourgeois at €3 less, so why can’t you match it?”

‘We hope this new recognition will mean we can work in an easier partnership with distributors, building our specific brand.’

The Cru Bourgeois châteaux represent 31% of Médoc production, and cover every appellation except St-Julien. There is a solitary Pauillac in the form of Château Plantey.

And because Cru Bourgeois is a name that has been in use since at least the 15th century, there is true consumer recognition and trust around it in France and most traditional markets.

If all goes well, the clear signposting towards the best estates could really bring ‘excitement and a sense of direction to all the châteaux in the ranking’, according to Alliance president Olivier Cuvelier, of newly-Exceptionnel Château Le Crock.

The estates that have been named Exceptionnel all deserve their ranking, particularly in my opinion Le Boscq, Belle-Vue, Cambon la Pelouse and Lilian Ladouys, and there are several Supérieurs – Fourcas-Borie, Sérilhan, La Tour de Mons among them – that I would have been happy to see at the higher level.

But you don’t need me to tell you what might go wrong.

I have already heard a few growlings, specifically around the fact that the wine tourism criteria was given more weight than expected. There have been concerns, too, over the relatively low tasting scores required for the higher levels; they were 26 points out of 40 for Exceptionnel and 14 out of 40 for Supérieur.

This may suggest that not all lessons have been learnt from previous arguments, but then having a process like this will always be open to conflicts.

Before the announcement this week, châteaux have already had access to a ‘dispute committee’, where they could raise complaints if they didn’t receive the ranking they wanted.

They also had the chance to withdraw rather than live with a level of classification that they didn’t like. That seems a particularly smart move on behalf of the organisers, as does the setting of renewal for the ranking on a five-year basis; soon enough, it can be hoped, to dissuade lawsuits.

However, when I asked if that meant the Alliance was confident of avoiding legal fallout seen with other Bordeaux rankings, the group’s vice-president, Laurent Vaché, said, ‘We live in a country where people are free to pursue legal means to contest the results.’

In other words, we will see.

For the full list, see: crus-bourgeois.com/classement-2020/


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