If you follow this blog you’ll know that, despite its long history, nothing in Bordeaux stands still for very long. This includes the classifications.
Sometimes it takes a look back over your shoulder to move forward. You could say this is the case for the current changes in the Medoc Classifications. I’m not talking 1855 – there is life in the Medoc outside of these famous 60 chateaux!
The Cru Bourgeois classification dates back to the 1930s. By this time, the 1855 classification was established as a benchmark for Bordeaux quality. At its creation, it was a ‘snapshot’ of the wine hierarchy, fixed in time on the request from Napoleon III for the Paris Universal Exhibition held that year in Paris. Up to this time, the hierarchy was constantly evolving with Cru Bourgeois jostling for position amongst the top vineyards.
Once this (almost) unchanging system was locked down, the 400 odd properties waiting to see if it would evolve further and include them were left frustrated. By the 1930s they decided to create their own Cru Bourgeois Classification.
It would be unfair to reduce the Cru Bourgeois classification to one for also-rans. The term Cru Bourgeois was used way before the 1855 Classification, honouring the origin of many Medoc vineyards established thanks to people of the ‘bourg’ or town of Bordeaux – many of them acting as wine merchants.
At its creation there were three levels of quality: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Superieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. Over the years the Cru Bourgeois notion became diluted: being used by other appellations outside of the Medoc, with chateaux changing hands and also being used as a second wine of a classified growth in some cases. By the 1990s, the French authorities asked the classification to get its house in order with a tighter set of rules and regulations. When the Classification was modernised, first in 2003 (over ruled by the courts on concerns about the impartiality of the jury) and finally in 2007, judging criteria included quality, of course, but also vineyard and cellar inspections.
The three tier hierarchy was abolished and properties were either in or out: Cru Bourgeois or not. This continues to be the case. For the moment. Currently, every vineyard has to reapply for the classification with each vintage. With no Saint Juliens currently in the last, September 2017, classification, it included 271 properties from across seven of the eight Medoc appellations. You can see the classification here.
This annual reassessment was one of the reasons the hierarchy was not reintroduced. It was complicated enough to establish the current system.
There is no denying that in a group of almost 300 properties, there will be a variation in quality. Some vineyards have elected not to be part of the classification due to this variation – how can they differentiate themselves in such a large group?
The French public authorities have just approved the process that will allow a return to the historical three-tier hierarchy, which should appear on wine labels as of the 2018 vintage, which will be on the market in 2020.
Over these next five years, this classification will be assessed on the quality of wines judged by a blind tasting of several vintages by a supervised independent jury but will also include respect for the environment by the vineyards, inspections carried out at the properties throughout the classification period, traceability and the authentication of each bottle.
This three tier classification should be published in 2020 and good for the five years until 2025.
The other historic classification in the Medoc that is on the move is Les Crus Artisans. You may be even less familiar with classification; there are fewer properties involved and they tend to be smaller (between 1 and 5 ha) so not always easy to find on export markets. Artisan means craftsman, and despite this being a historical term used as early as 1868 in the Cocks and Féret, “Bordeaux and Its Wines” the first official Cru Artisan classification dates from 2006.
Unlike the 1855 and the Cru Bourgeois classification, The Cru Artisans, were created with the objective of a regular over haul. 44 properties were classified in 2006 with a planned reclassification every 10 years. They are not exactly on schedule; the new classification will be announced this year.
An artisan winemaker is defined as a producer who is responsible for the entire production process: vineyard work, vinification, aging of the wine, bottling, packaging, and sales. Behind every Cru Artisan there is an owner who is fully involved in the vineyard, in the cellars, and in the salesroom. Currently the classification includes 36 vineyards as since 2006 some owners have retired and others been bought up by larger neighbours.
The announcement of these updates has been met with some cynicism and derision by some commentators in export markets, saying that consumers neither understand nor care about these classifications.
But what about is if this is not only about the consumer? Perhaps the relevance of these classifications needs to be seen through the eyes of the producers. An annual, five-year or even ten-year assessment is an extra incentive for producers to keep their eye on the quality ball. Of course, a producer should always be trying to make the best wine they can, given the vintage conditions, but having an extra motivation of being able to measure themselves against their neighbours in an impartial classification is an impetus to go the extra mile. Never underestimate peer pressure.
Bordeaux bashers assume that all Bordeaux properties are big, financially sound institutions. Well not at this level. These wines are in a very competitive market segment. The classification on the label may mean little or nothing to many consumers, but belonging to a group that runs tastings, invites journalists and other influencers to taste and discover the wines allows these smaller family properties a shop window and that they could not obtain if they were doing it alone. You can’t be in the vineyard, the wine cellar and the market place all at once. Belonging to an association that is flying your flag alongside your peers is a cost effective way for small vineyards to make a name for themselves in a busy market place. All the more so if there is an entry barrier of quality rather than just a membership fee.
The disappearance of many of the Cru Artisans since 2006 underlines the problems that these small, family-run properties are facing, even in some of Bordeaux’s more prestigious appellations. These classifications can have a role to play in helping to keep these small producers in business, raising awareness of their very existence to the trade and consumers alike.
Keep a look out for them.