One of the difficulties in spending a lot of money for a special bottle of wine, if you have never tried it before, is to try to take some of the gamble out of choosing the right wine, whether at a restaurant, at your local bottle shop or on-line. Champagne has a “Cru system” which offers a classification that you will often see on the bottle’s label that provides the designation of Grand Cru or Premier Cru. But just what do these designations mean and how can this help you choose your wine?
Champagne is somewhat unique from the rest of France in how it delineates its various sub-regions. Its famous neighbours Burgundy and Bordeaux use the AOC System which stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.
The AOC breaks down the main region into sub-regions: there are 11 primary growing regions in France which have within their boundaries over 360 AOCs. AOC boundaries are drawn to designate a territory that has relatively consistent, homogenous attributes of weather, soil, climate and aspect, what the French call terroir, across its entire area. The smaller the area of the AOC, the more consistent this will be. Burgundy, which has far fewer vineyard acres than Champagne does, has 110 AOCs. Yet Champagne is just a single AOC! A further system is obviously needed to allow for the nuances of different terroirs to be expressed and not just aggregated into a single, large whole.
Champagne is broken down into 5 sub-regions or departments: Montagne de Reims; Côte des Blancs; Vallée de la Marne; Côte des Bar and Côte de Sézanne. These sub-regions are further broken down into 320 different villages and it is the villages that have been rated as to their quality. The system rating these villages is know as the Échelle des crus and classifies each village, descending, as either Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Autre Cru. Échelle des crus can loosely be translated as “Quality Ladder”. As with all things Champagne, the issue is complicated.
The Échelle des crus system was established in 1911 as a way of grading each village’s potential to grow quality grapes. The Echelle looked at the various factors that make up terroir and assigned the village a rating. This rating was used to set the price for a kilo of grapes. The reference price was set and grapes coming from a Grand Cru Village received 100% of the reference price. Grapes coming from Premier Cru Villages received 90 – 99% of the reference price and grapes harvested at the Autre Crus received 80 – 89% of the reference price. So, in theory at least, it sounds like a grand Cru Champagne is better than a Premier Cru Champagne, right? Well, hmmm…like we said above, it is complicated.
There are enough flaws within the Échelle system to render it a less-than-perfect guide to quality. Probably its biggest failing is the amount of ground that a village can cover is simply too large to be viewed as a consistent, homogenous plot. Take for instance the village of Chouilly in Côte des Blancs, which covers 525 acres and crosses undulating terrain with aspects facing numerous directions and possess a variety of soil types and depths. It is a mistake to assign a similar quality rating to every vineyard in Chouilly. Further, the Échelle was established over 100 years ago and does not periodically re-test and so has not taken into account the effects of climate change.
As a result of these and other imperfections, the Echelle was officially disbanded in 2010 and all vineyards returned to a market price for selling their grapes. The terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru can continue to be used on labels for reasons of “local, honest and long-standing practice”. And the terms are still used as much today as they were before 2010, because flaws and all, the distinctions still serve a valuable function for consumers. For the most part, Premier Cru indicates a very fine Champagne and Grand Cru usually takes the quality up even further, information that is generally helpful to the average consumer when deciding what Champagne to buy.
You will only see Grand Cru on a label if all the grapes come from one of the 17 Grand Cru villages. Those 17 villages are:
Montagne de Reims
- Mailly Champagne
Cotes des Blancs
- Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Valee de la Marne
Many of Champagne’s Tetes du Cuvees, the House’s top efforts, are blends from many vineyards, including both Grand Cru and Premier Cru, and as a result you will not see Grand Cru printed on the label. This does certainly not mean a lesser wine, as arguably Champagne’s reference point wine, Dom Perignon, fits into this category. Also, some of the top Premier Cru Villages are very similar to Grand Cru in quality. Worthy of mention (and seeking out wines from) would be Cuis, Vertus, Mareuil-sur-Ay and Tauxieres.
More often where you will see Grand Cru and Premier Cru on the label is with the Grower Champagnes, the group of winemakers who make wine only from grapes grown on their vineyards, as opposed to the big houses who buy grapes from many different growers. There are 17 Grand Cru Villages covering just 8.5% of the planted acreage of Champagne. There are 43 Premier Cru Villages covering 7,500 hectares or 22% of Champagne. The remaining 70% of Champagne are the Autre Cru Villages, 260 in number.
The designation of Grand Cru matters to us when choosing a Champagne. While acknowledging the imperfections to the system as discussed above, it remains that when you are buying Grand Cru you are probably buying the top 10% of wines from Champagne. If it is a very special occasion, you might just want to mark that specialness by going out and finding a Grand Cru Champagne.