In a number of previous radio segments we’ve talked about the point system as a merit-based system for grading wine. Everyone who buys wine knows what I’m talking about: the numbers, supposedly based on a 100-point scale, that you see in wine advertising and on those little tags in the wine shop.
One of the things that makes the point system new and different is that it applied itself to individual wines—this bottle is assigned this score. This may seem logical and even intuitive, but it isn’t the way things have always been done.
For centuries we’ve employed something called the cru system, an approach that focuses on the long-term value a particular source of wine has delivered to consumers rather than an individual wine. Cru is a French word that lacks a perfectly satisfactory English equivalent. So, let's begin with a few basics about what constitutes a cru.
Cru suggests wines that are head and shoulders above the general run of wines; they are considered, in some sense, the best. In the context of a cru system, the best are considered to be so not on the basis of a single outstanding effort or vintage but by virtue of a long track record of excellence—decades or even centuries of outstanding performance.
How is this excellence judged? By price. In a way, all cru designations are what we today would call crowd-sourced, based on what consumers have been willing to pay over the long-term for wines from this source.
Finally, unlike the points system, the cru system doesn’t attach itself to particular wines but to their source. And here’s where agreement breaks down a bit, because there’s not universal agreement on what that source should be.
Places where the cru system has the deepest roots and plays the most important role are Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux. In these places, the cru system has the force of law, not just custom. So let’s look at each, see how the approach is similar or different, taste some wine and see if we can get a handle on this notion of cru.
Let’s start in Burgundy. You can argue that this is where it all began under the aegis of the medieval church, which was well-capitalized and maniacal about two things: keeping records and making money from the vineyards that had been bequeathed to their monastic orders by the pious rich. Clerical administrators of these properties diligently recorded the sometimes subtle differences they noticed between wine made from one vineyard and another. Although the concept was not unknown in the ancient world, modern notions of cru really date back to this period.
In Burgundy, historic practice attaches cru designation to a single, discrete named plot of ground. In other words, to a vineyard. In Burgundy, there are 37 sites designated grand cru (top tier) and 585 vineyards designated premier cru (second tier). Grand cru vineyards produce a little more than 1 percent of the area's total output; premier cru vineyards about 18 percent. No wine below these levels has official cru status. So when you are drinking cru Burgundy, you are drinking either at or near the very top of the quality triangle.
Let’s shift to Champagne. Here the idea is the same, but the approach is different. We also meet grand cru and premier cru designations, but here they attach to what we might best call townships. If the grapes you use to make your Champagne are sourced from one of the 17 grand cru-designated townships, then you can label your wine grand cru. Likewise with any of the 44 villages at premier cru level.
You might wonder why you won’t see either of these designations on your bottle of Veuve Clicquot or even Dom Perignon. This is because most Champagnes—including the ones made by the famous Champagne houses—are a blend of wines of varying quality. In order to drink grand cru Champagne, you generally have to choose something made by a smaller-scale grower who farms the fruit, then vinifies and bottles it on his own estate in one of these designated cru villages.
Lastly comes Bordeaux, where we encounter yet another distinct system. Since 1855 we’ve relied on classification that organizes the region's top wines according to the reputation of the chateau that produced them—so not an individual vineyard or a township, but an individual winemaking property. In Bordeaux, there are five cascading cru categories, simply called first, second, third, etc. This categorization has to do only with a small geographic section of Bordeaux, and then only with red, not white, wines.
So we see that there are at least three different approaches to how a cru is defined. Each has its strong points and drawbacks. But each is firmly entrenched in its own tradition and not likely to change any time soon. In a number of other wine regions, cru designations are a matter of custom rather than law. In many places today there is pressure to create more official classifications.
Are these designations still meaningful and can they be a reliable guide to better wine? You might be surprised to learn that, for me at least, the answer is yes—in part because in places where the cru system is law, the farming and vinification standards are higher than for non-cru wines.
But this is not without caveat. When cru status attaches to a place—as in Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace—rather than to a property, you will inevitably have better and worse producers, even though they may be working with the same soils, climate, exposition, plant material, etc.
It's important to remember that while cru systems dominate the places where they are traditional, they have no exclusive claim to quality. Wines of equal stature (and equally high prices) are made completely outside of these classification systems.
And I guess that’s one reason that we have points.