Understanding wine labels can be tricky at the best of times, particularly when different terms have different meanings from one region to another. The term “grand cru” is a great example. The French phrase translates to “great growth”, and in very general terms a wine designated as a grand cru should come from a particularly good vineyard.
Grand Cru classification(s)
This would be all well and good, but the term “grand cru” on a wine label means one thing on the left bank of Bordeaux and another on the right bank, referring to two different classifications. There is another grand cru classification covering the Graves subregion, although the top estate in Graves, Château Haut-Brion, is not part of the Graves classification. Within the distinction “grand cru” you may have up to five subdivisions, each with its own level of implied quality. It’s different again in Burgundy, and yet again in Champagne. Sounds quite complicated, right? Let’s try to understand it a little better by taking the case of Grand Cru Champagne.
Grand Cru Champagne
The Champagne region in northern France produces the world’s greatest sparkling wines. They make a lot of wine, though, and the region covers a lot of ground – 33,500 hectares of vineyards. In 1911, the region established something called the Echelle des Crus, a classification of sorts to establish the best villages within the region.
Grand Cru Champagne was designated as coming from only those villages that scored a perfect 100% rating as a part of this system. A wine labelled Grand Cru Champagne must thus come exclusively from vineyards within these villages. In the first classification, there were 12 such villages identified. A subsequent revision in 1985 promoted 5 more villages, for a total of 17 Grand Cru Champagne villages. Some of the best known Grand Cru villages are:
- Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Premier Cru Champagne and other classifications
The next step down the quality ladder is “premier cru”. Champagne labelled as “premier cru” comes from villages that have not scored perfect 100% in the Echelle des Crus, though have scored between 90% and 99%. Below 90%, there is no specific terminology used, though it is interesting to note that in the updated ranking in 1985, no village has scored below 80%.
Buying Grand Cru Champagne
So what should you do with this information, and how can it help you when buying Champagne? It’s important to remember that the ranking covers entire villages, as opposed to specific vineyards or subplots. As a result, you may find that quality can vary even within a particular village. Grand Cru Champagne is thus not necessarily a guarantee of a superior quality wine, though it is a good indicator. When shopping for Grand Cru Champagne, consult the advice of any professional that may be on hand, or if doing so online look for some additional criteria such as critics’ scores.
- R.H. Coutier Brut Rosé Grand Cru, for example, carries the grand cru label and has strong critics’ scores too, with 91 points from Wine Spectator and 92 points from Robert Parker.
- Egly Ouriet Grand Cru 2004 boasts even stronger scores, with 94 points from Wine Spectator and 93 points from Robert Parker.