Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux, New Jobs and New Wines
Starting a new job can be scary. There are the simple unknowns of finding the restroom, meeting new colleagues and navigating company culture to the more nerve-racking aspects of figuring out what you were actually hired to do. Yet, as with other new adventures, it can be exciting to start with a clean slate.
While my first day of work at a wine importer coincided with the release of Beaujolais Nouveau and an office-wide celebratory lunch, my introduction to a non-profit organization was much less welcoming. My assigned office was not yet ready and finding a desk or even a chair for me proved to be a difficult task.
But, my experiences pale in stark comparison to Frédérique de Lamothe’s first week as Director of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc. Prior to her arrival in Bordeaux, Frédérique had spent her career in the jewelry industry, serving in several high level marketing roles. Her thought was to parlay her marketing skills from rubies to ruby-colored wines, but within the first few days of taking office, one might say that all hell broke loose. After only five days in her new role, the Alliance’s Cru Bourgeois classification of 2003 was annulled, ending several centuries of history.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of the “bourg” of Bordeaux became known as the bourgeois. As successful merchants and craftsman, the bourgeois were able to purchase land in the area, which were referred to as the “Crus Bourgeois,” eventually developing a reputation for their wines. By 1855, when Bordeaux’s top châteaux were classified as Grand Cru Classé, there were 248 Cru Bourgeois estates recognized by the industry. A formal list of 444 Cru Bourgeois was registered with the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce in 1932, but not submitted for ministerial approval. Such approval wasn’t sought until 2003, when the list of 247 châteaux (of 490 candidates) was published, but such approval was short-lived.
In 2007, the classification was completely cancelled, when several châteaux brought their grievances with the newly published list to the Administrative Court of Appeal of Bordeaux, which rules that the classification was indeed unfair since the previous decisions had not been made by impartial judges. Consequently, Frédérique and her colleagues were forced to start from the very beginning in creating a new system that would meet the needs of its members and solve the problems caused by the 2003 version. Instead of a master marketer, Frédérique became a master negotiator.
The period from 2007-2010 was filled with confusion and controversy, as protests from producers and their corresponding lawsuits kept the classification in limbo. Finally, after much hard work and negotiation, the Cru Bourgeois classification issues were resolved, with a new listing finalized for the 2008 vintage in September 2010.
In response to the controversy surrounding the 2003 selection process, the new Cru Bourgeois system became more of an annual quality assessment than a classification of châteaux or terroirs, governed by a rigorous set of guidelines. In this regard, a panel of paid wine professionals, exclusive of any château owners, selected ‘benchmark’ wines against which all 290 wines applying for Cru Bourgeois status were measured. This benchmark is adjusted annually, according to vintage quality. Tastings are conducted between March and July, while the wines are still in barrel, but a number of wines are re-tasted, randomly selected from various retail shelves in the market.
In the new system, the Cru Bourgeois status is only applicable to the château’s designated vineyards; no special cuvées are permitted. Moreover, there is no hierarchy within the classification – the previous designations of Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnnels or Superieurs were eliminated. This system appears to be working well, with 260 châteaux selected for the 2010 vintage. See the Cru Bourgeois’s website for the full and current list.
Meanwhile, on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, the St.-Emilion classification suffered similar setbacks, which still continue to plague its reputation. While the attacks on 2006 classification had appeared to be resolved with the publication of the 2012 classification in October, January’s newly filed lawsuits have called its validity into question yet again. Only time will tell whether these recent suits are legitimate gripes or just sour grapes, but it makes it challenging to keep track of the classification’s status. For now, the classification remains intact.
The changes to the Cru Bourgeois classification seem to have been met favorably by the organization’s members, if only as evidenced by the current lack of controversy. More importantly, these historic wines continue to hold a special place in today’s market for Bordeaux wines.
At an average bottle price of $25.50, these are wines that offer excellent value given their complexity and elegance. Additionally, while the wines of many of the highly vaunted châteaux require significant time in the bottle to reach their peak, the Cru Bourgeois wines have some aging potential, but are ready and enjoyable to drink upon release.
This point was reinforced at a series of recent tastings held in New York. The Union des Grand Crus tasting event showed off the 2010 vintage of its members. Tasting wines from Château Figeac (St. Emilion Grand Cru), Château Gazin (Pomerol), Château du Tertre (Margaux) and Château Pichon-Longueville (Pauillac), it was clear that 2010 is an excellent vintage. But, these wines were tannic and oaky, in need of some bottle age.
Conversely, at the following night’s Cru Bourgeois dinner, wines from the same vintage reinforced its quality, but were lighter in tannins and more pleasurable to drink with the meal. I especially enjoyed the wines from Château Fleur La Mothe, Château Caronne Ste Gemme, Château Branas Grand Poujeaux, Château Paveil de Luze, Château La Fleur Peyrabon and Château Lilian Ladoyus.
In addition to launching the new vintage, the Cru Bourgeois has also launched a new visual image that it is using in connection with the official list. Designed by artist Virginie Saint Jeannet, the new image ushers in a fresh chapter for the Alliance as it embraces the future and continues to keep Frédérique busy with marketing these great wines.