Why to drink Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois
In my first post on Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois I explained:
- what they are: great Chateaux that didn’t sell for enough to be classified as Bordeaux Cru Classé in 1855
- how they came to exist: a bunch of the best non-Classé Chateaux banded together for marketing purposes, and
- why it all stopped working: it was too complicated and bureaucratic!
In this, my second post on Bordeaux’ Cru Bourgeois, I want to give you five reasons to look beyond Bordeaux’ Grand Cru Classé–more specifically, five reasons to look at the Cru Bourgeois wines for delicious values that do everything we want our wines to do.
1. The Virtual Circle of Good Money Making Great Wines Applies to the Cru Bourgeois too
For years, the Grand Cru Classé system worked like a beautiful virtuous circle. Because they were Grand Cru Classé, people bought their wines. Because people bought their wines, the Chateaux made more money. Because they had more money, those Chateaux could invest in better farming, better facilities, better talent. And even better land: when you’re ready to expand your holdings, you’ll need money to buy the best terroirs.
With money you can afford to lower yields and grow less, but more concentrated fruit. You can sort more aggressively and just throw away fruit you don’t like. You can declassify young vines or different terroirs and make a Second Wine. You can afford to do whatever it takes to make better wine.
For years, only the Grand Cru Classés had that kind of money. So only the Classified Growths made ever better and better wine. But since around the 2000 vintage that has changed. The Grand Cru Classés became too successful. They charged higher and higher prices and lost of customers were priced out.
Many of those priced-out customers discovered to charms of Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois. Especially customers in China, where Cru Bourgeois is widely recognized as denoting high quality and consumers often look for Cru Bourgeois when they want affordable, high quality Bordeaux.
As a result, Cru Bourgeois has had a really good 15 years or so. Their recent successes were obvious when we toured the Chateaux. It was obvious across the board, from upgraded winemaking facilities and higher density farming, to the emergence of Second Wines and even the display of a few very expensive-seeming art collections. Definitely very Bourgeois!
The bottom line is that the virtuous circle is no longer exclusive to the Grand Cru Classés. This was evident when I visited Chateau Charmail, an excellent Cru Bourgeois located up by Sociando Mallet. Purchased in 2008, the new owners are clearly investing heavily in improving the wine. Vine density has increased. Merlot plantings are being replaced with Cabernet (and Petit Verdot!). They’ve stopped using chemicals in their farming and have planted hedges to provide a more natural ecosystem.
Our vertical tasting was instructive. The wines have always been good, but something clearly happened recently: the latest vintages are off-the-charts-good for the pricing. Easily as good as a Grand Cru Classé, and yet we are able to sell the 2010 Charmail for under $35!
No surprise: the Grand Cru Classés are all in the Medoc’s sweetest spots, mostly in that row of famous villages that starts with Margaux and goes up to St. Estephe. A lot of this “sweetness” has to do with temperature. Historically speaking, those villages are exactly where you need to be to ripen Cabernet grapes–though only just. (Merlot ripens earlier so it’s a bit easier.)
Any warmer, and the grape will ripen too easily, producing higher alcohol and very fruit forward Cabernets that miss out on most of Bordeaux’s charm. But any cooler, and the wines ripen in very few vintages. Most years you get weaker wines with flavors that are too green, even weedy. So the Medoc’s top villages where all in that Goldilocks zone.
Now, to understand where I’m going here, you need to appreciate the range of temperatures we’re talking about. Get out of the train station in the city of Bordeaux and you might be enjoying a warm sunny day of 75 degrees. T-shirt weather. But drive north to Seurin-de-Cadourne, the first village past St. Estephe, and you better grab your hoody when you hop out of the car because it’s gonna be 64 degrees. Those few miles make a difference.
It ain’t 1950, and the sites that had ideal temperatures back then are a lot warmer today. The places that were too cool back then are the new Goldilocks.
One of those places is Tour Castillon. A general rule of thumb is that the best Bordeaux is produced closest to the Gironde, the great river that flows due north from Bordeaux. There’s an an old saying that the best Chateaux can see the river (if only from the turrets). Chateaux like Lafite Rothschild and Montrose.
But go north from Montrose walking along the Gironde and the last Chateau you’ll come across is Tour-Castillon–not a Grand Cru Classe but a Cru Bourgeois. The real estate is so much cheaper than further south that when I asked why a large lawn by the river wasn’t suitable for vines, the owner explained that actually “it would be good for vines, but they would interrupt my view of the river.” I suspect in 10 years that lawn will be planted.
The wines are excellent, for now (at least) wildly under-valued, and available (as of the time of writing) at our San Francisco store.
3. Small-scale, Artisanal Production in Bordeaux!
Let’s face it, with a few exceptions, the Grand Cru Classés are big businesses. They’re typically owned by insurance companies, Chinese conglomerates, or French billionaires who collect them like trophies. And they make tons of wine that’s marketed like the high end luxury good it is.
That’s also true of some of the Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois–but not most of them. Most of the are owned by actual families. There are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, who care very much about what happens in the vineyards and in the winery.
The typical Grand Cru Classe has more than 100 hectares under the vine. Many people say that truly artisanal wine production is impossible north of 50 hectares, and some put the number far lower, like around 20 hectares. There are a lot of Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois producing at this scale, and it shows in the quality of their wines.
One very quick example: Saransot-Dupré. With only 15 hectares in Listrac-Medoc, all owned by the same family since the 1800s, this is a tiny and working in a traditional style that has all but disappeared among the Grand Cru Classes. The wines are amazing and I’m still working on getting a nice parcel to offer in our newsletter. (Be sure to sign up at the bottom of this page if you haven’t already.)
4. Terroir diversity
As much as we love the Grand Cru Classes, you have to admit that they suffer from a kind of…sameness. The reasons are probably historical. Markets, fashions and trends are fickle. They move back and forth. But the Grand Cru Classés are based almost entirely on what people wanted back in 1855. Back then, what people wanted was (mostly) Cabernet planted in the gravelly soils along the Gironde.
For sure, that kind of wine is great. Maybe the greatest. But if you love diversity in wine, as we do, you also want to drink other stuff. That’s true even if you’re one of the lucky few who can afford to drink nothing but the Grand Cru Classés!
Here’s what the Cru Bourgeois offers: limestone. The soils along the Gironde, where the GCCs are located, are pretty much uniformly gravel-based, with varying proportions of clay. But go north from there, into the Haut Medoc and Medoc, and you will find an extensive patch of limestone-based soils. Or go to the west, into villages like Listrac, and you find the same thing. Merlot and Cabernet Franc really love limestone (that’s why they dominate the Right Bank), and you find a higher proportion of those grapes in wines from those terroirs.
The Saransot-Dupré wine mentioned above is a great example of this, as Listrac has limestone-intense soils that bring to the wine an elegance and floral quality that strikes quite a different tone from the famous wines you get just to the east.
5. The (160 year old) Grand Cru Classé system is out-dated
This is really the crux of the matter: The GCC system was designed in 1855 to reflect the market of1855. The classifications have hardly budged since then. Nevertheless, it continues to drive pricing. This distorts the market. And wherever there is distortion, there are bargains. Happy hunting! And be sure to sign up for our newsletter because we’re going to find some of the best Cru Bourgeois values out there and offer them with amazing discounts that will only be available to subscribers.