Cru Bourgeois 101
I’ve been drinking a lot of Bordeaux lately. Mostly, this is because I was in Bordeaux. But not for a fancy trip; I didn’t visit a single Grand Cru Chateau. I was there to explore and drink Cru Bourgeois.
If you love wine, especially Bordeaux, you need to pay special attention to this category. It provides some of the very best values in the world for red wines in the $20 - $50 range. And I’m going to explain why in a short series of posts.
This first post is for a little background.
What is Cru Bourgeois?
To be a Cru Bourgeois a chateau must come from one of the Medoc’s eight AOC’s: Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, St. Estephe, Moulis, and Listrac-Medoc. The Cru Bourgeois classification was created to denote high quality (a Cru Bourgeois is not just any old Chateau!), though not Bordeaux’s highest.
As you probably know, the greatest Medoc Bordeaux are considered to be the Grand Cru Classés, which are themselves divided into 5 growths. For example, the most famous Medocs (Latour, Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, and Margaux) are all “First Growths.” Chateau Palmer, stellar and expensive but not generally considered on their level, is a “Second Growth.”
There are hundreds and hundreds of Chateaux in Bordeaux and only 61 Grand Cru Classés. The “Cru Bourgeois” are the best producers that are not Grand Crus Classés.
If these producers are so good, why aren’t they considered Grand Cru Classes?
The Grand Cru Classés were defined in 1855. They made a list of the most expensive Bordeaux for some World Fair, and that list somehow became gospel. Nobody took into account how the wines tasted. There were no 100 point scores, no somm pics on instagram. It was just market price. It was Idiosyncratic in a way that now seems rather un-French.
Randomly, they only listed 60 producers. Cantemerle, number 61 at the time, talked its way onto the list a few months later. Academics say that some more expensive Chateaux just didn’t bother to submit their data and so were excluded. It seemed like useless paperwork back then, no doubt!
But since then, no matter how good your wine is, there has been no way to get on this list. Even if you have terroir right next door to the First Growths (as some Cru Bourgeois have) or if Robert Parker scores your wine higher than, say, Lynch Bages (happens to Cru Bourgeois all the time) you’re not a Grand Cru Classé. Sorry.
So how did Cru Bourgeois get started?
You can imagine how frustrating it was for all those producers in the Medoc, with great terroir and delicious wines but no shot at big-time recognition. Everyone was focused on the Growths.
So in 1934 the forces that be (a local Chamber of Commerce—now things are getting French) came up with a list of particularly good Bordeaux that weren’t Grand Cru Classes, and called them Cru Bourgeois. Like the Grand Cru Classes designation, the Cru Bourgeois designation became enshrined in law, and soon it appeared on wine labels.
The name seems a bit unfortunate to modern Americans (and the French too), especially those of you who are familiar with works like David Brooks' “Bobos in Paradise” or Marx’s “Das Kapital.” But put yourself in the head of a 1930s Frenchman (I’m assuming here that the women can’t be blamed for this decision), and you can kind of see what he’s thinking: we may not be the aristocrats — that’s the Classified Growths — but we live in castles too (they actually do) so we’re the Bourgeoisie! Or something like that.
Did this classification work?
For many years, it did. When I first “studied” Bordaeux, back in the 1990s, it was common wisdom that Cru Bourgeois was where the value was. Interest in the Cru Bourgeois grew, especially after the 2000 vintage, which was the first time that many drinkers discovered that they had become priced out of the Classified Growths. So in my early years in the wine business, customers would walk in the shop and ask for Cru Bourgeois.
But things went awry. Some producers Cru Bourgeois felt that they produced better wine than others, and wanted to charge more. But with the same legal designation — shared by too many producers at over 400! – there was a lot of market resistance to higher prices. So they tried to shake things up and started classifying the Cru Bourgeois. From 2003 to 2007, you had three kinds of Cru Bourgeois: the basic Cru Bourgeois; better wines were Cru Bourgeois Superieur; and the best wines were Cru Bourgeois Exceptionel.
You can imagine the politics behind sorting out who is what level. Nobody could agree, there were lawsuits, and in 2007 a court outlawed the system. A few years later, the Cru Bourgeois was revived, but with just one classification.
But there was a new twist: to get the CB designation, you had to win a tasting contest! A complicated set of tasting panels had to decide your wine tasted as good as a “standard” bottle of wine. And what does a “standard” bottle taste like? Well, that was also determined by its own complicated jury selection process (yes, now we have a fully French system). This process repeated itself every year—so you could be CB one year and not the next. Meaning, unlike with the Cru Classé: it was no longer producers that were designated Cru Bourgeois, but particular wines from particular vintages.
So Cru Bourgeois meant three different things within the span of one decade. Consumers couldn’t keep up, and they stopped paying attention. It was much easier to understand the value proposition of a “Second Wine” (a wine made by a Classified Growth producer but not the “Grand Vin,” such as Le Petit Mouton, Mouton Rothschild’s second wine). Even overlooked appellations like Fronsac started to get more traction. A lot of consumers started heading in that direction. It didn’t help that many of the best producers (including most of the Cru Exceptionel) didn’t even bother submitting their wines to these jury panels, instead deciding to rely on their own well-known brands for marketing — Chateau Poujeaux is a top example.
So why are we talking about Cru Bourgeois?
Well, for one thing, the Cru Bourgeois are making a determined effort to sort things out once and for all. The solution they have come up with is similar to St. Emilion’s. Starting in 2020, the producers will once again be classified. Probably there will be two classifications initially, and then at some point three. They’re still working out the details. But here’s why it will be a much better system than the last two attempts: designations will be based on a tasting of five vintages from each estate, and will be awarded to producers — not individual wines — for five year periods. If the system works as expected, there will be a fairly stable categorization of the producers, with perhaps a handful of promotions and demotions every five years, just like in St. Emilion.
All this is very interesting, but here's the most important reason to pay attention to Cru Bourgeois: Many of these Chateaux are producing not just the best value red wines in Bordeaux but in all the world. Last week in Bordeaux I drank so many great red wines — some young, some 20 years or older — and was astonished to learn that very few of them sold for more than $30 in the United States. This is an excellent hunting ground for value.
In the next three blog posts or so I will try to explain why it is that these wines represent such good value and give you some tips on incorporating Cru Bourgeois into your wine drinking — and cellaring.