In those untroubled, pre-pandemic times, a highlight of my year was the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc tasting – always a privilege to taste so many top quality Bordeaux and to gain a real insight into the vintage and its expression across different Médoc appellations. I’ve also had the honour in the past to be a judge for what was the annual Coupe awarded to the top Cru Bourgeois of the vintage. So I was delighted to discover that a perk of being a Bordeaux Accredited Tutor and Médoc Ambassador, or possibly being Chairman of the AWE, was to receive 3 bottles to taste from the lauded 2018 vintage. This was coupled with the opportunity to have a virtual one on one with Armelle Cruse, Vice President of the Crus Bourgeois and manager of the (all female) family-run Château Taillan, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel.
The Cru Bourgeois classification is always one I’ve respected, particularly so in more recent years when the wines were judged each vintage. I missed the separate categories of Supérieur and Exceptionnel post 2007 though because I thought they were a helpful distinction when around 240-280 wines might be classified in any particular year, and given that prices between them varied so dramatically. Well, now they’re back and of the 249 classified châteaux there are 14 Exceptionnels and 56 Supérieurs.
From 2009 until 2020, the classification was applied for and judged every year. Now with the 2018s it is every 5 years and the three tier system is back in use. For the 2018 application, the châteaux could select 5 vintages of their choice from 2008-2016 for the sensory application and going forward in 2025 vintages 2017-2021 will be tasted. There are several reasons for this 5 year move:
- Cabernet-based wines will have a better chance of being rewarded than if the wines were tasted on release.
- It gives the motivation for producers to maintain their classification or work unceasingly towards a higher one.
- It locks a château into the Crus Bourgeois ‘family’, as Armelle referred to it, and working together for the good of the Alliance.
Armelle emphasised time and again this notion of family and in fact one of the questions in the application asks why the candidate wants to be part of the Crus Bourgeois Alliance with points being awarded, I assume, for those who might mention the idea of being better and stronger together. It’s not necessarily a common theme in Bordeaux, but what I understood from the strength of feeling in what Armelle was saying is that its importance for the Crus Bourgeois should not be underestimated.
Worth the expense
It is not an insignificant financial cost to a producer to apply for Crus Bourgeois status, and I bet it takes a great deal in dedication of time and energy to fill in the forms. Application for the first tier will set a producer back €4000, double that for the superior two. The cost seems steep, especially if you are a small producer, but Armelle is quick to point out this covers the full 5 years and a successful application could mean the wine being sold at a higher price, a leg-up to the market as well as on-going marketing of the wine around the world.
The process starts, of course, with a blind tasting by an independent verification body. The 2020 ruling, however, allowed châteaux to bypass the sensory stage if they had been classified Cru Bourgeois at least 5 times between 2008 and 2016. Once the quality and the environmental practices have been confirmed and all other criteria met, Cru Bourgeois will be awarded. For the higher categories, more and stricter standards are assessed on vinification and wine-making practices, as well as ageing and bottling, and also the marketing and commercialisation of the wine. Visits are made to each property to verify the credibility of their application.
The importance of working environmentally
Like many wine regions, and certainly in line with the CIVB’s message and targets, Crus Bourgeois is focussing a great deal on environmental issues. For tier 1, ‘candidates must provide evidence of commitment to a Level 2 HVE’; for tiers 2 and 3, they must be certified to at least HVE* Level 2. The 3 samples I was sent included information only about the grape blend, the price/stockist and the environmental certification – it’s safe to say this is regarded as a major factor of the application. For a full analysis I refer you to the Crus Bourgeois website.
Going forward, the Alliance is keen to build on their ground-breaking QR code labels by increasing their digital presence. They’re now on Instagram and twitter and looking to connect with the world through educational ambassadors. The website is a good starting point and is informative.
Armelle is herself a great representative of the Crus Bourgeois Alliance. Her dedication to and passion for the brand are clear. As a board, their aim, she says, is to not always be behind the Grands Crus Classés but to live alongside them. She would like to see some of the major Crus Bourgeois players of the past re-join, she mentions Château Phélan Ségur, and hopes the demanding application, the three tier system and diplomacy in not disclosing who has entered might encourage them to reconsider. The CB rules are some of the strictest, most rigorous and impartial of any classification and Armelle is confident that being part of it ensures producers taking proper responsibility in the vineyards and wine-making to make better quality wine giving a trusted guarantee and assurance to the consumer. ‘It’s not a game’, she says. In a very French way, reminding me of my studying Jean -Paul Sartre days, she says philosophically, ‘it’s a way for us to exist’. Bearing in mind the Crus Bourgeois represents almost a third of the Médoc production and around 28 million bottles their existence should be noted and celebrated.
In case you’re interested, the wines I tasted were Châteaux Saint-Aubin, Castéra and Arnauld, a wine from each category. I judged them blind and correctly identified them as Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel respectively so it seems that the judging works. As does my palate. 2018 produced very high quality wines despite it being a bit tricky early on but, as is so often the case, September made the vintage with a little rain just at the point it was needed after the warmer than average ripening months. The wines showed ripe fruit, freshness and, especially Château Arnauld, a friendly elegance. It’s a vintage worth buying for the sheer hedonistic qualities and I was very happy to have tasted these three. I am, however, very much hoping that the annual tasting will be back next year.
*HVE = Haut Valeur Environmental or Higher Environmental Value