Starting later this month, Bordeaux embarks on an ambitious reclassification of its crus bourgeois in which more than 470 châteaus from the Médoc will be divided into a new pecking order.
The project is almost certain to open a can of worms if disappointed proprietors raise their hackles when their estate fails to make the desired category.
"I haven't bought my anti-bullet vest yet, but maybe I should," quipped Dominique Hessel, president of the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois.
Hessel is part of a jury that will rank each château into one of three categories, which are, in descending order of prestige, cru bourgeois supérieur exceptionnel, cru bourgeois supérieur and cru bourgeois. The new classification, which has the backing of the French government, is intended to offer consumers a more accurate guide to quality.
"It's a huge job," Hessel sighed. "But we hope to conduct the project with serenity and harmony."
The 18 jurors will blind-taste nearly 3,000 wines over the next year. Each château will have to submit six vintages, from 1994 to 1999, of its wine; the jurors will also review files describing each estate's vineyards, winery and history.
The jury includes Bordeaux traders (or négociants), brokers (courtiers), three members of Bordeaux's enology school, and three representatives of the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois. The jury's first meeting is scheduled for Jan. 25.
All crus bourgeois are on the Left Bank of the Gironde River, in the Médoc and Haut-Médoc areas, which encompass the vineyards spreading north of the city of Bordeaux for about 50 miles. Some of these châteaus are in famous appellations, such as Margaux or Pauillac, others in lesser-known villages, such as St.-Sauveur. These properties were left out of the loftier category of classified growths, which were ranked in 1855 and are also all from the Médoc, with the exception of first-growth Château Haut-Brion, in Pessac-Léognan.
Many of these cru bourgeois wines offer excellent value, often selling for a fraction of the price of the big-name properties in the region while delivering very high quality. Some of these wines were among the best in the less-than-perfect 1999 vintage, including Sociando-Mallet (90 points), d'Angludet (88), Gloria (88) and Les-Ormes-de-Pez (88) -- and these all sell for $18 to $25 a bottle.
In 1932, when 444 châteaus were ranked in the original cru bourgeois classification, only six were made cru bourgeois supérieur exceptionnel. Another 99 were ranked as cru bourgeois supérieur, and the remaining 339 became simple cru bourgeois.
The châteaus ranked "exceptional" back in 1932 were Villegeorge in the commune of Avensan, d'Angludet in Cantenac, Chasse-Spleen in Moulis, La Couronne in Pauillac, Moulin Riche in St.-Julien and Bel-Air Marquis d'Aligre in Soussans.
Much has changed, however, in the past 70 years: New estates have emerged, old ones have disappeared. A revamping of the status quo has been in the works for years, driven by the dramatic improvements in quality at some châteaus. Hessel said he expected the new classification to reward the quality strides at the best cru bourgeois châteaus.
"Given the quality progress, it's possible that more châteaus deserve the 'exceptional' level," said Hessel.
For instance, Château Haut-Marbuzet -- a winery in St.-Estèphe that was just a cru bourgeois in the 1932 classification -- has produced wines that rival some classified growths, and the estate, owned by the Duboscq family, is considered a strong candidate for the cru bourgeois supérieur exceptionnel ranking.
Château Sociando-Mallet, now a simple cru bourgeois in the Haut-Médoc, could be a candidate for the top ranking, but owner Jean Gautreau, 75, said he has no intention of being classified by anybody, though he suggested his wines might match the quality of some classified growths. "Want to taste blind Sociando-Mallet against the classified growths? You can't tell the difference," he argued. "I couldn't care less about this classification. I'm not interested, and I didn't apply."
Hessel said he had no ambition for his châteaus -- Moulin-à-Vent, a cru bourgeois supérieur in Moulis, and the cru bourgeois Tour-Blanche in the appellation of St.-Christoly -- beyond keeping them in the same categories.
Others might be disappointed, however. "We expect some people will be angry, but the more seriously we work, the less protest we will get," said Hessel.
The new classification will get the official stamp of the French government, unlike the one in 1932, which didn't receive official backing. Without strong legal backing, the category was marred by producers who misused the terms, according to Hessel. Some estates that hadn't been ranked cru bourgeois in 1932 were using the label. Others sold their second or third wine as a cru bourgeois, according to Hessel. "It was a fraud," he said.
Read about The Official 1855 Classification