After seven years of arguments, 243 châteaus in Bordeaux's Médoc will proudly display the words Cru Bourgeois on bottles of their 2008 wines. The organization behind the classification hopes the new ranking will help sell the wines of these lesser-known estates. But some producers have walked away from the ranking, and some question whether it helps sell wine.
The Cru Bourgeois classification has come a long way since 1932 when it was an unofficial list of 444 Médoc châteaus designated by Bordeaux’s influential wine brokers. But since 2003, attempts to establish an updated, official selection have been successively contested in the courts, thereby prohibiting anyone from using the denomination. The organizers had hoped to create a more stringent, quality-oriented classification, but properties that lost their ranking complained the judges were not impartial.
As a result, Alliance des Cru Bourgeois du Médoc, an association representing the interests of 300 properties, spent three years devising a new assessment procedure for determining which wines deserve the Cru Bourgeois rank. A solution was finally ratified by the French government in November. Dubbed “Reconnaissance,” the new assessment procedure was unveiled to the trade late last month along with its first list of successful candidates.
Now, any château in the Médoc can apply to use the term Cru Bourgeois, but the right must be officially renewed on an annual basis. To ensure impartiality, an independent agency called Bureau Veritas, will check that all applicants are worthy, examining the state of their grounds, vineyards and winemaking facilities. It is also in charge of supervising blind tastings of each vintage by a jury of trade professionals. The 2008 vintage is the first to be rated according to the new system.
Out of the 290 châteaus that applied for the designation, 243 qualified. Each wine will be marketed with the same easy to identify label bearing the initials “CB.” The 2008 listing includes newcomers as well as some of the disgruntled growers who had contested the 2003 classification. The new system does not include the higher-ranking Cru Bourgeois Superieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel categories that were used in the 2003 ranking, which has angered the owners of the former Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel estates. They have withdrawn from the group and may create their own association.
Château Phélan-Ségur, formerly a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, was not among the candidates in 2008, so its owner Thierry Gardinier recently decided to resign as President of Alliance des Cru Bourgeois before the end of his term in 2012. He explained that his château would probably not apply for the designation because its image had never been especially bound to its historic ranking. “My sole mission of finding a solution to ensure the survival of the Cru Bourgeois classification is completed,” he said.
One estate that did qualify, Château La Tour de By, has already announced its withdrawal. “After much reflection, we decided to inform the Alliance that we are giving up the use of this term as it no longer represents a genuine high standard of quality," said winemaker and owner Frederic Le Clerc. He added that he thinks the new system is flawed because it judges estates by the wine and not the terroir.
Frederique de Lamothe, director of Alliance des Cru Bourgeois, hinted that the current system might evolve to include higher rankings. “We will ask our members whether or not they wish to reintroduce a form of hierarchy within the listing in the near future,” she said.
Several château owners who decided not to apply this year are either skeptical about the appeal of the new label to distributors and consumers alike. While the Cru Bourgeois ranking may have appeal in traditional markets, it holds little resonance for many new consumers. It's unclear if the Alliance plans a marketing campaign to change that.