If You Were King ...

Would you "cru"?
May 21, 2013

Sitting in Europe at the moment I write this, and the local news is decidedly downbeat. The French, you see, are depressed—more so than the population of any other nation in Europe, according to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, which surveyed Europeans' sentiments about their local economies and the state of the European Union. "No European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France," it reports.

Of course, anybody who has spent time in France in, oh, the past decade or two, knows that the French have been suffering an unusually long bout of la malaise. Mostly it was due to a sense of their decline in cultural importance rather than, as today, to a plunging economy and perceived weak leadership.

With that as a backdrop, you can understand why a fellow named Jean Bourjade is doing whatever he can to try to raise prices for Beaujolais wines, a region that has been particularly hard hit by declining prestige, sales and, inevitably, prices.

Mr. Bourjade is the managing director of Inter Beaujolais, a regional trade group that represents the interests of both growers and shippers. Earlier this year, Mr. Bourjade made the news by explaining how, in his judgment, about 50 Beaujolais producers would go bankrupt as a result of the hail-devastated 2012 harvest, this despite an emergency subsidy of 1 million euros from the regional government to prop up growers' tottering finances.

Now, Mr. Bourjade is seeking to plump prices by advocating that Beaujolais seek state approval to designate its best vineyards into grand cru and premier cru quality distinctions, as was done in the Côte d'Or back in the 1930s.

At the moment, Beaujolais has only the broad-brushstroke delineation of 10 large-scale crus to signal its best sites, such as Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and so forth. No greater granularity exists, at least legally. No grands crus or premiers crus. No quality distinction flourish.

Mr. Bourjade is convinced that if Beaujolais, with its long history, acquired such a classification, prices would instantly jump and, he submits, quality improve.

But is he right? Is the whole business of premiers and grands crus an outdated holdover from a more class-conscious era that no longer serves in today's more fluid, meritocratic world? Is a permanently assigned quality ranking now more likely to be an inhibitor of quality than it is a springboard?

In the 1930s the French government assumed a kind of museum curator role when it established its system of appellation contrôlée, which legally delimits both district and individual vineyard boundaries in many parts of France.

What set France's effort apart from all others in Europe—then and now—was that it went one step further. Not only did France establish legal vineyard boundaries, it also formalized and installed official quality rankings among some of those newly delimited vineyards. This was most prominent in the Burgundy regions of Côte d'Or and Chablis. Beaujolais, which is part of Burgundy, was left out.

At one level it was a masterstroke. Vineyards were ennobled as premier or grand, and prices followed, as they do today, in lockstep. A grand cru always brings substantially more money—no matter how badly made the wine—than a premier cru. The fix is forever in.

Now, in the 21st century, the question is simple: Do we today need this sort of class ranking? Mr. Bourjade is doubtless correct that if Beaujolais had premiers and grands crus, prices for wines from the lucky anointed few would surely rise. History has proved that.

But what history has not proved—indeed, arguably quite the opposite—is that higher quality will follow from the installation of such an elite.

The Côte d'Or has a long and dismal history of underachievement among owners of, especially, grands crus. They know that they'll get their price regardless of quality, as both shippers and consumers will grab—and pay the highest price for—any wine that can declare itself a grand cru, such as Clos de Vougeot or Chambertin.

Far from instilling and ensuring quality, such inherited privilege too often serves to suffocate it. Apart from personal pride, where's the incentive?

Regulations are vaunted as the savior, such as requirements of lower vineyard yields for the elite sites. Yet here again, history proves otherwise. Such regulations are notoriously ineffective, as anyone who looks at the Chardonnay yields in the Côte d'Or's most famous vineyards will attest.

(The Italians, who have been around a lot longer than even the French, and are thus that much more cynical, have an ancient proverb for just this sort of thing: "Fatte la legge, trovato l’inganno”—a law made is a law skirted.)

So what's to be done for beloved Beaujolais? Its wines, at their best, are incomparable and deserve a commensurate price. Its failures are widespread and already well-known, the region having made a Faustian bargain in losing its soul in exchange for decades of easy money from Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais is depressed. Its growers are depressed. Its vineyard prices are depressed; its wine prices keep declining. And the challenging 2012 vintage, which reduced production by 40 percent, seemed almost Biblically mean-spirited in kicking Beaujolais while it's down.

Is the crutch of cru the answer? It seems to this (American) observer that it's resoundingly not. The depressed French surely know—or must at least suspect—that ever more state regulation and officially sanctioned elitism simply installs complacency.

The way to increase prices in Beaujolais is as old-fashioned as it is effective: Make better wines.

Indeed, those Beaujolais producers who today are doing just that, producers such as Foillard, Chamonard, Lapierre, Brun and a few dozen others, are commanding ever higher prices and ever more attention with every passing vintage.

"Make better wines" might seem too simple to be credible. But, really, it's the only answer. And it's the one that demonstrably works. Everything else is just fiddling the books.

Legal and Legislative Issues Appellation Regulations France Beaujolais Opinion

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