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Drinking Out Loud

If You Were King ...

Would you "cru"?

Matt Kramer
Posted: 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 Is the whole business of premiers and grands crus an outdated holdover from a more class-conscious era that no longer serves in today's more fluid, meritocratic world?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.

Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  May 21, 2013 2:06pm ET
I feel for the growers and shippers in Beaujolais, but I tend to agree with Mr. Kramer that the growers and vineyards need to consistently make better wine than classifying certain chateaus and domaines by archaic, dated classifications to artificially boost prices to help their cause in stabilizing the region's financial plight.

Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  May 21, 2013 9:54pm ET
Pretty much spot-on Matt. Nothing works like quality to raise prices. However I have found, as I am sure you have too, that in Burgundy even the most proficient makers have an abiding respect for the vineyard classifications. They know that not every maker does justice to the 1er and Grand Cru designations of their vineyard holdings but they will insist that the potential of the higher ranked vineyards is always greater than the lesser ranked. Vineyard prices also reflect this.
A problem M.Bourjade will face is that it takes a very long time to come up with the classifications and it requires many years of proven superiority if they are to mean anything. In the mean while, as in the Cote d'Or the makers name and track record is the only safe guide to better wine. Your thoughts?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  May 22, 2013 12:12pm ET
Mr. Matouk: You are, of course, absolutely correct that "In Burgundy even the most proficient makers have an abiding respect for the vineyard classifications."

This is not only because Burgundy tends toward the traditional and conservative, but also because the classification of grands and premiers crus in the Côte d'Or was enormously astute.

Really, not one of the vineyards designated grand cru would be downgraded today if a new classification were created. A number of premiers crus likely would be upgraded, but even there, not that many.

So credit where it is due: the classifications performed in the Côte d'Or during the 1930s were insightful. Indeed, that same insight extended to the task of defining legal vineyard boundaries, which was actually a more monumental effort.

It, like the classifications of premier and grand cru, was based on the court-mandated "Law of May 6 1919" which required that the creation of controlled appellations be informed by the deferential concept of "loyal, locale et constant"--traditional, individual to the area and demonstrably long-term.

But inking a permanent tattoo of quality classifications (premier and grand cru) on to the map of Beaujolais today is, in my opinion, an outdated, even inappropriate, concept.

France has a long history of what's called a "dirigiste", or directed, approach to governance. Inherently elitist and top-down, it encourages a kind of passivity, of waiting for the "authorities" to do something.

This is precisely what struggling Beaujolais does NOT need. Rather, Beaujolais producers would be far better served by recognizing that only their own rigor, without the artifice of a hierarchy of classifications permanently superimposed on their vineyards, can truly vault their ALL of their wines to a profitable and world-respected status, not just an anointed, elite few.

A "dirigiste" approach saps such self-created rigor. You want more money and respect? Deliver the goods.
Recognition will surely follow.

Beaujolais has the huge advantage of an already famous brand name and a grape variety (Gamay Noir) that's almost instantly delicious to everyone who tastes it. All they need to do is consistently offer the real, high-quality thing across the board, from Beaujolais-Villages to the "crus" (and even Beaujolais Nouveau), rather than simply declaring a legalistic superiority based on official designations.

Everywhere, wine lovers today--unlike in the 1930s--are wired-in, attentive and astoundingly quick to respond to quality and originality.

Anyway, that's how it seems to this (admittedly very American) Beaujolais-loving observer.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa —  May 22, 2013 11:14pm ET
Creating more Grand Crus seems antiquated, and can even back-fire when an experience leads to a sort of cognitive dissonance. Was very exited last week when I opened a good vintage (2010), Cru (Fleurie) Beaujolais from a reputable producer (Brun) that came with good street cred, only to find a wine that was just ok, and at $27, at least $10 too expensive for the quality. Certainly nowhere near the $20 Croatian Plavac I had enjoyed a few days prior. Had this Fleurie been a "Grand Cru," I may have been fine with paying a higher price, but then would have felt even more hood-winked about the quality in bottle...

Martin Diehr
Palm Mar, Canary Islands, Spain —  May 23, 2013 9:12am ET
Matt, you are indeed spot on. Adding a new, complicated classification method certainly won't be an answer for the long run anyways. Plus as mentioned above, will take way to much time to create.
Making better wine can start this season and the results are sure to come, first with increased cases being sold, then the acceptance of higher prices due to the better quality of the wines!
Now, we just have to hope, they listen.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  May 24, 2013 11:24pm ET
Matt, thank you for the additional comments and observations. You are quite correct in observing that Beaujolais has the advantage of brand name and grape variety which would serve them better than any attempt to classify the vineyards. I think the short-term attraction of profit from Beaujolais Nouveau has done them no favours as for many years the wine was terrible, appealing only to neophytes and turning off most serious wine lovers, so raising the quality of the Nouveau would go some way in building the quality reputation of the region.
M.Bourjade needs to think again. As the saying goes "careful what you wish for".
Aurelien Fiardet
Portland, Oregon, USA —  May 29, 2013 1:47am ET
Hi Everybody,
I am from Beaujolais and I am now doing the promotion of some Beaujolais vintners in the US.
As you said, Beaujolais has a big advantage of an already famous brand name and grape variety but not so many people know Beaujolais for its terroirs and landscapes. I think it is very important to focus our communication on Beaujolais Crus and in my opinion the future classification of "Premiers Crus" still in project in the Crus area will help to give more credit to our beautiful and unique "terroirs". We cannot make "great" or "qualitative" wines without a sense of place. To me, Terroir is as important as the winemaker to determine the quality of a wine. I know it will take time but in the long term, the new classification will help to recognize the quality of our unique terroirs in Beaujolais and it is not only a pretext to increase our prices even if we really need it.
In the short term, I agree with you that the vintners and shippers have to focus on the quality of their wines. According to me the combination of these two factors will contribute to a better perception of Beaujolais wines and will result in higher prices for our wines and more value for the vintners in order to be able to invest in quality.
Regarding wines pricing, higher quality wines imply higher prices but the reverse is not always true.
James Blosser
Wilmington, DE, USA —  May 30, 2013 5:31pm ET
I appreciated again your valued perspective on approaching wine, emphasizing substance over perception. A side comment regarding your description of an unfortunate 2012 vintage that was "Biblically mean-spirited". I sense your empathy but I find the phrase an oxymoron. That aside, I continue to appreciate and am encouraged as a home wine maker and wine fan of your expertise and candor. Keep doing what you do.

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