As I have discussed in the past, French wine labels can be rather puzzling since they indicate the region where the wine was produced rather than the grape varietal contained inside the bottle. Also, the label will often contain such words as “Grand”, “Premier” or “Cru”. Even though premier means first in French, you will often find grand appearing on the better quality wines.
The simple translation for cru is growth. However, in the world of French wine its reference is for the geographic terrain, specifically the soil type, climate and altitude where the grapes are grown. It gets complicated by the fact that cru is not applied in the same manner throughout all the wine regions of France. Further complicating things is that the term cru is also used in Germany and Italy where there are additional variations in the meaning.
In the Burgundy region of France, the classification of cru is rather simple. Cru designates a vineyard as being of a certain level of quality. The classifications originate back to the 12th century and the Cistercian and Benedictine monks in the Côte d’Or. Every vineyard in Burgundy is classified in the hierarchy where Grand Cru is at the top followed by Premier Cru and then “village” wines, with the generic Bourgogne category at the bottom.
There are 33 Grand Crus with each having its own appellation. Only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown here, but most appellations only permit one or the other varietal to be grown; very few allow both. Premier Cru wines are less expensive and are often a better value, though their long-term aging potential is typically less.
Chablis has one Grand Cru appellation that includes seven vineyards. These vineyards overlook the town of Chablis and benefit from a southwest exposure that helps ripen the grapes.
The Bordeaux region applies the term cru in a much different manner. Grand Cru Classé classification system forms the basis of the rating system and it’s tied to a specific chateau or estate, rather than adjacent vineyards. It was created in 1855 and is comprised of only left bank chateaus in Médoc, Graves and Sauternes, ranked from first to fifth growths, based on their value at that time. The first growths are called Premiers Crus, while second through fifth growth crus are called Crus Classes.
On the right bank Pomerol isn’t classified but Saint-Émilion is. St.-Émilion has three chateau-based quality classifications. At the top is Premier Grands Crus Classés, of which there are 18, followed by Grands Crus Classés which contains 64 chateaus. The appellation’s third category is not tied to a specific ‘classed’ chateau or geographical subzone. Wines labeled “St.-Émilion Grand Cru” merely have more stringent production rules.
The Alsace region uses the term Grand Cru in similar fashion as the Burgundy region. Fifty-one vineyards have been designated superior, or Grand Cru, and wine from those vineyards can use the term on their label. There is a great deal of diversity in Alsace’s Grand Cru wines. There are four grapes approved for use, as well as a wide variation in soils.
The Beaujolais region is where Gamay grapes are grown. Here cru is applied to villages rather than vineyards. There are 10 villages and the wine produced from these villages is called Cru Beaujolais.
The Champagne region also classifies entire villages as Grand Cru or Premier Cru. The Champenois created a system referred to as échelle des crus, or “ladder of the growths” in the early 20th century to fix grape prices for both farmers and buyers at Champagne houses.
At each harvest a price is set and growers with land in one of Champagne’s grand cru village receives 100% of that price. Grapes from the premier cru villages earns from 90% to 99% of the set price, while the rest receive from 80% to 89%.
There you have it; a little more of the puzzle of French wine resolved.