Many of Europe’s most celebrated wine regions ‘classify’ their wines, offering (in theory) a suggestion of where a bottle might sit in a region-wide hierarchy of quality. Champagne appears to take the same approach, but how worthwhile is the ‘Cru’ system in this appellation?
Classifications in other regions
If you’ve ever gone down a rabbit-hole with top wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy then the terms ‘Grand Cru’ and ‘Premier Cru’ will surely be familiar. In both cases, these terms refer to specific vineyards or properties that have demonstrated the ability, often over centuries, to produce remarkable wine. In Bordeaux, as the vineyards are organised largely as separate estates, the producer itself is awarded the title. In Burgundy, however, it is the vineyards that are rated (not the villages they fall in), with each village a heavily parcellised, pixelated landscape of plots that can switch from Grand Cru, to Premier Cru, to ‘Villages’ within a few metres.
In both these cases though, ‘Grand’ and ‘Premier’ are fairly precisely-targeted terms. Burgundy and Bordeaux buffs can argue over who, or where, is over/under-rated in the system – and they do – but each decision has some weight of history behind it. Champagne’s usage of these terms, however, is a bit of a case of late adoption, convenience and commerce. So what exactly do they mean, and can they really guarantee a certain level of quality?
The story begins with a good, old-fashioned riot. Or, to be more accurate, a series of riots and protests colloquially known as ‘The Champagne Riots’ that took place in the first decade of the twentieth Century. Bordeaux and Burgundy were already both well on their way to a fully-codified classification system by this time, but Champagne was the Wild West by comparison. Enabled by the fact that most Champagne was blended from bought-in grapes, there was little to prevent producers slipping in cheaper wine from outside the Champagne region and adding a few zeroes onto the bottom line.
Champagne’s own growers, struggling with the difficult 1909 and 1910 vintages, had had enough: André Simon, in his History of Champagne, describes how a “lorry with 2,000 bottles and 300 half-bottles of doubtful Champagne was “captured” by a large concours of vignerons…some of the mob drove the lorry to the Marne and tipped the whole of the wine in the river”. The unrest spiralled out of control, culminating in there being “more soldiers than vignerons” on the hillsides of Champagne in the summer of 1911.
Scoring villages: the original 100 point scale
The riots kicked off a lengthy series of negotiations which eventually ended in 1927 with an agreement on where grapes could be grown to classify as Champagne. In line with this, a system was also implemented to standardise pricing, so both growers and houses could agree on payment. The system, known as the “Échelle des Crus’ aimed to rate all of Champagne’s agreed vineyard land on a percentage scale, with the finest villages, deemed Grand Cru, receiving 100% of the regionally-agreed grape price for that vintage, Premier Cru villages taking 90 to 99% and all ‘others’ receiving anything from just 22%.
Crucially (and understandably given the size of the task) the Échelle was agreed village-by-village, not vineyard by vineyard as in Burgundy. Geology and topography have a frustrating habit of refusing to align to village boundary lines, though, and what might define Grand and Premier by price does not always correspond to the quality of the wine. As Tom Stevenson writes in Champagne, “Many individual sites within Premier Cru villages can, and do, consistently produce wines as good as the best Grand Crus and infinitely better than the worst”.
The rise of the underdogs
Many of the growers on an upwards trajectory today are outside of these sixty Grand and Premier Cru villages, telling stories of terroirs often disregarded when the rulebooks were drawn up. The entire Aube department in the South, containing the Côte des Bar and Montgueux, has a long history of being snubbed by suits of Reims and Epernay, with none of its vineyards being classified above 80% in the Échelle des Crus. The same goes for the whole of the area directly South of the Côte des Blancs known as the Sézanne and the Petit Morin (which have now been made famous by some big names in the grower world). Truly outstanding vineyards in these regions may well be rare, but when they are identified and nurtured by top growers the results can easily outshine a lesser grower cruising along at a more illustrious address.
With climate change and warming temperatures, villages traditionally downgraded for being harder to ripen are now becoming increasingly sought-after too. Chardonnay from the colder, West and North-facing parts of Cuis and Grauves, long considered lesser parts of the Côte des Blancs, is seeing more and more attention. North of Reims, the area known as the ‘Massif de Saint Thierry’ boasts a slightly cooler season and later-ripening Pinots than the Montagne further South, piquing interest not only from small producers but larger houses too.
Then, there is the tale of Pinot Meunier and the long, winding Marne river heading westwards towards Paris. The entire Marne region West of the ‘Grande Vallée’ near Epernay was limited to 80% on the Échelle des Crus; there is no Premier or Grand Cru Pinot Meunier here (in fact, there is no Grand Cru Pinot Meunier anywhere in Champagne). Pinot Meunier also spreads into some of Champagne’s interesting ‘in-between’ regions; areas such as the hillsides around Epernay and the Petite Montagne to the South-West of Reims – the latter a notable hotbed of grower talent. Unlike the Grand Crus of the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs, the in-betweeners don’t suffer from a monopoly of just one grape variety, so quality growers in these areas have an enticing palette to play with, too.
Stepping Off The Ladder
There is no doubt that most of Champagne’s great vineyards lie in Grand or Premier Cru villages. Using these terms to predict Champagne quality, though, is bound to prove fairly haphazard. The Échelle des Crus pricing system was ultimately abandoned in 2010 for this very reason and there is, technically at least, no such thing as a Grand Cru in Champagne any more. The fact that producers are still permitted to use the terminology, though, reminds us that Champagne’s history is one defined by a degree of commercial astuteness.
A changing climate, improving viticulture and a greater interest in the specificities of Champagne’s varied landscape, though, means that today’s explorer doesn’t need to start at the top of the ladder to find great Champagne.
Author of this article, Tom Hewson, writes about Champagne and Sparkling Wine for Tim Atkin MW and at https://sixatmospheres.
INTERESTED IN TOM'S ARTICLE? EXPLORE MORE WITH SIP'S SUGGESTIONS…
At Sip we work with producers with land in some of the most prestigious sites in all of Champagne. Equally, we have rising stars from little known villages who are making waves with incredible cuvées. Here are a few from across the region…
Pertois Lebrun – A producer with incredible plots across some of the very best sites in the Côte des Blancs, including Cramant, Oger, Chouilly, Mesnil-sur-Oger, as well as prestigious single vineyards such as Les Chetillons.
Georges Remy – A fabulous producer based in the legendary Grand Cru village of Bouzy, who also has holdings in the other GC villages of Ambonnay and Louvois as well as the highly-rated Premier Cru village of Tauxieres.
Oudiette X Filles – Hailing from the village of Beaunay in the Petit Moran, these two sisters are only onto their second vintage (due to arrive with us soon) but their first wine demonstrated why this formerly little-known area is fast gaining kudos with aficionados.
Rémi Leroy – Based in the often overlooked Aube region, in the very South of Champagne, Remi is creating incredibly expressive and exciting Champagne that shows just how good the wine from this region can be.