Within the region of Champagne, the price of grapes is based on a vineyard classification system, which was established in 1919.
The vineyard classification works like this:
This is the top tier of the classification system and the label ‘grand cru’ is based on the region. There are 17 villages designated as ‘grand cru’ and if your vineyard happens to lie within the boundaries of one of these towns, you can charge more for your grapes. Actually, the law says you will get more money. And bottles with ‘Grand Cru’ written on the label will generally be be more expensive.
Premier cru is the second-tier classification, which is given to 41 towns in the Champagne region. As you will read below, some of the finest champagnes are created with a mixture of grand cru and premier cru.
Why ‘cru’ is nonsensical
Not every vineyard designated grand cru has the best grapes. Didier Gimonnet (Champagne Pierre Gimonnet) is one of the Côte des Blancs’ most fastidious growers and thoughtful blenders who controls 28 hectares of largely old vines. He has 12 grand cru vineyards, but makes no grand cru blends, because he says the wines are better balanced when they’re blended with premier crus. This deprives him of the right to label his wines ‘grand cru’ and command grand cru prices.
‘Cramant, for instance, is grand cru,’ he says. ‘But only 150 hectares of its 230 hectares produce exceptional wine.
Another famous grower suggests the 80 hectares around Mont Aigu are the only reason Chouilly’s 420 hectares are rated grand cru.
This is equally true in the premier cru village of Vertus.
‘Of course, the grand crus are the best places on average,’ explains famed grower Pierre Larmandier (Champagne Larmandier-Bernier).
‘But my best sites in Vertus (premier cru) are better than the worst in Cramant (grand cru).’
An attempt to change the classification
At a time of crisis in the region in 1992, the large houses called in a group of young winegrowers, chaired by Pierre Larmandier and Jérôme Prévost. The two presented their approach to pay for grapes according to quality and not just volume. The proposal was written off on the insistence that there was no way of measuring quality. Their case for a more precise classification was dismissed as a scandal.
‘In the end, we were fed up as no one understood, so we decided to make our own champagne instead,’ Larmandier reports.
Thus began two of champagne’s most celebrated growers.
Like Larmandier-Bernier, a grower can always make their own champagne instead of selling their grapes. About a quarter of Champagne growers now do this.
But it’s not just the small grower-producers who disregard the cru classification system. Billecart-Salmon’s single-hectare Clos Saint-Hilaire produces one of Champagne’s finest blanc de noirs from the premier cru village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
‘So what if it isn’t grand cru?’ says Antoine Roland-Billecart.
‘Sometimes it’s better to have an old vine in a premier cru.’
In the neighbouring village of Aÿ, Bollinger agrees, with its glorious flagships La Grande Année and La Grande Année Rosé each containing a portion of premier cru fruit.
The idea permeates all the way to the top. Krug is another prestige cuvée not made from 100% grand cru vineyards. Instead, all of its wines are blind tasted and the house makes its own classification every vintage.
No wonder Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Krug, Pierre Gimonnet and Larmandier-Bernier, spanning the full spectrum of style and price, make some of the finest wines in Champagne today.
Even Champagne’s largest players are joining the chorus of support. ‘I have a dream,’ Veuve Clicquot’s Chef de Cave, Dominique Demarville, says.
‘I hope that one day we will pay for grapes according to quality, not according to volume and vineyard designation.’
If Champagne were to give due respect to its growers and its finest houses, and seriously look at its existing territory, it would radically revise its crude village-by-village cru system and assess each and every vineyard in its own right — just like its neighbours, Burgundy and Alsace.
Unfortunately, such a reassessment will never happen. It seems the credibility of Champagne’s cru status will remain in tatters.