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Analysis: how effective has the Crus Bourgeois classification been?

Published:  06 October, 2014

Last week the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois arrived in London for the fifth annual review of the wines deemed worthy to use the Cru Bourgeois seal of approval. Five years into the new incarnation of the classification Heather Dougherty reviews its successes and challenges - and looks at its prospects for the future.

Cru BourgeoisCru BourgeoisCru Bourgeois

Last week the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois arrived in London for the fifth annual review of the wines deemed worthy to use the Cru Bourgeois seal of approval. Five years into the new incarnation of the classification Heather Dougherty reviews its successes and challenges - and looks at its prospects for the future.

In theory, any individual property in the Médoc can enter its wine to the scheme; in practice a minority do, with Cru Bourgeois wines accounting for just under a third of the volume of wine produced in the area. For the current vintage, 2012, 267 wines of the approximately 350 who applied, were awarded Cru Bourgeois status, accounting for 29 million bottles of wine in annual production.

Growing conditions in 2012 posed a number of challenges for producers. Uneven flowering was followed by downy mildew; August was the hottest since 2003, leading to some scorching. The dry weather carried on until 23rd September, when heavy rain led to rot in the vines. The wines are anything but uniform in quality, and though there are some excellent wines, many currently show structure at the expense of fruit.


Cru Bourgeois: need to know

-          All producers in the appellations of Médoc, Haut Médoc, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estephe, Moulis, Listrac and Margaux are eligible to participate, estimated at around a thousand.

-          Of the 267 Crus selected for 2012, over 200 (76%) are from the ACs of Médoc and Haut Médoc

-          Cru Bourgeois is more a quality assurance scheme than a classification as it works alongside the existing AOCs; and wines must be deemed to reach appropriate quality levels, based on blind tasting by a panel of experts.

-          Cru Bourgeois status is awarded to wines (rather than properties) each year; châteaux cannot simply continue to use the name year after year.

-          Before progressing to the blind tasting stage, producers must first satisfy certain eligibility criteria relating to wine production.

-          Retail prices for the 160 or so Cru Bourgeois available in the UK range from £8 to approximately £40.


Simply being accepted by the producers in the first place. The original Cru Bourgeois scheme, begun in 1932 and widely viewed as over generous, permitted 444 producers to use the Cru Bourgeois term. By the 1990s the system was clearly in need of a major overhaul. An initial attempt to put a new classification in place in 2003 (with just 247 producers included) was challenged in the courts and finally annulled. The fact that the new system has been in place for five years suggests acceptance and a valid future.

There is a level of consistency across varying vintage conditions for châteaux who have made the selection in each of the five years, which is encouraging.


Some of the higher profile châteaux who would be eligible to participate, have so far elected not to do so - notable examples include Sociando-Mallet and Chasse-Spleen.

While in theory many producers in the better known appellations such as Margaux and Pauillac would be eligible to participate, in practice few do - and none from St Julien in 2012. A sign perhaps that a well-known name with consumer recognition is worth more than a rigorous quality programme which, as yet, has made little impact with wine drinkers. 

After a tricky launch vintage (2008), the new Cru Bourgeois has benefited from a run of reasonable to very good vintages (2009/10/11). 2012, however, was a more challenging year and will be followed by an even trickier one in 2013. Quality is undoubtedly high in good vintages, when a rising tide floats all boats. Poorer vintages are going to test the mettle of the scheme and the producers.

Last month's was well attended, with 140 visitors and a fairly even spread of on and off trade, press, consultants and educators. The average age of attendees, however, was quite high, demonstrating that more can be done to reach out to younger members of the trade - bloggers, sommeliers - who act as opinion formers for new generations of wine drinkers.

Frédérique Dutheillet de LamotheFrédérique Dutheillet de LamotheHelping to explain and maximise the potential of the Cru Bourgeois system

Helping to explain and maximise the potential of the Cru Bourgeois system

The Director's view

Frédérique Dutheillet de Lamothe is director of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois.

"Cru Bourgeois is a successful marriage of dynamism and historical background. This is the fifth year of the current procedure and we are concentrating on building relationships with wine professionals and the feedback we are getting is that we are delivering products that the market needs."

The Educator's view

Laura Clay is a past chairman of the Association of Wine Educators and an Accredited Bordeaux tutor.

"I do use Cru Bourgeois as a pointer when I'm selecting wines for my tastings and I like the fact that they cover a good range of price points. Consumers may not be aware of Cru Bourgeois in particular, but if they notice it I do think the word "cru" has an association with quality in their minds. Personally, I think the previous additional classifications of Supérieur and Exceptionnel were helpful to the consumer, though I understand why the Alliance have done away with them. It is perhaps a shame that some of the well-known commune châteaux, such as Sociando-Mallet, don't bother with it."

The Consultant's view

Peter McCombie MW is a writer, speaker and consults to a variety of restaurants.

"In theory Cru Bourgeois has lots to offer the restaurant sector, as most crus classés are off the menu, price wise, for the majority. However, I find there is a wide variation in price and quality and this makes me concerned for the future of Cru Bourgeois. The predominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc means a good number of the wines would benefit from longer ageing - yet by that stage they won't be commercially available. What I look for in Bordeaux is freshness and drinkability, I'd like to see more Cru Bourgeois reflecting the lighter character of the vintage, rather than going for power and extraction. Alternatively, a couple of the wines from this latest selection had clearly had a brush with modernism in terms of winemaking, which is no bad thing. Barrel ageing had been used to carefully to bring the wines on, rather than stamp them with new oak flavours."


The Independent Merchant's view

Rupert Pritchett is the owner of Taurus Wines of Bramley in Surrey.

"We list 30 different Bordeaux, of which three are Cru Bourgeois. We don't specifically look for Cru Bourgeois and are never asked for it by our customers. Quality assurance is important, but it's just one of many factors involved in listing a wine and, from a consumer's point of view, a well-designed label has greater impact."

The Buyer's view

Joanna Locke MW is a wine buy for The Wine Society, with responsibility for Bordeaux, amongst other areas.

"I found the 2012 selection much more pleasurable to taste than the 2011s last year; it looks like an attractive drinking vintage and I admire the stringency of what the Alliance is doing. Having said that, the Cru Bourgeois label is not something which would influence our decision to buy a wine - in the end it comes down to the quality of what's in the bottle. Older consumers may still recognize Cru Bourgeois as a quality designation, but I think not many of the younger generation would do so, so we would not see it as a selling point at this stage. I suspect it will become better known over time."

The future?

The introduction of a quality based Cru Bourgeois system is a radical move for Bordeaux which, now in its fifth year, has clearly gained acceptance from potentially resistant Médoc producers and the wine trade. It seems to present a valid route to identifying those châteaux who are focused on quality and who are able to maintain quality, even in more challenging vintages.

The Alliance des Crus Bourgeois has done much to raise its profile in its first five years and has good recognition and awareness within the wine trade. Producers also clearly accept and value the stamp of approval, which augurs well for the future, but building consumer awareness and confidence is clearly a longer term project.

At a recent meeting a majority of the members of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois voted to "reintroduce a ranking system and a multi-year approach". Further details and timing are not yet available, but it suggests we may see the reappearance multi-tiered quality levels which châteaux might maintain for more than one year at a time.