For the 1855 Exposition in Paris, Emperor Napoleon III requested a classification system for France's best Bordeaux wines which were to be on display to visitors from around the world. The negociants from the wine industry created a hierarchical system that ranked the wines according to a chateau's reputation and trading price, which at that time directly correlated to the wine’s quality. Four wines were rated at the top as Premier Cru Classe (First Growths): Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and Chateau Latour.
A number of wines were then classified Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Growths. In total, only sixty (60) chateaux were ranked. The ratings did not include white wines, the sweet wines of Sauternes or Barsac, and the rankings were limited to the wines of the left bank, so no chateaux from St. Emilion or Pomerol were included.
Only two changes have been made since. Once in 1856 when Chateau Cantemerle was added as a Fifth Growth, and again in 1973, when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was reclassified from Second Growth to First Growth, making a total of five First Growths with which most everyone is familiar. In only ranking 60 chateaux, thousands of other chateaux were excluded. In 1932, a system was devised to include the “best of the rest” – the people’s wine - the Cru Bourgeois.
444 chateaux were included, separated into three (3) groups: The highest ranking was designated Cru Bourgeois Superieurs Exceptionnel (sometimes called Cru Exceptionnel or Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel) (6 chateaux), followed by Cru Bourgeois Superieurs (99 chateaux), and finally Cru Bourgeois (339 chateaux). However, chateaux in any of these three categories could only use the term “Cru Bourgeois” on their wine labels.
This lack of distinct labeling led to the establishment of a panel in 2003 to re-evaluate the Cru Bourgeois classification with the idea that the newly ranked wines could place their elevated status on their label as a sign of quality. Four hundred and ninety chateaux registered to be included in the classification - the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce listed 247 in their final rankings. Nine wines were ranked as Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels, 87 as Crus Bourgeois Superieurs, and 151 as Crus Bourgeois. As with any such classification system, there was controversy over these rankings, and some very highly regarded wines such as Chateau Gloria and Chateau Sociando-Mallet did not even apply for classification, preferring to rely on the quality already associated with them by name.
The controversy boiled over and into the courts, where 78 chateaux (which had been excluded from the classification) leveled claims of bias (several members of the 2003 panel were owners of chateaux seeking the rankings), resulting in a February 2007 decision to overturn the new classification and return to the 1932 rankings, with all wines referred to as Cru Bourgeois. That decision was amended in July 2007, when the French courts ruled the use of the term “Cru Bourgeois” illegal.
Now we are set for the third try – the “Reconnaissance de Cru Bourgeois.” The new classification, ratified in 2009, will be set by a panel made up of wine professionals – but with no chateau owners – who are at present selecting “benchmark” wines which will set the quality standard for all the 290 wines from chateaux which have applied for Cru Bourgeois status.
Forty wines were selected from the Medoc and Haut Medoc, as well as forty from the various communes (St. Julien, St. Estephe, Margaux, etc.) to be judged and scored as the benchmarks for rating the 290 chateaux. The same panel that is rating the benchmarks will rate the applicants.
This time the designation of Cru Bourgeois will be an assurance of quality, which will be assessed on a yearly basis by an independent organization. The new system will have only one category, as they hope to avoid the controversy associated with the prior Exceptionnels and Superieurs. The chateaux will have to adhere to production rules and independent quality testing in order to remain in the classification. Although the production rules are yet to be finalized, proposals will govern, among other things, barrel and vat capacity, and a guarantee of 18 months aging in barrel. The new classification, scheduled to be announced on September 23, 2010, has already drawn criticism. A group of chateaux (including well-known names such as Chateau Chasse Spleen, Chateau Potensac, and Chateau Les Ormes de Pez), that were part of the Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel ranking in 2003 have formed their own alliance, “Les Exceptionnels.”
Les Exceptionnels have stated that they will of course adhere to the standards of quality that brought them their original classification, but opined that the new system has gotten too complicated and does not necessarily guarantee quality.
There is also the question of expense - a 25 hectare (55 acre) property would need to invest in stainless steel tanks able to contain an extra 1,000 hectolitres (about 26, 500 gallons) of wine to ensure compliance with portions of the new regulations. These new vats alone would cost close to $250,000. If properties choose to increase barrel capacity, the cost will be far higher, to the tune of $800 - $1,000 per barrel.
Will the third time be the charm for the Cru Bourgeois classification?
Only time will tell. Stay tuned.