If you are a frequent drinker of Champagne (back again to my favourite wine topic) then perhaps you are already in the know about the cru classes. For those who do not sip this delightful nectar on the regs, you might not know what a cru is and why should you?
In your bottle of bubbly is wine, made from fermented grape juice. Excellent, you exclaim as you sip your champers. But you already knew that. The grapes in that bottle are most likely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuiner or any combo thereof. These grapes all come from a vineyard, where they grow. Yes, you say, thats obvious.
Now, the grapes, depending on where they are grown are classified according to the quality of the terroir. This original classification was used to make a pricing structure, known as the èchelle des crus. Makes sense right? some grapes are better than others! The scale was a percentage scale, with the best grapes listed at 100% and all others as a percentage thereof. This was established by the producers and growers of the Champagne region and a committee was formed to set fair prices for grapes based on the quality of the vineyards in all 318 villages. This would stop the larger Maisons from employing dirty purchasing tactics that would disadvantage the smaller producers, as they had been known to do! Cheeky.
In the original classification there were grapes ranked as low at 22%, shocking I know! However this mimimum level began to rise, and at the last count the lowest rank was 80%.
I know it seems like a lot of number and percentages to remember, but you dont really need to know all this, its strictly FYI only. You only need concern yourself with grand and premier cru, which i’ll explain more below.
The èchelle des crus no longer officially exists in Champagne, but the terms grand cru and premier cru are still used today to refer to the villages catagorised as such in the past. These terms still hold some sway when it comes to choosing your bubble but should not necessarily be relied on as a quality indicator.
So, What are the cru classes and why do we as champagne drinkers GAF?
Grand Cru: These are villages where the grapes qualify at 100%. They are considered the creme de la creme of the champagne grapes found in only 17 villages: Ambonnay, Ay, Avize, Beaumont sur Vesle, Bouzy, Chouilly (white only), Cramant, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger, Oiry, Puisieulx, Sillery, Tours sur Marne (Red grapes only), Verzenay and Verzy. This totals less than 9% of total vineyards planted in the region.
Premier Cru: These grapes sit at 90-99% in the scale, and there are approx 44 villages including; Bisseuil, Chigny les Roses, Dizy, Epernay, Ludes, Mareuil sur Ay, Tauxieres and Vertus.
Non Cru: These grapes are below 89% but all above 80%. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the Champagne produced from these grapes, they did not meet the requisite quality indicators at the time. And since the scale is no longer in practice, these grapes may have improved since the èchelle des crus but there is no way of measuing this now.
As I mentioned before, you wont always see the Cru listed on the bottles, as many champagnes are blends of grapes from different parcels and they can be a mix of all the crus. Also, in order to keep up with demand, larger maisons may need to buy grapes in. We have been told that many smaller growers and producers sell thier regular grapes, and thier second and even third press juice so that production levels can be maintained. However, many producers who take pride in where their grapes come from, especially if they are 100% grand cru, will show it on thier label. Despite the èchelle des crus being defunct, for many producersit is still an indication of quality and a reflection of thier hard work and the expressive terroir. When you do see it on a label, pick it up and give it a try.
This classification does not just exist in Champagne, it is also present in Bordeaux. Like Champagne these deserve a post of their own, so keep checking back because im already working on it!