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Bordeaux takes a tiny step.

(Editors Note: This dispatch from Susan Low on the upcoming reclassification of the cru bourgeois system in Bordeaux should be good reason for Californians to breath a sigh of relief that we remain blissfully unclassified.)

Being a journalist, I'm very popular with the mailman. I get sacks of mail each week--sometimes in the shape of a bottle, more often in the shape of a press release. The contents of those bottles are highly unpredictable; some wines are exciting and delicious, others depressingly dull.

The contents of those press releases, though, are never depressing. Over-excited PRs hyperventilate about all that's latest, greatest and absolutely fabulous in the wine world. There's never a hint of the mediocrity or ordinariness that defines the lives of us lesser mortals. Even sunless, monsoon-addled vintages range from average at worst to exceptional at best. Every initiative is "bold," every new day brings a "breakthrough."

Am I being cynical? Hell, no. I'd love to live in that world; I just wonder what color the sky is there. Okay, so I'm a bit cynical. Which is why the initial bluster surrounding Bordeaux's latest initiative--the official classification of the crus bourgeois, set to be announced at Bordeaux's Vinexpo in June 2003--sets a few alarm bells ringing. But, maybe I shouldn't be critical. Maybe this is A Good Thing. Just maybe Bordeaux is at last waking up to the calls for greater consistency and quality that the trade has been demanding.

After all, the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois is attempting to give the name cru bourgeois some meaning. They're planning to reinstate the hierarchy that existed when the wines were first classified in 1932 by re-introducing a tiered system of cru bourgeois superieur wines and cru bourgeois exceptionnel wines in addition to the plain old cru bourgeois wines. There's also evidence that the Syndicat is tightening up the rules; all producers wanting to use the name cru bourgeois will first have to submit their wines for tasting by a panel.

What's The Point?

Yet, I'm still suspicious. Much in the way that world governments have found that they can't legislate morality, the French must surely realize that they can't legislate quality into existence--not even with their omniscient appellation d' origine controlee scheme. But is that really the point of the exercise anyway?

This is not the first time that the crus bourgeois have had a re-shuffle. The first attempt to put Bordeaux's lesser-known chateaux into a meaningful context came about in 1932. This first classification included 444 chateaux--six at the top-level crus bourgeois exceptionnel, 99 crus bourgeois superieur and 339 plain old crus bourgeois.

In 1966, rankings were redefined by the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois, and by the time of the last big cru bourgeois re-shuffle, in 1978, there were 128 chateaux listed. Of these, 18 were crus grand bourgeois exceptionnels, 41 were crus grand bourgeois and 68 were plain crus bourgeois.

The reason for the decline in numbers is largely down to economics. Two World Wars fought extensively on French soil and the long period of economic decline that followed took their toll on the numbers.

Another turning point came in 1978 when the European Community (as it was then called) decided that the terms "grand" and "exceptionnel" were meaningless and could no longer be used. From then on, all crus bourgeois, regardless of aspirations or quality, were just crus bourgeois, plain and simple.

According to industry observer Dewey Markham, Jr., a New Yorker living in Bordeaux and author of a book about Bordeaux's classification systems, that ruling "opened the floodgates for people outside the Medoc to use the term." For "outside the Medoc," read "Bourg and Blaye"--regions that the Medocaines traditionally treat with supercilious disdain.

Quality Varies

Certainly, quality within the cru bourgeois ranking varies from excellent to very poor. With this latest reclassification, the Syndicat seems determined to get it right and to give the classification teeth.

So how will the Syndicat try to achieve their aims?

Chateaux wishing to use the name cru bourgeois first have to apply to the Syndicat, at a cost of FF3,000 ($435). The property must submit various sorts of information about the property, from historical records to vinification methods. Criteria for inclusion will be the terroir, the quality (chateaux have to submit samples of their wines from the six vintages 1994 to 1999, which will be tasted by the committee), standards of viticulture and vinification, bottling conditions, consistency of quality and, somewhat cryptically, "reputation." Price will not be a direct factor here, although there is a correlation between price and reputation.

Other criteria, though, are less clear-cut. For example, will chateaux now using the name cru bourgeois for their second wines still be allowed to continue to do so?

Will each chateaux have to have its own cellar? If so, where does that leave cooperatives? And what about properties such as Les Ormes de Pez, which is made by Lynch-Bages? As it stands at the time of writing, second wines will no longer be able to use the name cru bourgeois (although that decision may change). Cooperatives that keep the grapes of each property separate will be able to use the name (providing the quality is good enough). And Les Ormes de Pez, after a bit of political wrangling, will be allowed to retain the name cru bourgeois, that decision having been "grandfathered in" in 1993.

The committee will include 18 members, made up of brokers, negociants, cru bourgeois Syndicat members and at least one faculty member from the Bordeaux School of Enology. As in Saint-Emilion, the classification will be reviewed every 10 to 12 years. Applicants who are not deemed up to scratch will not be allowed to use the name cru bourgeois on their labels and will have to wait until the next review to reapply.

By reinstating quality terms such as exceptionnel and superieur, says Dominique Hessel, president of the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois, the aim is to "try to bring order to the cru bourgeois system and to give it valor." He believes that the three-tiered system will encourage producers to focus on quality and to try to work their way up through the ranks. "Emulation," believes Hessel, is the key. "Once other producers see how well their neighbors are doing, the others will want to folow suit."

Hessel sees a benefit for the consumer, too. "The idea is that if (consumers) see ordinary, superieur and exceptionnel, that will be indicative of quality levels," he says.

The Name Itself

There is much of value here, yet the ensuing re-classification is not without its shortcomings. At the most basic level, there's the name itself. Let's face it, if a classification wants to imbue itself with a sense of "valor," the name "cru bourgeois" just ain't going to do it. The name itself, at least to Anglo-Saxon ears, has a pejorative ring to it. It does in French, too. So why not choose something more strident, more, well, macho? It turns out that the Syndicat did consider changing the name, but despite spending a few weeks scratching their heads, they couldn't come up with anything better. So bourgeois it remains.

Semantics aside, there are other potential banana skins, too. A basic one is that despite its "official" status, the term cru bourgeois will only be available to members of the "club," the Syndicat, or to those properties that were part of the official classification in 1932. So, if your name's not on the door, you're not getting beyond the velvet rope, however good your wine might be. Obviously, such a system is easily undermined if the quality of the "outsiders" wine is of better quality or better repute than "the club members." (Think of Italy's DOCG-ducking Super Tuscan vini da tavola, for example.) In fact, this is not a new problem. Since the 1960s, some chateaux have made the decision not to label their wines as cru bourgeois in the hopes that a reclassification of the entire Bordeaux appellation would take place and that they would be allowed into the charmed circle of classed growths.

Another problem is that, commendable as the tasting element of the selection process is, the "in or out" decision will be based on a single tasting, rather than a continuing program of tasting. Effectively, the quality of the wine will be ignored until the time rolls around for the next classification.

Equally, the tiered system will have to be tightly regulated if the terms superieur and exceptionnel are to have any meaning. The danger is that the system, as in Saint-Emilion, will become top-heavy, with too many exceptionnels and too few ordinary crus bourgeois to maintain the pyramid structure. Hessel is not swayed by this argument.

"There is no danger of that happening," he says. "If the quality is good enough, they will earn the name exceptionnel. The danger would be if the level of the quality isn't good enough," he says.

Yet, not all such producers are behind the initiative. At a dinner in Margaux last November to launch the initiative, several producers that I spoke to (none of whom wanted to go on the record) were grumbling about the re-shuffle. A substantial proportion believe that the new classification is mere bluster and will do little to improve quality or consumer image.

A few are more in favor of a Bordeaux-wide classification. They have a point, too. If handled correctly, a large-scale Bordeaux reclassification could address problems with the existing 1855 classification of the Medoc and quality issues with the Saint-Emilion classification. Pomerol, which has never been classified, could be brought in, and those crus bourgeois that are of good enough quality could be brought in on the same terms.

Looked at in this Bordeaux-wide context, the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois does seem to be waving their arms around in flamboyant fashion to a chorus of hot air; but is it just a case of much ado about nothing? Yes and no.

Dewey Markham believes that the new classification is a commercial tool. "It will help Bordeaux sell more wine," he says. "It's a sales tool the same way that the 1855 classification was a sales tool." That's an interesting point, and not one without merit. After all, the whole point of PR is to generate more cash. But I wonder if Bordeaux is making the mistake, once again, of doing too much about too little--or missing "la foret for les arbois" as the masters of spin might put it.

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(Susan Low covers the global wine scene from London and is Wines & Vines European Correspondent. She can be contacted at edit@winesandvines.com.)
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Title Annotation:classification of crus bourgeois
Author:Low, Susan
Publication:Wines & Vines
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:1869
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