Highest Cru Bourgeois classification in seven years

A total of 278 chateaux received Cru Bourgeois classification for the 2014 vintage. For publication in the week of 26 September 2016.

A long Indian summer combined with good viticultural practices boosted the 2014 vintage in Bordeaux. This explains why 278 Cru Bourgeois châteaux, the highest number in recent years, were included in the classification announced last week.

The classification was officially released in the UK on September 22 at a tasting at the British Academy, a beautiful location with its bay windows overlooking The Mall in central London. The tasting involved 182 of the 278 châteaux.

The industry described the 2014 vintage as “classic” — code for a year that was neither great nor terrible. It’s important to know the quality of the vintage because this factor influences how long one should cellar the wines.

Because of the tannins most of the 2014 wines I tasted were unapproachable. This is the type of tannin my dentist smiles about each time we meet; the kind that strips enamel off teeth. Around the room, as people spoke and smiled, one could see tongues and teeth of black-red hue.

Tannin levels determine when these Bordeaux blends are able to be drunk for optimum enjoyment. Tasting them young is tough work; tough on the teeth and tough on the imagination, in trying to find descriptors beyond “grippy” and “astringent”. Some offered pungent aromas of black fruits and promises of delight, provided one is patient.

For the 2014 vintage most analysts suggest a minimum of six years from year of production, so we need to wait at least four more years. If you must drink them sooner, make sure you find tannin-friendly food. Ideally one should wait almost a decade before opening this vintage.

Another factor in determining when to drink is the region. The 278 classified this year came from seven AOCs in the Médoc: Haut-Médoc, Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis, Margaux, Pauillac and Saint-Estephe. The last two probably need longer than the others so you could open them from, say, 2225 onwards. An eighth AOC, Saint-Julien, is usually included but was not for this vintage.

The Cru Bourgeois du Médoc produced about 30 million bottles in 2014, which represents about a third of the Médoc’s production. They select the best from their production each year, which explains why quantities vary so much. The 2014 vintage did well compared with previous years. In 2008, 243 châteaux were chosen for a total of 25 million bottles (2009: 246 châteaux and 32 million; 2010: 260 and 32 million; 2011: 256 and 28 million; 2012: 276 and 29 million; 2013: 251 and 20 million). Data came from the Medoc Wine Council, the Conseil des Vins du Medoc.

On a historic note, the first official classification of the Cru Bourgeois du Medoc occurred in June 2003. It selected 247 châteaux out of the 490 candidates.

Châteaux that seek to be included in the Cru Bourgeois submit samples for blind tasting between March and July about two years after harvest. Wines are judged by teams of professional tasters, themselves monitored by an independent body, the Bureau Veritas. Wines receive a score from six individual judges. A score given to a prospective châteaux is compared against a representative sample for that specific vintage. If a wine scores the same or higher than the sample it becomes classified as Cru Bourgeois.

The leaders of the Cru Bourgeois intend to introduce a new hierarchy by 2020: Cru Bourgeois Supérieur or Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel above the base level Cru Bourgeois. These will be judged on quality, environmental standards and fame. Almost 80 per cent of members agreed in principle to the new classification at a meeting in Bordeaux in mid September.

Assuming the hierarchy is implemented, Cru Bourgeois châteaux will be able to apply to be upgraded. Estates will need to re-apply every five years once they receive a higher status.

Clive Coates MW, an acknowledged world expert on Bordeaux, has penned some strong words on the system in recent years. In Decanter in February 2015 he concluded that one category “that of simple, rock-bottom cru bourgeois” was absurd. “Anyone who has tried to get to grips with the various classifications of the Médoc crus bourgeois … will have seen that all too frequently much time and effort on the part of the Association of Crus Bourgeois – and the brokers and other experts they have persuaded to help them pronounce on what category a property is entitled to – have come to nothing.

“No sooner has a list been revised than the lawyers creep in, pointing out vested interests here, unfairness there, and deep-set flaws in general. So, all too often, the new classification is kicked into limbo, the old one is declared out of date, and all those proprietors who hoped that their dedication would be rewarded by an upgrade have their hopes dashed.”

In terms of prestige, Cru Bourgeois sits just below the Fifth Growths and often represents good value for money. In 1855 Emperor Napoleon III asked Bordeaux wine traders to categorise all wines from the left bank of the Garonne River. Bordeaux is built on a bend of the river, which divides into the right bank to the east and left bank in the west. The emperor’s command produced the famous 1855 Classification which ranked wines in importance from First to Fifth Growths, or crus.

Three in five bottles of Cru Bourgeois are sold in France. Of the 40 per cent exported China (including Hong Kong), the United States, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Japan represent the biggest markets. The markets in China and the US are growing most quickly.

Perhaps because of the problems with fake wines in mainland China, in 2010 the Cru Bourgeois introduced a sticker on every bottle to guarantee authenticity and origin. The sticker contains the Cru Bourgeois logo – the letters CB in bright blue on a black background – along with a unique code allocated to each bottle. Consumers scan a QR code on the sticker with their smartphones. This connects to a web site (www.crus-bourgeois.com) that provides information about the wine and the châteaux.

Uptake has been strong recently: Three quarters of all scanning of stickers has occurred in the past two years. About a third of all scans take place during the end-of-the-year holiday period.

Words: 985

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