Is the cru system the 'cru'cial factor in defining quality?
I first wrote these words some years ago but felt the argument was still very much valid following an exchange of views on a champagne social media forum.
The Échelle des Crus vineyard rating system was introduced in the early to mid twentieth century to categorise individual grape producing villages “crus” in Champagne, providing them with a percentile score.
The intention of the system was to ensure growers received a fair price for their grapes. However, since its inception just 17 villages have received the 100% rating and therefore classification as Grand Cru. Forty-four villages have attained a rating between 90% - 99% gaining Premier Cru status, even if this is just for their Chardonnay or Pinot Noir variety. According to our original Larmat Vinicole Atlas dated from 1944, the cru system descended as low as 6th Cru with a rating less than 50% in an area of the Vallée de la Marne farmed by the excellent biodynamic producer Françoise Bedel who is producing truly wonderful cuvées.
Each harvest-time a price was set for a kilo of grapes and the villages received their percentage of that price according to their rating on the Échelle des Crus. For example, the Premier Cru village of Écueil was rated at 90%; therefore growers received 90% of the set price for their grapes.
Whilst we do not know to what extent this practice exists today (we imagine contracts between the Négoces and Récoltants relate more to quality), it does seem that despite its clear unfairness and outdated inadequacies, much is still made of the Cru system – even by champagne houses and producers, with many displaying Grand Cru or Premier Cru on their labels.
How an entire village can be given the same rating when it consists of multiple plots with a magnitude of differing geology, farmed differently by people with different methods and skill levels is clearly no longer suitable for a modern, World-class wine producing region. Surely the fairest system would be to rate each plot individually according to its own merits and the manner in which it is tended, more akin to that in Alsace? Only then can the Cru system truly maintain its validity and integrity.
The overriding factor which determines grape quality must surely be the vision, endeavour, methods and skill of the grower? Yes geology can play its part but it is not the single defining factor. Likewise, a plot may have everything in its favour and deemed as Grand Cru but farmed poorly will yield poor quality grapes.
To have no producers of Meunier or any producers from villages in the southern regions of Champagne: Côte des Bar, Sézannes or Montgueux awarded the highest classification is quite frankly, insane. For most enthusiasts, the Cru system will make no difference to their champagne buying preferences but for other buyers who aren’t quite as knowledgeable, it can be the defining factor. We have come across many people on social media who eschew any producer who isn’t rated as Grand Cru, some even turning their noses up at Premier Cru. With so many World-class producers and stunning wines falling outside of the Grand and Premier Cru rating, surely it is time for a change?