Bordeaux wine aficionados will soon find on cru bourgeois labels, a further piece of information – cru bourgeois exceptionnelle, cru bourgeois superieur and cru bourgeois. This classification differentiation was implemented in 2003 after years of study, and scrutiny of 490 chateaux, 247 of which are deemed worthy of classification.
Bordeaux the largest quality-wine producing region in the world with 120 000 hectares of vineyards and an average production of 850 million bottles, has thousands of chateaux. In France’s wine producing regions a château is simply an estate, which may be surrounding an imposing building, or simply a winery, and should not the thought of as a castle as most English speaking people envision.
The grape composition of Bordeaux vineyards is: merlot (50 per cent); cabernet sauvignon (26 per cent); cabernet franc (10 per cent); Semillon (8 per cent); sauvignon blanc (4 per cent); and petit verdot and others (2 per cent).
In Medoc cabernet sauvignon enjoys prominence over all others, whereas in St Emilion and Pomerol merlot dominates.
In Bordeaux and in many other regions of France and elsewhere in the world the soil composition and mezzo-climate dictate grape selection.
Cabernet sauvignon is generally considered to be an excellent variety capable of producing wines of finesse, elegance, and worthy of cellaring for a long time pending on vintage
In 1855 Napoleon III asked the organizers of the Exposition Universelle in Paris to publish a list classifying Medoc chateaux according to their fame, prices fetched, and consistency of their wines.
Bordeaux wine brokers, always very influential in the trade, obliged by compiling a list according to prices fetched over a long period by different chateaux.
In those days there were no Appellation d’origine controlee rules and regulation, and Bordeaux wine meant red wine from Medoc, the left bank of the Gironde. St Emilion, Pomerol and others were of little or no importance in the trade.
The list was composed of grand cru broken down into first to fifth growths (cru) and contained a total of 60 chateaux. Since then with the notable exception of Château Mouton Rothschild no changes were made, although many connoisseurs call for one from time to time.
Then came cru bourgeois, followed cru artisanal.
In Bordeaux like everywhere else, estates are bought and sold. Quality changes with every owner, mostly for the better, but not always. In some cases a chateau known for consistently fine wines declines and starts producing wines inconsistent from year to year regardless of vintage. Occasionally a winery and/or a winemaker deliberately emphasize quantity over quality, which should, at least in theory lead to declassification of the property. There are, however, no such provisions except in the rules and regulations of St Emilion and Pomerol classifications, which were undertaken in the 1950’s.
The 1855 classification took only Medoc properties into account, with the exception of Château Haut Brion in what is today Pessac-Leognan.
Needless to say, many chateau owners with properties classified bourgeois were dissatisfied and complained.
The wine trade and regulations governing all its aspects work at a snail’s pace and so it took close to a century-and-a-half to classify or establishing a tier system of hundreds of chateaux within it.
The system was based on vineyard maintenance, quality consistency, and cleanliness of the winery during the period of 1995 – 1999. Teams of inspectors visited each chateau, visually assessed all points above, and evaluated the property’s wine organoleptically.
Out of the 247-cru bourgeois classifieds châteaux nine were deemed to comply with established criteria to be called cru exceptionelle:
They are: Chateau Chasse-Spleen, Mouliateau Haut-Marbuzet, St. Estephe
Chateau Labegorce-Zede, Soussans
Chateau Ormes de Pez, St. Estephe
Chateau Pez, St. Estephe
Chateau Phelan Segur, St. Estephe
Chateau Potensac, Ordonnac
Chateau Poujeaux, Moulis
Chateau Siran, Labarde
All of the above are fine, dependable chateaux considering the taste of their wines, and may even be very close in taste to 5th growth wines in the 1865 classification, selling for more than double of cru bourgeois exceptionelle.
The second tier cru superieur lists 87 properties including Chateau d’Angludet, Chateau Beau Site, Chateau Cambon la Pelouse, Château Brillette, Chateau Meyney and Château Beaumont.
The third tier cru bourgeois consists of 151 properties. Some of them are – Chateau Arcin, Chateau Belac, Chateau Bel Air, Chateau Capbern Gasqueton, Chateau Fontis, Chateau Lafon, Chateau Lalande and Chatau Galiane.
When buying Bordeaux wine consumers should always consider the vintage. In good vintages all chateaux produce fine wines. It is in poor vintages that classified estates produce better wines due to their care in vineyards, low yields, sorting tables, and winemaking techniques.
For my money, 2003 cru bourgeois exceptionelle is every bit as good as a 5th growth 1855 classified wine, and even the second label of a 4th growth.