Understanding What Makes a French Grand Cru Great

Donal Morris portrait shot

I wouldn’t be the first to point out that wine labels can be incredibly confusing. My colleague James O’Connor wrote about the nuances of wine labels on this blog last year – How to Understand Wine Labels and Bottles More Easily.

In France, the labels can outline the region in which the wine was produced but do not always list the grapes used. There is much confusion between terms such as Grand and Premier, which are almost contradictory in that Grand is ‘great’ and Premier is ‘first’.

What I want to discuss here though is the description Grand Cru. This reference on a label can have different meanings across various French wine regions. This is what I hope to clarify for you in this post.

What Does Cru mean?

In the simplest terms, cru is a status term, indicating that the winery, vineyard or estate has met specific qualifications to use that term. More precisely, it references a great or superior growing site or vineyard, a concept linked to the French notion of terroir. Soil, climate, altitude, aspect and the right grape variety, create a synergy recognised as a cru.

Cru is the past participle of the verb croître, to grow. So, we can translate cru as ‘growth’. The concept is also employed in countries like Germany and Italy, but I am only going to concentrate on France in this post.

The term “Cru” first appeared in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. The classification divided the red and white wines of Medoc and Graves into five tiers based on price point.

Since then, other regions, such as Burgundy, Sauternes, Saint-Émilion and others have adopted their own version of this term. Which is why you should be careful when interpreting “Cru” on a wine label – a little inside knowledge might just help steer your expectations.

Grand Cru Corks
Photo by Jean-Luc Benazet on Unsplash

What is a Grand Cru?

Technically, a Grand cru is usually translated to “great growth”. As alluded to above though, how the term is used in the French wine industry, in practice, varies by region. I will explain, as best I can, how the different regions use the term.

First, here are two websites that formally outline the classifications in Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Vins de Bordeaux

Bourgogne Wines

What Makes Grand Cru Great?

It’ll be great because the wine comes from a superior growing site, as mentioned above. However, depending on where the term Grand Cru is used, it might be the top wine or the fourth in the hierarchy of classifications. Let’s look at each of the main areas in more detail.

Burgundy (Côte d’Or)

I will briefly mention Chablis below, but it produces white wines so distinct in style from those of central Burgundy that it is often treated as a region as such. I will also touch on Champagne, but I won’t delve into the Beaujolais area as it is treated as a sub-region of Burgundy.

Burgundy (Bourgogne in French) wines have long had devoted followers throughout the world. The wines come from several distinct sub-regions, each with its own particular character.

Four of these are located at the heart of Burgundy, in a narrow strip running for 75 miles (120km) between the towns of Dijon and Macon. From north to south they are the Cote d’Or (comprising the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune), the Cote Chalonnaise and the Maconnais.

If you have had a look at the Bourgogne Wines classification link (above) you will note that a hierarchy runs from top to bottom. Here in Green Acres we carry an extensive range of Burgundy wines. I’ll give an example of each in the hierarchy below.

  • Grand Cru (Domaine des Lambrays, Clos des Lambrays)
  • Premier Cru (Cecile Tremblay, Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Les Feussellottes)
  • Village Wine (Maison Henri Boillot Meursault)
  • Bourgogne (Domaine Marc Morey Bourgogne)

There are 31 grand cru vineyards, supplying 33 grand cru appellations (counting Corton as one site).

There are six monopole grand crus (French for ‘monopoly’ is an area controlled by a single winery). Not all grand cru wines are created equal, due to winemaking differences and because, even within an 8-ha (20-acre) vineyard, soil, drainage and shade can vary, as can the age and quality of the vines.

Chablis

There is one single Grand Cru in Chablis. The AOC was founded in 1938 and accounts for just two percent of Chablis wines. The appellation applies to a single stretch of Chardonnay vines that sit on a southwest-facing hillside overlooking the town of Chablis. There are seven separate vineyards, called climats. Good examples from our range would be Domaine Pinson Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos”  and Domaine Pinson Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaume.

Champagne

Unlike the Côte d’Or’s vineyards (or Bordeaux’s wine estates), in Champagne it is whole villages that are classified as grand cru or premier cru. The system, known as the Échelle des Crus (ladder of the growths) was originally established in 1911 as a fixed pricing mechanism for the supply of grapes by growers to the Champagne houses.

Today, grand cru vineyards account for less than 9 percent of the total planted area in Champagne. One of our own favourites and good example of the above would be AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly mag 15.

Anne, Antoine, and Christian at Champagne AR Lenoble June 2019
Anne, Antoine, and Christian at Champagne AR Lenoble

Bordeaux

In Bordeaux, the term Grand Cru is applied differently, referring to a single château or estate. I will split Bordeaux up into two segments: 1) Saint-Émilion and 2) Médoc, Graves and Sauternes.

Saint-Émilion

The top three levels of the hierarchy here is specific to this area. With examples from our range, they are:

  • Premier Grand Cru Classés ‘A’ (Chateau Ausone)
  • Premier Grand Cru Classés ‘B’ (Château Bélair-Monange)
  • Grand Cru Classés (Château Clos Saint Martin)
  • Grand Cru (Chateau Barrail du Blanc)

You’ll note that in this instance the term Grand Cru is a generic region name, the opposite to Burgundy. Yes, there are certain AOC rules that the wines conform to, but they are not included in the formal classification of Saint-Émilion. There are now four Premier Grands Crus Classés “A”, 14 Premiers Grands Crus Classés “B”, and 64 Grands Crus Classés. These are reviewed approximately every six-to-ten years.

Ausone, Saint-Emilion

Médoc, Graves and Sauternes

The best Médoc wines were originally organised into a five-tier group of “Les Grands Crus Classés”. Thus, in this way the four (now five) top-level wines could be referred to as the Premiers Grands Crus. An obvious example would be Château Margaux in the Médoc plus Château Haut-Brion in the Graves.

However, the word “grand” is often omitted, with the individual properties tending to be referred to merely as 1st to 5th Growths, or collectively the Cru Classés or Classed Growths. The caveat here is that at more than 160 years old the system is hardly an accurate picture of current quality levels.

The Graves district is an exception in the discussion of grand crus. The region introduced its own single-tier classification for red and/or white wines in 1959, with 16 properties categorized simply as Crus Classés. All the properties lie within the newer Pessac-Léognan appellation.

The top sweet wines of Sauternes were classified in 1855 as Premier and Deuxième Crus (First and Second Growths), with Château d’Yquem picked out as a Premier Cru Supérieur.

Château_d'Yquem
Château_d’Yquem

Conclusion

The thing is not to get too hung-up on the various uses of the description – Grand Cru. It is only at a high level of investment/tasting that one might encounter the top ranked wines.

Although, if you would really like to get your hands on one of the examples mentioned in this piece – we have them all in stock in Green Acres. Just give me a shout. There are many exceptions that I could have thrown into the mix above but, enough is enough.

I hope you now have some idea of the Grand Cru classification, its complexity and how the term is applied differently across some of the main French wine regions. The thing is that any Grand Cru from anywhere is going to be a good wine tasting experience. It just helps if you know that in different regions it refers to different interpretations.

One last thing – did you know that we have a Green Acres mobile app? Now you can bring us home in your pocket. Book tables, browse wines, learn of special offers, check events, connect with us, earn loyalty rewards and much more.  We would really appreciate if you would click on either of the tabs below to download for free.

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Talk to you soon, Donal.

wine bottle and glass silhoutte