When you are a champagne drinker, you would have noticed that the labels on the bubbly and it can get pretty confusing. Usually on the bottles, the region of the champagne is indicated by words such as Grand or Premier. Certain labels have the word cru in it, which is a whole other meaning.
What is a cru?
Do you actually know what the term cru means? What about Grand Cru or Premier Cru? All these are common terms when it comes to champagne.
Cru is “a vineyard or group of vineyards, especially one of recognized quality”.
It actually actually means ‘growth’. To be more precise, it refers to a great or superior growing vineyard. The combination of soil, climate, altitude, aspect and variety create a synergy called cru.
The term cru is often used to indicate a specifically named and legally defined vineyard or ensemble of vineyards. It also refers to the wine (or bubbly) that are produced from such vines. This is where you get a category of champagne – by the cru it comes from. It also defines the levels of presumed quality of the wine.
There are more than 300 wine-producing villages in the region of Champagne. Of these, 17 are categorized as ‘Grand Cru’ and 44 are categorized as ‘Premier Cru’. Remaining territories have no cru status though they may yield exceptional grapes.
The term cru is used throughout France but it is not always applied in the same manner. In Italy and Germany, it is also used but with differences.
What is Grand Cru?
Grand cru refers to the quality of a particular vineyard or terrier in which the grapes grow. This is the highest and most well-respected wine classification within the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). The AOC is the governing board over the wines produced in Burgundy and Alsace, France.
If you come across the words ‘grand cru’ on your bottle of wine or champagne, it is guaranteed that the quality of grapes used is fantastic.
However, cru in different countries have different territorial meanings.
Crus in France
In Burgundy, the cru classification system is relatively simple. The best is Grand Cru and just a tier below is the Premier Cru followed by Village wine and Bourgogne. A high-quality vineyard, crus in Burgundy are often split into parcels owned by different wineries.
Every vineyard in Burgundy is classified into this hierarchy. Each of the 33 Grand Cru has its own title and only the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes are grown within their boundaries. Few appellations allow both. In Burgundy, Premier Cru wines are more inexpensive and often better in value though their long-term aging potential is typically less.
In Bordeaux, the term cru is applied in a different manner. The Grand Cru Classe is the best-known quality in this system and is tied to a specific chateau or estate rather than a vineyard.
It comprises only the left bank chateaus and estates in Medoc, Graves and Sauternes and is ranked from first to fifth growths. The first growths are called premier crus while the second through fifth growth crus are called crus classes.
On the right bank, Pomerol is not classified. However, St-Emilion has two chateau-based quality classifications.
The best quality is Premier Grand Crus Classes. There are eighteen of these. This is followed by Grands Crus Classes. There are 64 chateaus. Below that is the third category which is not classified.
Other parts of France
In other parts of France, cru refers to yet other different classifications. Confusing? Absolutely! However, this article aims to help you understand all the references for the word cru.
Alsace applies the term Grand Cru in a similar fashion to Burgundy. There are fifty-one vineyards that have been designated as Grand Cru. Wine from these vineyards can apply the term on its label. There are four grapes that are approved for use and different soil aspects must be taken into consideration before the term cru is applied.
In Beaujolais, cru is applied not to vineyards but to villages. There are a total of ten villages which include the more popular Morgon and Fleurie. All the wine produced in these villages are called Cru Beaujolais.
Like Beaujolais, Champagne also classifies whole villages as Grand Cru or Premier Cru.
Crus in Germany
In Germany, the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) is an association of elite German wine estates. It has its own vineyard classification system that is roughly the same as Burgundy. At the top is VDP. Grosse Lage (Grand cru) then VDP. Erste Lage (Premier Cru), VDP. Ortswein (village) and VDP. Gutswein (regional).
Crus in Italy
In Piedmont, Italy, Barolo and Barbaresco have mapped out their grand crus based on location. These vineyard delineations are part of the bylaws of Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCGs).
Sicily’s Etna DOC on the other hand, maps crus that follow old lava flow along Mount Etna. There is no official delineation as the region has only recently been revitalized for winemaking lately.
Grand Crus in Champagne
In the beginning, 12 villages received Grand cru status. In 1985, an additional five villages (Chouilly, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Oiry and Verzy) were promoted to Grand Cru. in Champagne, less than 9 percent of all the planted vineyard land have received a 100% Grand Cru rating.
The list on Grand crus in Champagne include:
Situated on the south side of the Montagne de Reims hill, this location is shared with the neighbouring Bouzy. This commune covers 1180 hectares of land. Vineyards in Ambonnay consist mostly of Pinot Noir grapes.
Avize is located to the southeast of Epernay and is a village on the Cote des Blancs slope. The commune covers 762 hectares and the vineyards are located around the village. There is a mix of Chardonnay and other types of grapes in Avize.
Ay is the largest of the villages of Champagne. It covers 1043 hectares which mostly contains Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grapes in Ay are often the ‘most powerful’ of Pinot Noirs wines in Champagne as they are on a lower altitude than those in Ambonnay and Bouzy.
The Beaumont-sur-Vesle commune is on 569 hectares. This village is located further away from the hillside than other Champagne villages.
Bouzy is on the south side of the Montagne de Reims hill, covering 626 hectares. Pinot Noir is mostly planted here and is one of the most powerful source of Pinot Noir wines.
Located to the immediate east of Epernay and just south of Marne, the Chouilly commune covers 1,612 hectares. The vineyards here are continuous with those in Epernay and contain almost exclusively Chardonnay.
This is one of the villages on the Cote des Blancs slope. Covering 536 hectares, vineyards are located on rather flat land and contain almost exclusively Chardonnay.
Located on the south side of the Montagne de Reims, the commune covers 1,217 hectares. The vineyards are continuous from those of Bouzy and a mix of the three main champagne grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier) are planted here.
The Mailly-Champagne grand cru is located in the middle of the slope on the north side of the Montagne de Reims hill. Total surface of the commune is 1,006 hectares. Vineyards are dominated by Pinot Noir.
Also another village on the Cote des Blancs slope, the commune covers 791 hectares. East-facing slopes dominate the village and a mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are planted here.
Oger is on the Cote des Blancs slope but here, the vineyards consist almost exclusively of Chardonnay. The commune covers 1,506 hectares.
Oiry is just south of the Marne river and the Oiry commune covers 1,076 hectares. Vineyards are continuous with those in Chouilly, Cramant and Acize. The vineyards here are planted with a mix of Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
This village is on flatter land below the Montagne de Reims slope. Covering 907 hectares, a mix of the three main grape varieties – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – as well as other varieties are planted here.
The Sillery village is located below the Montagne de Reims slope. Consisting of 920 hectares, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are planted on the vineyards in Sillery.
Down by the Marne river and the Marne canal, the Tours-sur-Marne commune covers 2,351 hectares. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir cover the vineyards.
Verzenay is on the middle of the slope on the northside of Montagne de Reims. A commune with a surface of 1,062 hectares, the vineyards are planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and other grapes.
Verzy is on the northeastern side of the Montagne de Reims. The commune covers 1,337 hectares. Vineyards in Verzy are mostly planted with pinot Noir.
Is Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyards better?
It is not clear cut which wine, whether developed from a grand cru or premier cru, is better. There are crossovers and the system is not static. It is therefore hard to prove one site’s superiority over another. This is also because wine appreciation is subjective and up to one’s individual palate. ‘
Sommeliers are of the opinion that to judge the quality of wine, either from grand cru or premier cru, you will need to taste the wine that is made from the same producer and vinified in the same general manner. Oak treatments and elevage change between producers, which makes a huge difference in the quality of wine.
Does cru affect the quality of champagne?
Cru is a matter of personal preference rather than measurable quality. Pierre Larmadier of Champagne Larmandeir-Bernier has admitted that while grand cru sites may possess the best terroirs, a great premier cru vineyard often yields better fruit than a grand cru vineyard.
In fact, there are producers of champagne that refuse to limit their champagnes to a single cru. Instead, a blend of grapes from a variety of territories across the cru spectrum is used. Therefore, it is not a guarantee that grand cru champagne is the best.
How do I choose between Grand Cru vs Premier Cru?
You do not have to. No one will judge you for favouring one cru over another as vineyard designation is not necessarily the best way to assess wine greatness. Be sure that you are getting the best quality wine when you choose a premier cru champagne or grand cru champagne.
The term cru refers to different locations in different countries. Whether you opt for grand cru, premier cru or no cru at all, let your taste buds instead of labels, be your guide. However, we would recommend that you try a Champagne from a Grand Cru at least once in your lifetime. You can request for one from a champagne club like Fizz Champagne Club and the sommelier will have great recommendations.