In honour of my late mother, I’ve been looking into the history and provenance of her favourite (and mine) drink, which was surprisingly interesting, so I’m spreading it over a couple of posts.
In my previous post, I mentioned some of the various villages in the different regions within Champagne and introduced the concept of grand cru and premier cru villages.
There are 320 villages in the Champagne region and under the historic system called the Échelle des Crus each village (not a specific vineyard or house) is classified based on a rating of 100% – 80%.
The history of the Cru system of classification
The classification of Champagne vineyards developed in mid-20th century as a means of setting the price of grapes grown through the villages of the Champagne wine region. Unlike the classification of Bordeaux wine estates or Burgundy Grand cru vineyards, the classification of Champagne is based on which village the vineyards are located. A percentile system (Échelle des Crus) acts as a pro-rata system for determining grape prices. Vineyards located in villages with high rates will receive higher prices for their grapes than vineyards located in villages with a lower rating. While the Échelle des Crus system was originally conceived as a 1-100 point scale, in practice, the lowest rated villages are rated at 80%. Premier crus villages are rated between 90 and 99 percent while the highest rated villages, with 100% ratings are Grand crus.
The system resulted from a battle royal between (grape) growers and (champagne) producers borne out of the fundamental business issue of supply and demand. A string of circumstances (including several years’ poor weather, poor vintages and the phylloxera epidemic) created a crisis in Champagne which culminated in a the champagne riots of 1910 and 1911 – the French love nothing more than a good protest!
The system isn’t without controversy, with many winemakers arguing it is not a direct measure of grape or wine quality. Many say having a cru classification applying to an entire village (rather than a vineyard as applies in Burgundy) doesn’t account for variances in terroir…..… but the classification system remains in place.
While the system no longer officially applies for setting grape prices (houses and growers again negotiate with each other), the classifications can still be used by champagne makers for labeling champagnes and marketing purposes.
So what does it all mean?
The logical conclusion is that all the best wines must then be made exclusively with grapes from Grand Cru villages. But this isn’t the case because Champagne is fundamentally a blended wine: blends of grape types, or years or vineyards. While often cuvée de prestige (top product) wines are made exclusively from grand cru villages, many of the great cuvée de prestige wines are made with blends including some grapes from premier cru villages.
Champagne growers are more likely to be single vineyard and if they have grand cru designation, they will label their wines accordingly.
There are two main classifications – grand cru and premier cru.
17 Grand Cru villages are rated at 100%. All the grand cru villages are in the three most regarded districts – nine in the Montagne de Reims, six in the Côte des Blancs and two in the Vallée de la Marne.
- Mailly Champagne
- Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
The 42 Premier Cru are rated 90-99% and the remaining 261 villages in Champagne France are rated between 80 and 89%.
I don’t know about you but I’m thinking a visit to the Champagne region is long overdue.