In fact when you’re thinking of buying a bottle of champagne you really need to know four things about it that will give you a good idea of what it will taste like and avoid you wasting your money on a bottle that you don’t like, and may not be of the best quality.
The first part of this series was all about which different grapes varieties had been used to make the champagne
Well, the second is all about the quality of what’s gone into the bottle in the first place. Let me explain.
Making champagne is a bit like cooking : start with the best possible ingredients and you’ve got a better chance of producing a meal that’s memorable. It’s not a guarantee mind you, because you can still mess things up, but it’s a great place to begin. The same sort of thing is true in Champagne too.
In Champagne there are some 320 different villages where grapes are grown, but they don’t all produce the same quality grapes. In fact there are three levels of quality and each village has been placed in one of these three categories meaning that any of the grapes grown in the vineyards surrounding that particular village are also given the same quality rating.
The classifications date back to the beginning of the 1900s and even though, in theory at least, the classifications can be changed, in practice that almost never happens because the ranking depends mainly on what’s called the microclimate.
The microclimate is all about things such as the exposure of the vineyards towards the sun, the type of soil, shelter from the wind etc. and as you can tell, these don’t alter from one year to the next, not even from one decade to the next.
Only 17 villages are ranked as Grand Cru – the cream of the crop – 41 are Premier Cru, the second rank and all the rest are Cru.
The better the grapes, the higher the demand, so in general the grapes from a Grand Cru village will cost more than grapes from a Premier Cru village and those from a Premier Cru village will cost more than those from a simple Cru.
So what does this mean for you?
Well, finding the words Grand Cru or Premier Cru on the label is a very useful pointer and it’s one of the very few things about champagne that you can learn just by looking at the label.
Henriet Bazin Rosé A champagne made entirely from Grand Cru grapes will have the words Grand Cru on the label. If you see the words Premier Cru on the label this means that the grapes came from no lesser quality vineyards than Premier Cru. If you can’t find either Grand Cru or Premier Cru on the label that usually means that the champagne contains some proportion of grapes from the third ranking Cru vineyards.
In that case you can’t tell from the label if there’s a lot or a little of the Cru rated grapes in the blend because as soon as you include any grapes at all from a lower category, the entire blend gets classified as being in the lower category.
It's not impossible of course to make very good champagne using grapes that are neither Grand or Premier Cru – for example, almost none of the better known brands are either Grand Cru or Premier Cru – so don't rule out a champagne just because you can't find these magic words on the label.
On the other hand, if you're just learning about champagne, then the words Grand Cru and Premier Cru are useful and easily-understandable points of reference to help you gain some experience and confidence before you start getting into the finer details.