I know that may surprise and even disappoint a lot of people but it’s true. Whether or not that will have an effect on the quality or the price of champagne classified as Grand or Premier Cru remains to be seen. Like many things in Champagne, the truth is more complex than it may at first appear, and there is not much consensus about what might be the best way to proceed from now on. Perhaps that’s not surprising since there are various versions of how the system came into being in the first place so before discussing the current and future situation let’s take a step or two backwards to understand how we got to where we are now.
The origins of the Echelle des Crus (Quality Ladder)
In the middle ages, even before champagne was ever made, there were a few villages in Champagne such as Ay, Bouzy, Sillery and Cramantthat were famous for their still wine which was predominantly red. The wines were fairly light in body and colour and their popularity may have had to do more with the ease with which they could be transported along the River Marne to customers in Paris than their quality, but be that as it may, red wines from Champagne were reputedly more popular than those from Burgundy further south, strange though that may sound to us today.
The first official Echelle des Crus was established in 1911 and a ranking was given to each village. In those days the rankings varied from 100% right down to 22.55% (as you may just be able to see from this copy of a very old document). What’s more the entire Côte des Bar region ( Aube) was excluded because, at that time, it was not recognised as being part of Champagne.
The Aube was included in Champagne a few years later and by the end of the 20th century, perhaps to avoid offending anyone, or perhaps thanks to a general increase in quality standards, the minimum ranking had risen to 80%.
Out of the 320 grape-growing villages in Champagne just 17 are rated as being of 100% quality; they are classified as Grand Cru. On the next level are 41 villages given a rating of between 90-99% and classified as Premier Cru; below that are all the other villages which have been given a rating of between 80-89% without any particular name being applied to this category.
For the words Grand Cru to appear on a label all the grapes used to make the champagne in question must come from Grand Cru villages. Similarly a Premier Cru champagne must not contain any grapes from villages rated below 90%.
The purpose of the system was to establish the price that each grape grower would get for each kilo of his or her grapes. The 100% price was set by the governing body after negotiations between growers and buyers and each grower then received the percentage of that 100% price which corresponded with the rating of this vineyard.
That’s the way the grape prices were determined up until the early 1990s when, under pressure from the European Union, a free-market system was put in place.
In theory the ranking was made by taking into account a variety of factors such as soil, microclimate and exposure to the sun, in other words things that do not vary from one year to the next.
However some people question the basis of the original classification and maintain that, in reality, the determining factor that accounted for the rankings was purely and simply the proximity of the vineyard to the press house. Then, as now, it is important to press the grapes as soon as possible after picking to ensure good quality juice. As a result, so the story goes, those villages that were close to a pressing facility received a high ranking because they inevitably and consistently produced juice that was of a superior quality to grapes that had to be transported, by horse and cart in those days, from miles away.
Be that as it may, in one sense it is all academic now because in November 2010 the system was abolished following a directive from INAO ( The National Institute for Appellations Controlées). The reason for this, as far as I understand, was that the échelle system was too broad and had insufficient direct bearing on the quality of the wine produced ( see below).
That, you would have thought, would be that, but you would be wrong. The use of the terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru is still permitted as a historical notion allowed for reasons of ‘local, honest and long-standing practice’ but they should not be taken as, and are not meant to be, an official indicator of quality.
Where to now?
It’s not hard to understand the logic behind INAO’s decision.
It’s generally agreed in Champagne that wines from a good plot in one of the Grand Cru villages really are of higher quality than wines from ‘lesser’ villages. The problem is however , that unlike other regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux, the rankings of the various villages in Champagne apply to the entire village rather than to an individual vineyard, so there can be and there is, considerable variation in the quality of the plots within a single village or Cru, some of which comprise several hundred hectares. The exposure to the sun, the depth and composition of the soil and many other factors can be very different from one end of the village to the other and from the bottom of a slope to the top.
Consequently different wines made in a Grand Cru or indeed a Premier Cru village may vary widely in style and quality and in the absence of any official tasting of wines from these areas to ensure that each Champagne from a given classification measures up to a pre-determined standard of quality, a blanket classification such as the Echelle des Crus lacked the subtlety to take all the possible variations into account.
The same lack of precision lead some people to complain about the pricing of the grapes which also fails to take into account the plot-by-plot variations within any given village.
Still others say that the price paid for the grapes should reflect who is buying and for what purpose. This argument maintains that grapes purchased by one of the big houses to go into one of their prestige cuvées sold at several hundreds of dollars/pounds/euros per bottle should command a significant premium compared to grapes destined for a less famous brand.
The silver lining
It is probably fair to say that a complete revision of the classification system in Champagne is needed. Whether this will happen, or not, is much harder to predict and since the sums of money involved are very large, there are bound to be loud voices on all sides of the debate.
However there is always a silver lining for someone, somewhere and in this case it may just be the vignerons, especially those in La Vallée de La Marne, who grow (Pinot) Meunier.
For many years derided as a less ‘noble’ grape variety than either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay and barred from Grand Cru status, Meunier has been seen as something of a poor relation despite the protests of those who make it a speciality. They, of course, are not bothered at all by the abolition of the Echelle system and not slow to point out that they have been telling people for years that Meunier can produce great quality champagnes. Now at least there is no official system that says otherwise.