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The Rise of the Grape. Adventures in Rediscovery

Whether it’s down to adventurous wine enthusiasts or those who are tired of the same old wines there has been a resurgence in interest in the world’s lesser known grapes. So are you missing out on wines made with grapes you’ve never even heard of? You could be . . .

Rare Castets
Rare Castets grapes

Consumer fatigue is a well known problem – just look what happened to Chardonnay. We may fall in love with popular styles but they can soon become repetitive and we end up bored of them. However thanks to a combination of different factors incredible wines are being made from endangered grapes being rescued from the critical list. There are plenty of rare and obscure grapes out there that have been saved from extinction by passionate and pioneering wine makers. Many of these grapes are capable of producing fantastic wines in these hands . . . and why not? They did so in the past!

Most wine lovers don’t know that the grapes we are used to today are the survivors of a great disaster that wiped out Europe’s grapes 160 years ago. Before Europe’s vineyards were devastated many grapes that we haven’t heard of today were used to make wines.

Once a solution to the crisis was found scores of grape varieties disappeared as wine makers hastily replanted with grafted vines that were a) readily available b) easier to grow and c) produced a reliable cash crop. Sadly a lot of great grape varieties got lost in the rush.

The Great Wine Blight aka the Phylloxera Epidemic

The great wine blight was caused by a variety of aphid known as grape phylloxera that originated in North America. It’s thought that the aphid was accidentally carried across the Atlantic to Europe in the late 1850s by plant collectors and wine makers importing American grapevines. The aphid was first identified in France around 1863 by the botanist Jules Emile Planchon and by 1889 up to 9/10ths of all European vineyards had been destroyed by the bug..

Over 160 years ago wines were made with grapes we haven't heard of today
Over 160 years ago wines were made with grapes we haven’t heard of today

There is no cure for grape phylloxera (even today) but there was a solution. French colonists in America had watched the grapevines they had brought with them die and it soon became common knowledge that European vines would not grow in American soil. They therefore resorted to growing the native American grapevines instead of the vines they had brought with them from home. They didn’t know it back then but the American vines were resistant to the bug. Working with Planchon and the American horticulturist Thomas Volney Munson, entomologist Charles Valentine Riley grafted French vines onto resistant American rootstock from grapevines in Texas. This technique worked and it saved the European grapes.

200 year old vines
200 year old vines

The Survivors

There are European grapes that, despite the odds, survived the blight and there are pockets of them dotted throughout France. Chateau Haut Bailly is an example in Pessac Leognan, Bordeaux. Over 15% of their vines are ancient, pre-phylloxera stock. Domaine Plageoles is another vineyard specialising in wines made from historical grape varieties that survived in Gaillac and Bollinger in Champagne also possess pre-phylloxera vines.

A famous plot of surviving vines lies at Plaimont in Saint Mont, Gascony. These are very old, non-grafted vines that grow in 10 metre deep sandy oils. The plot contains some of the oldest vines in France, some are believed to be over 200 years old, giving new meaning to the term ‘vielles vignes’ (old vines)! The plot was declared a national historical monument in 2012 and holds a unique collection in France (around 116 different, rare grape varieties) and this botanical heritage is now attracting attention from researchers, scientists and vintners alike.

What’s remarkable is that these vines give a glimpse into viticulture hundreds of years ago, and they have preserved varietals long since forgotten. Added to this are over 30 unknown varieties – their names lost long ago – discovered abandoned, yet still thriving, in deserted plots.

These vines are of vital importance as they hold the genetic keys to today’s grapes and can help winegrowers of the future. As the climate changes the old varieties have qualities that may come back into the fore and we might be drinking wines made from grapes named Arrat, Canaril, Aouillat, Chacolis, Miousap, Claverie, Morrastel and Morenoa in the not too distant future!

Gouleyant - a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and the rare Loin de l'Oeil grape
Gouleyant – a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and the rare Loin de l’Oeil grape – £9.99

The Adventurers

It’s not all about preservation; wine makers are rapidly replanting rare, old grape varieties and new discoveries are coming to light on a regular basis. Liber Pater is probably the most well known example of a modern wine maker using old grape varieties. This is a premium vineyard in Graves that set about replanting rare grape vines using propagation from their own pre-phylloxera, ungrafted rootstock. Sadly they had their vineyard vandalised last week. The vines were a historical treasure and included varieties that existed in Bordeaux 200 years ago: Castets, Mancin and Pardotte. You may not have heard of these grapes before but the wines they go into can fetch up to 3,000 euros a bottle!

Of course you don’t have to splash out on expensive wines to be adventurous – there are many small producers who make amazing artisan wines from forgotten grapes. If you are fed up with the same old wines and want to discover some new gems the choice is varied and it’s growing annually.

So, how adventurous are you? If you have fallen in love with a new discovery please let me know!

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Bargain Bordeaux and Best Wine Deals – Thinking ‘Merlot’ Outside of the Box

‘Where to buy the best Merlot?’ is a question fans of this soft, smooth and fruity grape often ask. Merlot lovers could do well by looking in Bordeaux, Merlot’s birthplace. Bordeaux has earned its reputation as a prime source of superior quality wines and you’re getting a lot more for your money with a Merlot from Bordeaux . . .

merlot glass
Merlot, born and bred in Bordeaux

To be fair, most of Bordeaux’s Merlot goes into its Clarets, particularly those from the Right Bank AOCs, but Bordeaux also produces some hedonistic 100% Merlots that are at the pinnacle of their game. Chateaux Petrus, Le Pin and Clinet are famous names that roll of connsoisseurs tongues and they are all incredible wines made from Merlot. They have incredible price tags too. However smaller chateaux with lesser profiles also produce superb Merlots and it is here that true bargains can be found.

Bordeaux’s Merlot came into being when the two red grapes Cabernet Franc and the newly rediscovered Magdeleine Noire des Charentes crossed at some distant point in the past. No one knows whereabouts in Bordeaux it happened but the new grape flourished and producers started to cultvate it in their vineyards for the qualities it brought to the wines: lush texture, fruitiness, richness and smoothness. Merlot’s flavours and fragrance of blackberry, plum, black cherry, dark chocolate, anise, blueberry and cedar added a new dimension to Bordelaise wine making too.

Bordeaux is the birthplace of Merlot.

I’d place a bet that Merlot started out on the Right Bank as the soil type and conditions there suit it down to the ground.

merlot grapes
Merlot Grapes

The earliest recorded mention of it dates to a Right Bank wine labelled ‘Merlau’ in 1784. ‘Merlau’ means ‘blackbird’ and either refers to the blueish black colour of the dark skinned grapes or the blackbirds who couldn’t eat enough of them.

As time progressed Merlot found a home in the rest of Bordeaux. Its main champion was Armand d’Armailhacq who introduced it to the great estates of the Medoc AOCs on the Left Bank. Thanks to him Merlot took root at First Growth Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Classified Growths d’Armailhac and Pontet Canet. Today, Merlot is not only one of the primary grapes used in Claret and the most planted grape in Bordeaux but it is also one of the world’s most planted grapes.

Merlot is the star player on the Right Bank thanks to the region’s pockets of iron rich clay. Pomerol Merlot’s are among the world’s most prestigious with Saint Emilion coming in close behind, followed by Fronsac. Looking beyond these well known AOCs there are superb Merlots being produced on similar soils under similar conditions. Tracking down the talent in the sea of hopefuls is one of the joys of being a wine merchant although it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

AOC Map - Entre Deux Mers shown in pink
AOC Map – Entre Deux Mers shown in pink

Finding the perfect candidate:

A good Merlot shouldn’t burn out. Fruit bombs tend to suffer from fatigue; one quick burst of power and then they are exhausted. This is where Bordeaux really comes into its own, producing velvety Merlots with good structure and layers of fruit to enjoy is one of the region’s strengths.

Given that Merlot thrives on clays it makes sense for the talent spotter to hunt down areas that fit this criteria but fall under the radar.

Looking beyond the Right Bank, the hillsides of the Dropt Valley in the Pays du Haut Entre Deux Mers (the Highlands of Entre Deux Mers) is a good place to start. The Entre Deux Mers is a great inverted ‘v’ of land sandwiched between the right bank of the river Garonne to the south and the left bank of the river Dordogne to the north. Named ‘between the two seas’ thanks to the two tidal rivers; it’s bordered by Graves and Pessac Leognan to the west and Pomerol, Fronsac and Saint Emilion to the east. The south facing open mouth of this ‘v’ spills out into the Pays de Hauts Entre de Mers and disappears into the Cotes de Duras and du Marmandais in the Lot et Garonne.

river dropt
The River Dropt

Of course borders drawn on maps don’t apply to soils and the clays that nurture the Merlots under Pomerol and Fronsac naturally pop up elsewhere.

There are less well known pockets of favourable soils suited to a variety of famous Bordeaux grapes dotted throughout the entire Entre Deux Mers but it is the Pays de Haut and its outlier the Cotes de Duras where Merlot has deep roots (in more ways than one).

It is here that you can find petits chateux wine makers producing lovely examples of pure Merlot wines (and Clarets but that’s another story).


Newly discovered: Chateau Grand Champ

Chateau Grand Champ is a recent discovery of mine and I have introduced it to the UK for the first time. The chateau is a fourth generation family owned property in the village of Camiran, bordered by the River Dropt.

The Pauquet family specialise in making award winning single variety wines and this Merlot won Gold Medal at the Concours de Bordeaux.

The wine is named after the ‘great field’ (Grand Champ) that bears the grapes next to the 18th century limestone petit chateau.


Mill in the Dropt Valley
Mill in the Dropt Valley

Camiran lies deep in unspoilt countryside overlooking the Dropt Valley in the Pays de Haut Entre de Mers. This a sleepy, secret region tucked well away from the beaten track – in fact roads were scarce here as the nature of the river made building them difficult. Even today the best way to discover the region is by bicycle along the lanes and tracks. The valley is scattered with little wine making farmsteads, meadows, plum orchards and vineyards. Camiran’s history is linked to the River Dropt, along which wines were traded for centuries. The settlement had its own little port between the 15th-19th centuries which was a hub for sending wines to Bordeaux.

The French historian and writer, Hippolyte Taine, wrote of the Dropt Valley in the 1850s that ‘this is a good country; a good country that reveals itself only to those who are able to discover it.’ Discovering Chateau Grand Champ is well worth it. The Pauquets practice sustainable agriculture (certified since 2004) and combine tradition and modernity. Merlot is their dominant grape and they have honed their craft to a fine art over the years; hence their array of awards in France.

chateau grand champ
Chateau Grand Champ Merlot 2012 – Gold Medal

Chateau Grand Champ Merlot 2012 – Gold Medal £7.99

Tasting Notes:

Rich, rounded, classy, medium bodied Merlot. Full flavours of plump black cherry, blueberry and plum with lovely notes of ripe raspberry, nutmeg, chocolate and caramel. Silky sweet tannins, good structure and a long lasting finish.

100% Merlot. 13.5% abv. 75cl.

Food Pairing:

Being a smooth, soft, medium weighted wine, Chateau Grand Champ pairs well with a whole range of foods. It marries with Mediterranean pizza and pasta; tomato, bell pepper and aubergine dishes (moussaka, lasagne, stuffed peppers), chicken, pork, ham, lamb and steak. It can even be a match for pan fried salmon or tuna.


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More Mousseux Please – Searching for Sparkling Wines?

The British have always loved their bubbly. We’ve been entranced by Champagne since the 19th century and we’ve spread the love to encompass Prosecco. But we are missing out on a vast swathe of fantastic fizz. There’s a world of Mousseux out there begging to be discovered.

Strings of bubbles in sparkling wine are created by CO2

There’s no prospect of the British love affair with bubbly dimming. Sales are booming as we broaden our quest to discover quality fizz that fits the bill. Our first love may be Champagne but thanks to a growing demand for reasonably priced bubbly there is a wider choice of sparkling wines available today than ever before.

Traditionally France has always lead the way but in the past decade Cava (Spain) and more recently Prosecco (Italy) have made huge inroads to the market. Alarm bells sounded this year with a threatened Prosecco shortage caused by a poor harvest in 2014. This was followed by warnings of Prosecco price rises, partly down to the impending shortage, market manipulation and producers wishing to craft premium ‘top dollar’ Prosecco. It’s not surprising that Italian wine makers wish to up their game – in 2014 Prosecco sales outstripped those of Champagne for the first time. Only time will tell if Prosecco starts to become more expensive.

Touraine mousseux
Mouuseux from Touraine in the Loire

France has by no means been left behind. In the 2015 Champagne and Sparkling Wine Awards on Sept 2nd France was the most successful country with 19 more gold medals (46 in all) than second placed Italy. It remains a fabulous source of sparkling wine.

Beyond Champagne France’s equivalent to Prosecco are the Vins Mousseux. ‘Mousseux’ comes from ‘mousse’ and refers to the foam of bubbles that froths to the top of the glass. Vins Mousseux are made the length and breadth of France and flagship grapes from each different wine region give each sparkling wine its personality and character. Better known regions span from the Loire, Rhone, Savoie, Languedoc Roussillon and Gaillac.

Gaillac mousseux
Mousseux from Gaillac

If you enjoy sparkling wine, French Vins Mousseux have a wide variety of styles to suit every taste. Vins Mousseux tend to be fruitier and more lively than Cremants and Champagnes. They are typically drunk young so that you get all the benefits of the aromas and flavours whilst they are still vibrant. Cremants and Champagnes (made by the Method Champenoise) lose their fruitiness as the wine develops and take on flavours of brioche, toast, caramel and nuts. Vins Mousseux have a mousse of bubbles that last till the last sip from the glass but the bubbles tend to be bigger and more zippy than Cremants or Champagnes.

Mousseux – the origins of effervescence

Saumur mousseux
Mousseux from Saumur, in the Loire

Contrary to myth the French didn’t invent sparkling wine (though they certainly developed it into what we know today). Wine becomes effervescent when it undergoes secondary fermentation. It’s a phenomenon that has occurred since the beginning of wine making itself – the oldest known document mentioning it is an Egyptian papyrus dated 522 AD. However, it was often looked on as a fault and as something to be avoided.

Taming the bubble

As wine making improved down the ages people began to enjoy its natural ability to twinkle. But wine makers didn’t understand what made it occur. What they didn’t know was that the bubbles were created when the wine underwent a second fermentation, producing an excess of carbon dioxide which gave the wine a fizzy quality.

The wire casing on sparkling wine bottle corks is called a ‘muselet’

A grand collaboration between the British and French, driven by a thirst for sparkling wine . . .

Dom Perignon, the fabled French monk who the Champagne Dom Perignon is named for, wasn’t the first to laud the fizzing qualities of sparkling wine – it was being remarked on in 13th century France and its tongue tickling sensations were hailed as extraordinary. By the 17th century major developments were underway as producers sought to perfect the secondary fermentation. It was an Englishman who perfected the technique. Christopher Meret (born in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire) delivered a paper to the Royal Society in 1662 setting out a recipe for sparkling wine. He recommended adding sugar to a finished wine which would start off a secondary fermentation and produce the bubbles we love so well.

Different methods were developed as time went on. They boil down to two basic techniques:

Anjou mousseux
Mousseux from Anjou in the Loire
  • Methode Charmat or Methode de la Cuve Close – used by most Vins Mousseux (and also by Prosecco, Asti etc!). Invented by Jean Eugene Charmat in 1907 (whose son was the creator of the sparkling wine Veuve de Vernay). The second fermentation takes place in a pressurized vat.

  • Methode Champenoise or Methode Traditionelle – used by Champagne and Cremant producers. With this method the second fermentation occurs in the bottle.

The first mention of ‘Sparkling Champagne’ was in English, not French, in 1676. Bottles strong enough to withstand the explosive powers of fizz were developed by the English using coal-fired glass, corks were reintroduced to the French by British bottlers . . . and corks with wire muselets (which translates as ‘muzzle’) were invented by the French in 1844.

Discover the Duc

Duc de Berieu Mousseux Brut
Duc de Berieu Brut

Popular in France, and exclusive to Bordeaux-Undiscovered in the UK, Duc de Berieu Brut and Duc de Berieu Demi Sec are made by along established negociant, with several prestigious chateaux to their name, who specialize in the production of sparkling wines.

Both these Vins Mousseux are made with Ugni Blanc, which is the French name for Trebbiano. The name Ugni Blanc holds the key to this grape, it’s derived from the old French name ‘Unia’ which comes from the Latin ‘Eugenia, meaning ‘noble’ and the grape is an unsung hero when it comes to sparkling wines.

Duc de Berieu Mousseux demi sec
Duc de Berieu Demi Sec

Having taken both these wines to various shows up and down the country they have been favourably received especially when they are directly compared with Processco. The consensus of opinion is that they are clean and fresher than their Italian rival. So why not try yourself? At £6.99 a bottle you have nothing to lose!


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Inspire your inner winner – Successful Second Wines and why they’re worth it.

Are you missing out on superb Bordeaux? Second Wines from the great and the good amongst the Grand Cru Classe are highly sought after but many quality vineyards in Bordeaux produce them. They are a wonderful source of lovely wines that are much more affordable than the Grand Vins heralded as the first label . . .

 Haut Brion's range of wines
Haut Brion’s range of wines

Bordeaux is the only wine region in the world that legally defines a chateau’s second label, enshrining a guarantee of quality in French law. Second Wines have really come into their own over the past few decades with more and more chateaux adopting the practice. But this is by no means a 21st century phenomenon, the practice of making a Second Wine is an ancient one. Records show that the owners of Premier Cru Chateau Haut Brion produced a Second Wine dating back to at least the 1700s.

Pichon Lalande created  a 2nd Wine in 1874
Pichon Lalande created a 2nd Wine in 1874

Second Wines were born as chateaux expanded and improved their estates centuries ago – and this process continues today. Primarily instigated by the prestigious Grand Cru Classe, most Second Wines came into existence in the 1870s – 1930s as separate brands to the Grand Vins (flagship wines). As their popularity grew within the markets they have been rebranded and reborn from the 1960s onwards as chateaux owners realised their potential . . . and wine enthusiasts discovered their appeal.

Second Wines are neither ‘factory seconds’ or clearance goods. Far from it.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild's Second Wine, Carruades, began life in the 1850s
Carruades began life in the 1850s

The main attraction of a Second Wine is that you are getting a highly crafted vintage that mirrors the more expensive Grand Vin. Second Wines share the same expertise that goes into the making of the Grand Vin and often share its history. However they don’t share the same price. Second Wines from top chateaux are usually priced less than a fifth of the Grand Vin (with some exceptions that command more).

Being wealthy, the Grand Cru Classes, were the first to embark on the strategy of producing Second Wines. The process may have roots embedded in the distant past but what has changed is the clout that certain Second Wines have within the market. Today there are more than 700 Second Wines.

Evolution over time has seen chateaux develop and rebrand Second Wines that come from both second estates and second labels:

Chateau Leoville Las Cases created a Second Wine in 2007
Le Petit Leon created in 2007
  • 1850s – Carruades created by Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Rebranded as Moulin de Carruades in the late 1960s and then again as Carruades de Lafite in 1980s.

  • 1874 – Second Wine created by Chateau Pichon Lalande, rebranded as La Reserve de la Comtesse in 1973.

  • 1902 – Second estate Clos du Marquis used as a Second Wine by Chateau Leoville Las Cases until 2007 which saw Le Petit Leon created as a premium Second Wine.

  • 1908 – Pavillon Rouge created by Chateau Margaux, reintroduced 1978.

  • 1927 – Carruades de Mouton created by Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Renamed Mouton Cadet in 1930 which developed into a brand in its own right. 1993 saw Le Petit Mouton, created as a premium Second Wine.

  • 1963 – Les Forts de Latour, created by Chateau Latour

What’s the difference between second estates and second labels?

1. Second Estates

Chateau La Tour du Pin
Chateau La Tour du Pin

Most Second Wines do not have the word ‘chateau’ in their label but in a few instances you will see some Second Wines that do. These are typically second estates that have been added to the principal chateau’s portfolio in times past. These second estates’ title, terroir and reputations have specific qualities to entitle them to produce wines in their own right rather than suffer the fate of having their lands swallowed up by their new owners.

Second estates are added to chateaux either through inheritance or by acquisition. The practice of buying up your neighbours is not a new one in Bordeaux. Successful chateaux often seek to expand by acquiring rivals that sit on coveted top quality land. These prime vineyards are sometimes absorbed into the buyer’s estate to enhance the Grand Vin or to increase its production. This happened to Chateau La Tour du Pin in 2012 when it was merged into the vineyards of Premier Cru Chateau Cheval Blanc. (Sadly La Tour du Pin no longer exists, which is a shame as it was a lovely wine – however we do have some rare vintages available, 2006 and 2007.)

Chateau Moulin Riche
Chateau Moulin Riche

Alternatively second estate vineyards are exclusively used to produce a Second Wine. Chateau Moulin Riche, made by Chateau Leoville Poyferre, is an example of a successful Second Wine from a second esate. It was inherited by the owners of Leoville Poyferre in 1894 and was of sufficient status to stand alone from the Grand Vin. For many years it was effectively the chateau’s Second Wine but in 2009 it was granted independence in its own right thanks to its reputation. Leoville Poyferre then created an replacement Second Wine named Pavillon de Poyferre.

2. Second Labels

Chateau Margaux's range of wines
Chateau Margaux’s range of wines

Second Wines also came about via methods of improvement. Chateaux have different plots of vines within their vineyards of varying age and grape variety. Each plot has its specific terroir and the batches of wines produced from these plots bear different characteristics. Chateaux develop consistent house styles by picking out the hallmark traits from these batches to create their preferred blend for the Grand Vin. However this presented a problem – what could they do with the quality wine that didn’t go into the blend? In the past this would have been sold off to the trade but as techniques improved and quality soared the chateaux realised this was a dreadful waste of a good product. The answer was to create a Second Label.

Chateau Margaux's new 4th Wine
Chateau Margaux’s new 4th Wine

This process has been refined even further with a handful of Grand Cru Classe introducing Third and Fourth labels – Premier Cru Chateaux Latour produces Pauillac de Latour (3rd Wine) and Margaux produces Pavillon Blanc de Margaux (a white 3rd Wine) and Margaux de Margaux (4th Wine).

Nowadays most serious contenders on the Left Bank (the Medoc AOCs) produce a Second Wine. Second Wines are less common amongst Right Bank properties in Pomerol as their vineyards are much smaller.

My recommended Second Wine

Chateau Haut Manoir 2011, Pomerol – Second Wine of Chateau La Commanderie

Haut ManoirChateau Haut Manoir is the Second Wine of Chateau La Commanderie in Pomerol. It sits in the same pocket of land as top performing estates: Chateau Nenin is its nearest neighbour, Chateau La Conseillante sits to the east and Premier Cru Chateau Cheval Blanc is less than half a mile away. Haut Manoir lies on lies on lands owned by the Knight Hospitallers of Saint John and it’s parent, Chateau La Commanderie, takes its name from the 12th century Hospitaller Commandry that was once situated there.

Haut Manoir will easily be appreciated by lovers of wine from this famous appellation. At £16.99 Haut Manoir was very well received by visitors to the Oxford Wine Festival when I introduced it there.

Tasting Notes:

Chateau Haut Manoir 2011, Pomerol
Chateau Haut Manoir 2011, Pomerol

Fine textured and full bodied. Deeply layered flavours of black cherry, blackcurrant and chocolate with spicy notes of ginger and liquorice. Undertones of caramel and an elegant balsamic bouquet of black pepper and fig. Plush and polished with velvety tannins.

Food and Wine Pairing:

Haut Manoir bears all the hallmarks of a good Pomerol and being fuller bodied, sensuous and deeply flavoured it is perfect with game, roast lamb, duck and beef. It’s particularly good with venison, pigeon and wild boar sausages as well as Chinese dishes with Hoisin sauce, braised steak, hearty casseroles, truffle and mushroom based pastas, liver or kidneys.


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The Cru Bourgeois – Bordeaux with a clear-cut pedigree

Some of the best value Bordeaux out there comes from the Cru Bourgeois – a family of superb wines that pass vigorous quality control checks to guarantee you a glass of something rather special . . .

Cru Bourgeois

The Cru Bourgeois are a great source of extremely good wine at a fraction of the price you would splash out on a Grand Cru Classe. Made to the same exacting standards as the Grand Cru Classe in many cases (and often at the same cost) the Cru Bourgeois have clear-cut pedigrees and a rigorous quality control system. Unlike the Grand Cru Classe, which were ranked back in 1855 and have not been reclassified since, the Cru Bourgeois are assessed on a yearly basis. This is the most dynamic ranking of wines in Bordeaux (even Saint Emilion can not match it, their Classification is updated around every 10 years or so).

You may ask why wines are classified at all. Simply put, Classification provides the consumer with an authentic product and a guarantee of its quality.

A cut above the norm

What are the Cru Bourgeois?

The Cru Bourgeois are a legacy that dates back to the Middle Ages. The ‘bourgeois’ refers to the wealthy middle class wine merchants and craftsmen of the ‘bourg’ of Bordeaux. By the 15th century the bourgeois of Bordeaux had begun to invest in fine vineyards, which became known as Cru Bourgeois (‘cru’ means ‘growth’ when referring to vineyards and denotes recognised quality). They played an important role in the development of the Medoc vineyards and by the early 1800s there were around 300 Crus Bourgeois estates.

Instigated by the Emperor Napoleon III, the 1855 Classification ranked the wines of the aristocracy. Many estates were left out and typically, the Cru Bourgeois were not included. However the Cru Bourgeois were too good not to be recognised in some way. They represented the better estates across the Medoc covering the appellations Medoc, Haut Medoc, Listrac Medoc, Moulis en Medoc, Pauillac, Saint Estephe, Margaux and Saint Julien.

1932 – The unofficial list

In 1932 the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Chamber of Agriculture drew up an unofficial list of 444 Cru Bourgeois chateaux and this remained unchanged until 2003. Things needed to change; the 1932 list badly needed revising and regulating as it was outdated and the range in quality was quite diverse.

2nd cd of iiw images 015
2003 – changes afoot

2003 – The year of change . . . and court action

The 2003 classification was the first big step forward but, as you can imagine, it caused an uproar with only 247 chateaux included out of the 490 that were submitted. What’s more the chateaux were divided into 3 tiers: Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois (with Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel being the top wines). The idea was to assess the chateaux every 12 years but thanks to the ensuing fracas, bitter complaints and threats of legal action from unsuccessful chateaux owners the Cru Bourgeois was annulled in 2007. Thankfully, after much wrangling and mulling over the best way forward, a brand new system was introduced and 2010 saw the Cru Bourgeois reborn.

2010 – The year of rebirth

The new Cru Bourgeois quality control procedure is independent and uncompromising.

  • Vintage, not vineyard – The class of Cru Bourgeois is awarded to the vintage and not to the vineyard or to the chateau which means that each year a chateau can lose or gain Cru Bourgeois status depending on whether the wine of that vintage makes the grade or not.

  • Independent Judges – To ensure impartiality, an independent agency called Bureau Veritas, checks that all applicants are worthy, examining the state of their grounds, vineyards and wine making facilities.

  • Blind Tastings – Bureau Veritas is also in charge of supervising blind tastings of each vintage by a jury of trade professionals – who are not chateau owners.

The new Cru Bourgeois bear fruit

The new system does not include tiers so the higher-ranking Cru Bourgeois Superieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel categories that were used in the 2003 ranking are defunct. However there are movements to reinstate these, so I will keep you posted!

Any chateau can apply for Cru Bourgeois status but only their Grand Vin can be submitted ie no second wines or special cuvées.


Five years down the line and these exacting standards are bearing fruit. The Cru Bourgeois are well respected. Benchmark wines are being recognised and consumers are benefitting from Cru Bourgeois’ stable prices, consistent quality, provenance and rich history along with an ongoing commitment to offering genuine value.

My Recommended Cru Bourgeois

Chantemerle WhiteChateau Chantemerle, Cru Bourgeois Medoc 2011 – Gold Medal

A consistent performer as a Cru Bourgeois and the 2011 vintage has also bagged a gold medal in the long established Concours des Grand Vins de France. Chantemerle is a petit chateau that belongs to the Cruchon family who have been wine makers for several generations in the northern Medoc. Under the direction of Frederic Cruchon, the Medoc’s traditions are respected and the vineyard managed meticulously.

Tasting Notes:

Meltingly smooth Cru Bourgeois Medoc with splendidly rounded tannins. Deliciously deep flavours of cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), juicy prunes and ripe black cherry with expressive notes of vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa and cedar. A lovely floral hint of peonies. Powerful yet balanced. Aromatic, opulent and silky.

A consistent performer

Food and Wine Pairing:

Being rich and full bodied, Chantemerle pairs very well with the rich flavours of duck and lamb. It’s good with a juicy rib eye steak or hearty beef casseroles, rabbit in mustard sauce, sausages and salamis, feathered game such as pheasant or grouse, kidney and liver.