Behind the Crus of French Wine

Anyone who has enjoyed taking wine tours through the beautiful vineyards of France, or perhaps just toured the French section of the wine aisle in the supermarket, will have come across the term ‘cru’ on French wine labels. But while it may sound impressive and have us reaching for the bottle, have you ever wondered what it actually means?

The Definition of Cru

The literal translation of cru is ‘growth’ but there is rather more to it when we’re talking about wine. A wine which is allowed to list its ‘cru’ on the label is a product of one designated vineyard (or group of vineyards or even a section of a vineyard) which lies within a specific, homogenous environment or terroir.

The wine from this cru is therefore supposed to show the specific characteristics of that terroir. Obviously the assumption here is that the wines from this terroir are considered good quality.

What is a Premier Cru?
This is where it gets complicated. While everyone agrees what a ‘cru’ is, the term ‘Premier cru’ or ‘first growth’ actually means slightly different things depending on what region of France the wine is from.

• In Bordeaux, the Premier cru is the highest level of classification within the Grand cru classé for red wine from Médoc and Graves, but only the second-highest classification in Sauternes below Premier Cru Supérieur.
• In Saint-Émilion, the highest classification is Premier grand cru classé A but there is also a Premier grand cru classé B.
• In Burgundy, the Premier cru is the second highest classification below Grand cru.

This explains why on wine tours of one region you may have been told that the term means one thing, only to be told something completely different on your next wine tour to a different region!

What is a Grand Cru?

Like Premier cru, what defines a Grand cru can vary from region to region. While it always refers to a vineyard with a reputation for good wine production, its place in the classification spectrum can alter depending on the region.

• In Bordeaux, the Grand cru classé refers to all good cru wines, but within that designation there are individual classifications ranking the wines.
• In Burgundy and Alsace, the Grand cru is the highest classification.
• In Saint-Émilion, Grand cru is below Premier grand cru classé A and B.

The History of Wine Classification

Some of the earliest users of the ‘cru’ classification system were the Catholic monks of Burgundy in the Middle Ages. The Church at the time owned most of the vineyards in the region and were able to note which vineyards, and even which plot within each vineyard, produced the best wine. These plots, which they designated ‘crus’, were then reserved for making the best wine.

Today the job has been handed over to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) which oversees the complicated job of wine labelling in France.

Deciphering French wine labels can be tricky, so it helps to become familiar with the regions to understand its classification system. Wine tours are a great way to experience a region’s wines and to more fully understand the different terroirs and how they help to create the region’s very best wines.

Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury barge holidays. Offering holidays to France and other great destinations, itineraries include wine tours and other cultural and themed activities. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.

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Author: Desiree Michels