Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Cru Bourgeois du Medoc, Craft Beer Hipsters, and French Courts

Before the Naked Vine was but a twinkle in my virtual eye, I was a fairly prodigious homebrewer. This was before the early-aught’s explosion of homebrewing. Working out of a closet in my old bachelor pad tucked away off Harrodsburg Road in Lexington, I cranked out wildly varied batches of beer. I’d pore through brewing books and the scant online resources at the time to find new styles. Steam beer, Scotch ale, Belgian lambic, bitter (which isn’t bitter), porter, stout. I tried to taste the rainbow.

(I also tried making wine, but the juice I could produce was inferior to what I could buy in the store. That is, except for one particular batch, codenamed “Libido Blanc,” which had an effect on mere mortals so powerful that the recipe was classified as a state secret.)

I enjoyed learning how the various styles were classified, the various malts and hops that were signatures of a particular type. That knowledge made me a good consumer, especially once my preferences started to shift from beer to wine.

Fast forward about…well…a decade and a half from my brewing days, and the craft beer revolution is in full swing. I’ve lost count of how many different permutations of India Pale Ale I’ve stumbled away from in the last few years. Hop heads carrying Moleskins have become common sights in the world’s brewpubs, sampling and classifying beers by taste, color, region, grain & hop terroir – even water sources. Some of them have adopted a bit of a hipster mentality, loudly proclaiming the superiority of a region or a style over another.

“Dude, I’m here for French wine,” you’re probably saying, “What’s this got to do with Vin de Bordeaux?”

For centuries, the French have treated wine like the craft beer crews do their steins of suds. In Bordeaux, red wine is parsed so finely that our beery hipster’s ironic Grizzly Adams beard would grow half an inch from sheer envy. Traditionally, Bordeaux is classified according to the “Classification of 1865,” stemming from a decree from Napoleon.

As we’ve covered before, the top wines in Bordeaux were classified into five “Growths,” based on their chateau of origin. The designation supposedly represents where the winery ranks on a hierarchy of general wine quality. (And if you imagine there might have been some skullduggery as wineries tried to get themselves “classed up,” you’d be 100% correct.) In all, there are 61 classified growth chateaux, and the wines they produce are historically the most expensive. If you’re curious, the wineries that make up the “Premier Cru Classe” (First Growth) are Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, Margaux, and Lafite-Rothschild. Looking up the prices is left as an exercise for the reader, but fifth growth wines usually start around $50.

Below the classified growths come the “AOC” wines, which tend to be less expensive – and will be the ones you tend to find in the French section of your local wine store. They’re labeled with the sub-region of Bordeaux, such as Graves, Fronsac, or Medoc and with the name of the Chateau that produced the bottle. Below that on the classification scale are Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superieur AOC. These wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in Bordeaux. These tend to be the standard “table Bordeaux.”

Needless to say, the “official classification” led to some consternation among growers, mainly in the Medoc region, who felt that their own products were of higher quality than ordinary table wine. They wanted a classification above AOC even if they weren’t classified growths. For this reason, 444 estates were designated as “Cru Bourgeois” in 1932, indicating that they were a “cut above.”

Eventually, of course, some of those chateaux wanted a more prestigious designation within Cru Bourgeois. In 2000, the classification was revised again into three quality tiers, released in 2003. The reaction was swift and nasty, leading to French courts annulling the classification in 2007.

Ever enterprising, the winemakers of the region compromised. They brought back the Cru Bourgeois designation in 2010 – but rather than a blanket award to an entire chateau, the designation is applied on a wine-by-wine basis, based on a yearly blind tasting.

Crus Bourgeois tend to run between $20-50. The winemaking techniques and production costs are
very similar, if not identical, to those used in classified growth wines. The producers of Cru Bourgeois argue, since their wines are tasted for quality on a yearly basis, that they can promise a product of equivalent quality to many classified growth wines.

I was fortunate enough to receive a couple of examples of these Cru Bourgeois. I wound up with the Chateau Tour des Termes 2012 St. Estephe ($30) and the Chateau Lestage Simon 2012 Haut-Medoc ($22). We tried these over the course of a couple of evenings.

The Tour de Termes was a real treat. The bouquet had a really interesting mint scent over a bit of old world funk. Smooth and silky, the palate yielded complex flavors of dark cherry and blackberry, with a little bit of tar and some firm tannins. The finish was easy and lasting, with really nicely balanced tannins. Definitely a wine for consenting adults. When we came back to it the next evening, it still held on to many of its smooth characteristics. Even at $30, I thought this bottle was a great value.

The Lestage was also a good wine, but it lacked the wow factor and the complexity of the Termes. I thought it was a little more straightforward with the fruit, and didn’t have quite as much depth on the palate. This one had a little bit of a licorice flavor that seemed not to quite line up with the fruit. A day later, it had pretty much fallen apart and wasn’t too different from a “standard” Bordeaux to my tastes. Again, it wasn’t that it was bad – it just didn’t do as well in comparison.

I think that a quality designation like this carries a lot more weight than simply relying on a historical classification from 200 years ago. As my sommelier buddies would tell me, the French “Grand Cru Classe” designations aren’t inaccurate, but there are always considerable differences from vintage to vintage – and the price point doesn’t always line up with the quality. A yearly “stamp of approval” at least lets you know that a wine has passed muster. I find that process eminently sensible. And if you can get a Bordeaux for $30 that’s comparable in quality to a classified growth, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. Try some and thank me later.

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