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The Ultimate Wine Geek Debate: Does Grand Cru Matter?

Rodolphe Boulanger, Imported Wine Director, Lot18

vs.

Kevin Boyer, Senior Director of Domestic Wine, Lot18

Our recent move into the Old World has brought up some interesting questions for our wine curators. Whereas winemakers from California and the Pacific Northwest are allowed to experiment with a virtually limitless palette of grape varieties, aging techniques, and vineyard management systems, Old World appellations generally have much stricter rules. But are these quality designations important to most wine drinkers?

We looked at recent sales of our Old World wines, Premier and Grand Cru or otherwise. The recent Pommery 1995 Grand Cru Champagne went gangbusters, as did Latour-Giraud Maranges 1er Cru La Fussière. But we also saw a frenzy over less prestigious bottlings: Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis and Drouhin Véro Bourgogne Pinot Noir were spectacular hits. And when it comes to New World wine, things can get even less clear.

So, without the benefit of a huge data set, we wondered: Does Grand Cru matter? We pitted two of our specialists against one another in an epic bout of wine geekery. In one corner, Rodolphe Boulanger, our Imported Wine Director. In the other, Kevin Boyer, our Senior Director of Domestic Wine. Fight!

Rodolphe Boulanger: European wine used to be fraught with confusion, fraud, and danger. Quality designations like Grand Cru changed all that, and it’s their specificity that makes them important. 

Wine wasn’t always so friendly. In fact, a hundred years ago, it could be outright dangerous. The wine industry was rife with fakes, doctoring and adulteration. There were no regulations for labeling or naming. Imagine the confusion! Many of Europe’s agricultural regions came to the brink of collapse as growers couldn’t compete with cheaper imitations of their products.

Rather than allowing wine markets to collapse, European governments began implementing the beginnings of today’s Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) system that’s central to today’s wine and food laws. Industrious Europeans set to finding solutions, defining the “formula” for Chianti in the 1870s, establishing some of the first French AOCs in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône in the late 1930s, and ultimately, establishing definitions for terms like Grand Cru and Reserve.

But in the loosey-goosey world of New World wine regulations, almost none of these terms are clearly outlined. Almost all of the knowledge transfer from Old World to New came with the colonialists, well before the rise of European wine legislation in the first half of the 20th century. Today, the New World only governs geographic limits like Napa Valley or Hunter Valley. But because these regions are still so young, it makes sense to allow for more experimentation.

However, the New World can’t have its cake and eat it too! Wineries are bandying about “Grand Cru” and “Reserve” without any agreed upon meanings, putting Old World wineries at a disadvantage while confusing consumers.

It’s not the ethos of the New World to become a second Europe. But there is room for giving these terms meaningful definition.

Kevin Boyer: Friends, winos, countrymen; lend me your ears: The New World has just as much right to the term as the Old. 

We owe much to what the French have developed over the years, and the wine world wouldn’t be what it is today without them.

Make no mistake though; I come to bury the French, not to praise them.

At its core, the term Grand Cru is elegant. It conjures up images of a very special place or wine of very distinct lineage and origin. While Francophiles insist that the term should not be used in the New World, the concept is global and should be treated as such. Frankly, I’d be more inclined to listen to their argument if the French were even remotely close to agreeing on how to use the term.

Grand Cru was originally applied to the best vineyards in regions like Burgundy and Alsace as the ultimate seal of approval for their grapes. So far so good, right?

Let’s add Champagne to the mix. Largely run by the consortium of Champagne houses rather than the grape growers, Champagne decided it would be more advantageous to dub whole villages Grand Cru rather than just select vineyards. This way they could make far more of the specially designated wine.

Now for some real fun, let’s look at Bordeaux, where Grand Cru delineates the best producers rather than vineyards. While, yes, the best Châteaus have some of the best land, it isn’t quite that simple. When a Grand Cru Château purchases a new adjoining vineyard, even if it wasn’t previously Grand Cru level, voilà! Now it is.

In spite of all this variability, French Grand Crus rarely change and new ones are rarely added. Considering it has been hundreds of years since some of the original distinctions were made, and that there have been such advances in science and viticulture in just the past 30 years, it’s frankly pretty shocking to me.

When a New World winery or vineyard uses the term Grand Cru to describe the type place where its grapes are grown, it refers to the spirit and essence. While we as consumers might not know exactly what the term indicates, we sense it alludes to a place of very special distinction, which certainly exist in the New World as well.

Some of the world’s most exciting wine and vineyard research is going on in places like Australia, California, Chile, New Zealand, Oregon – regions that aren’t hindered with overly political bureaucracies that are fiercely scared of change.

Armed with that knowledge of where the world’s best regions really are, I’d go as far to say that New World wineries deserve to use the term Grand Cru more than anyone.

What do you think? Are these designations still relevant, and who should be allowed to use them?