Welcome to WineBoy! While last time I wrote to you I promised reviews of specific Bordeaux region wineries, I feel it prudent to take a step back. I find it better to test French waters, before throwing you in! So let’s back up to when I was in Paris. Staying on Champs-Elysees, the main street of the French city that never sleeps, I went out one night with my father. We walked down a few blocks to a small wine bar and ordered a bottle of 2008 Grand Cru Chateau La Fleur Picon from Saint-Émilion. We sat down to enjoy it and engaged in a conversation that took us all the way to the next morning.
Among the first of the topics to be discussed was the French method of classification. For example, what is an Appellation of Origin or how does a wine become a Grand Cru? Well to give a brief definition, an appellation is a country, state, county, or any foreign equivalent. The significance of such labeling on a bottle is the following: 1) 100% of the volume of wine comes from grapes grown in the given appellation 2) The wine is fully finished in the appellation of origin 3) The method of production and designation of the wine conforms to the laws and regulations of the appellation. In short, the appellation of origin is a tool used to establish the hierarchy of classification.
Above I gave the technical description, but in reality, the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) bears significantly more weight in the wine world. The AOC is a French quasi-government committee in charge of dividing regions into appellations. These appellations, as an organizational tool, then apply to most food products, not just wine. For the sake of wine though, this system was established to “protect the identity of and safeguard the purity of the character of the products of select regions.” After understanding all of this, it soon became apparent how this system was actually corrupting the hierarchy of wines.
A region (ex. Médoc) has sub-regions (ex. Pauillac). A sub-region can have sub-village appellations. A sub-village appellation has individual wineries (ex. Chateau Lafite Rothschild). Every so often, these appellations would be reevaluated. In 1855, trouble struck, because for some reason, the classifications of that year stuck. At that time, select Chateaux were established as Grand Cru, meaning “great growth.” There were five levels of Grand Cru, including first growth, second growth, etc. Over time, society dropped those levels and a Grand Cru simply became a Grand Cru. So back to the question, how does a wine become a Grand Cru? Well, it can’t. Regardless of the quality of the wines in the future, the Chateaux deemed Grand Cru have been dubbed a permanent reputation. Now, while other wineries may arise and yield fantastic wines, they can never bear the same pedigree. In that way, proper ranking of wines has become blurred.
I hope that as fellow wine enthusiasts you found this enlightening. As for next time, I’d like to compare and contrast some of these ideas with the philosophies of Napa Valley. Before giving my opinions of Bordeaux region wines, I think you could appreciate a background in the logic that typically backs my reviews. The central theme will be the influence of the AOC on the consumer, and perhaps how it led to the rise of garage wineries.
Thanks for Reading!