We have already explored what the term ‘Grand Cru’ means in Bordeaux and Burgundy. But what does ‘Grand Cru’ mean in Champagne?
The term ‘Grand Cru’ is totally different in Champagne, as it refers to the village rather than the specific vineyard (like Burgundy) or the specific estate name (like Bordeaux).
There are currently 17 villages in Champagne that are authorised to use the term ‘Grand Cru’.
These villages are:
Ambonnay, Avize, Ay, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Chouilly, Cramant, Louvois, Mailly Champagne, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Oiry, Puisieulx, Sillery, Tours-Sur-Marne, Verzenay, Verzy.
The reason that the villages were declared ‘Grand Cru’ status was linked to previous problems between the grape growers and the Champagne houses. In fact 100 years ago(in 1910 and 1911) there were riots and rampaging in Ay, Damery and Hautvillers in protest by the growers against the seemingly exploitative Champagne houses and also the use of cheaper grapes from outside the (yet to be) defined Champagne area, being used in the production of sparkling wines under the Champagne name.
The ‘Echelle de Crus’ system which developed after the riots gives each village a % possibility for setting their price. Every year the Champagne appellation sets the price for one kilogram of grapes. The Grand Cru vineyards would receive 100% of the price, whilst Premier Cru vineyards (one tier below) might only receive 95% of the price and Villages without Grand Cru or Premier Cru status would receive anything below 90%.
So the term ‘Grand Cru’ is used for recognising certain areas of land that produce better grapes, but it is not very precise.
Some Champagne houses use the term ‘Grand Cru’ on their more prestigious blends, if the grapes have been sourced from within the above mentioned 17 villages. However the nature of Champagne is that the blends can come from many different areas, so being exclusively ‘Grand Cru’ is not always a guarantee of superior quality.
Interestingly Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne, two of the most premium Champagnes produced, do not use the terms ‘Grand Cru’ on their front labels. However these ultra premium wines will undoubtedly have a high percentage of Grand Cru grapes within their blend.
The branding of the Champagne houses and their prestige and associated links with high society, fashion and style are more important than the expression ‘Grand Cru’. There are only a few Champagnes that use specific vineyard sites on their labels, as most of the Champagnes are blends from different areas and different ages. However Krug Clos du Mesnil refers to a specific vineyard in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.
So the term ‘Grand Cru’ really does have three very different meanings in Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Beware when asking for ‘Grand Cru’ when buying wine. It should mean the best, but be careful!