A Crucial alliance – the Bourgeois inheritance: crus Bourgeois

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New proposals which should come into effect next year aim to put the Crus Bourgeois on a new and more secure footing bringing real benefit to the wine consumer.

Great wines will always make their own reputations but it can help to be part of an umbrella organisation or region which may promote all wines, such as in Champagne, for example. Distinctions on labels in the confusing world one inhabits may override other considerations when it comes to buying a bottle of wine, even price. Bordeaux, Champagne, DOC (denominazione d’origine controllata), DOCG (denominazione d’origine controllata e garantita), AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) are all brands of one kind of another. Cru Bourgeois is another.

The Crus Bourgeois, were so called after the merchants of Bordeaux who acquired their properties as a result of their enrichment from the international trade which grew out of Bordeaux in the 15th and 16th centuries. The first organisation was created in 1932, and at the time it grouped more than 400 properties in the Médoc, although it had been a term applied to many château since the 19th century. In the 1990s these domains represented half the total production of the Médoc. As with all good ideas the group evolved and attempted to create two further classifications within the overall community — ‘Supérieur’ and ‘Exceptionnel’ highlighting wines which were of special interest. However, the words Cru Bourgeois were still not yet protected in their own right and there was nothing to stop other domains using the term if they wished without any legal recourse. At the start of the new millennium an attempt was made to organise domains using the designation Crus Bourgeois to be included on the basis of merit and which would be updated every twelve years. This was limited to less than 250 properties and as a result a number who had previously been included challenged this process in Court and won. The distinction and the right to carry the words Cru Bourgeois was effectively removed last year. However, the will amongst its previous members to use the term remain and it is hoped that the new tests for calling oneself a Cru Bourgeois will meet with more widespread approval. An alliance is pushing for ‘Cru Bourgeois’ to receive formal legal protection based on standards which will benefit wine enthusiasts by including qualitative wine tests.

But what are the characteristics of these wines and does the distinction merit saving? First, all of these wines come from the left bank area of the Gironde estuary known as the Médoc — this is further sub-divided into a number of areas. Not all the wines possess the same characteristics — many reflect the particular area or terroir from whence they are made and some, the underlying techniques of wine making which are used. Most are made up of various blends of which Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most prominent with some Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc used in much smaller amounts in the final blend. Cabernet Sauvignon would be the varietal of choice in this area of Bordeaux but many estates are harvesting later in the year already and its not surprising therefore to see so much Merlot being used (it ripens early). Merlot also brings alcohol and is less tannic and forceful than the other varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon is a late ripening grape which can bring problems if bad weather hits after the summer. Cabernet Franc really prefers the clay based type soils found in places such as St Emilion and Petit Verdot is a winemakers nightmare ripening last of all. At least by having a choice of varietals on which you can draw you can mitigate some of your losses due to climatic influences during the harvest period.

Some notes on the wine themselves
We tasted about 50 wines from the 2005 and 2006 vintages of the Crus Bourgeois over the summer and here is a summary of our findings along with some general comments on the characteristics of the wines. Once again it may be worth mentioning since the full name is so often left off in describing the designation that all these domains are to be found in the Médoc. Most of these wines need more ageing time in the bottle although some are ready for drinking now and they should be best from 2011– 2014 although the 2005, an exceptional year in Bordeaux, may well hold up well long after these dates.

We found the following wines to be particularly good examples of the distinction and its worth mentioning that the Crus Bourgeois are generally noted for their attractive prices: Chateau Charmail (Haut-Médoc) is a rich deep ruby colour presenting dark fruits on the nose. This is a fat ripe wine, full-bodied with lovely underlying structure and tannins. Spicy, peppery and complex with a long finish. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (mostly), Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. They have decided to remove the Cru Bourgeois Supérieur designation from their label for the 2006 vintage. Château Caronne-Sainte-Gemme (Haut-Médoc) has a dark almost opaque colour with luscious blackberries and black currants on the nose. Very smooth attack. Present tannins which are not astringent. Lovely wines which will age gracefully with all the characteristic of its strong Cabernet Sauvignon base; Chateau Dutroch Grand Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc) has a rich deep colour and cherries and red fruits on the nose. Present but harmonious tannins. Good aging. Smooth and long. Chateau d’Agassac (Haut-Médoc) makes wines with a pronounced nose of black currants and particularly blackberries transporting one into the autumn and harvest time. Deep colour and some vanilla on the palate through which the fruit flows. There are tannins about but these will mellow in time. Power and elegance. Chateau Fontis has an immediately appealing nose out of a dark ruby colour. The wine is of medium build (except 2005 which is full-bodied with lots of fruit) with a lot of finesse. Smooth and very drinkable. It is blended from equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Chateau Barateau (Haut-Médoc), which despite its high levels of production have really succeeded with the 2005 where there are lovely dark fruits and oak on the nose. Has a fine structure and tannin extraction. Chateau de Braude (Haut-Médoc) displays a deep opaque colour with cassis and blackberries on the nose. Very smooth. Lovely mellow tannins. The wine has excellent structure. Corpulent. Once again it demonstrates that Cabernet Sauvignon is really the king in the Médoc with 70% going into the blend leaving Merlot to make up the remaining. Chateau de Gironville (Haut-Médoc) is a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend with some Petit Verdot. It a concentrated wine with deep almost opaque colour and a luxurious nose of old leather and dark berries. It has a long finish and is full-bodied and should age well. The tannins will need time to unwind. Interestingly, only three of these wines were part of the higher echelon of what were known as the Crus Bourgeois Supérieur.

There are a surprising number of properties whose wines we tasted which feature a high proportion of Merlot. Merlot naturally gives a wine a much rounder flavour and slightly above average alcohol levels, nearer 13.5%. Chateau Doyac (Haut-Médoc) with almost 70% Chateau Castéra (Médoc) 65%, Chateau Cambon de la Pelouse (Haut-Médoc) 60%, Chateau Cap Leon Veyrin (Listrac-Médoc) also 60%, Chateau Anthonic (Moulis-en-Médoc) with 58%, Chateau Loudenne (Médoc), 55%, Chateau Noiallac (Médoc) 55%, Chateau Petit Bocq (St Estèphe) 55%, and Chateau Dutroch Grand Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc) with 53%. But it must be said, excluding the splendid 2005 vintage which saw excellent growing conditions, one might deduce that Merlot would not be the varietal of choice in this region.

Another interesting aspect is that those wines with the most Cabernet Franc were generally the least successful, especially in 2006 which might be expected because of the climatic conditions that year with the exceptions of Chateau Lamothe-Bergeron (Haut-Médoc) which showed some soft hints of vanilla and wood was delightfully smooth with strawberry flavours on the palate. Also, Chateau Le Crock, a luxurious red colour with soft and sweet notes on the nose, although the tannins will need time to mellow, and, of course, our ‘coup de coeur’ Chateau Charmail.

Other wines we liked included: Chateau Anthonic (Moulis-en-Médoc), Chateau Beaumont (Haut-Médoc) which had a very smooth texture was long with balanced tannins, Chateau Bibian (Listrac-Médoc) which should age well, Chateau l’Argentyre (Médoc ) whose tannins will need to mellow before truly enjoying this wine, Lilian Ladouys (St Estèphe) (2006) with its velvety tannins. The rather old-fashioned tasting Chateau Maucamps (Haut-Médoc); Chateau Meyney (St Estèphe) with its seductive nose albeit a little over-extracted. Chateau Petit Bocq (St Estèphe), also over extracted but gives the wine an enjoyable corpulence, Chateau Paloumey (Haut-Médoc) with its ripe fruits, Chateau Paveil de Luze’s (Margaux) elegance and subtle spices, Chateau Peyrat-Fourthon (Haut-Médoc) which is very pleasant already, Chateau Tour des Termes (St Estèphe) a medium bodied wine which needs some time before approaching, and the Chateau Vernous (Médoc) which surprises with its depth of colour and fruitiness.

The Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc is in the process of establishing a legal framework from which a qualitative drive for fine wines will emerge. Certainly the wines of the Crus Bourgeois have never tasted better.

Traditionally the bourgeoisie elevated their status through public outings and promenades in the parks and squares. Emphasis was placed on strict etiquette in order to be compared favourably with the aristocracy. The word ‘etiquette’ in French also means ‘label’ which is just how the organisation hope to identify themselves as they have done in the past — continuing a long tradition of the Bourgeoisie. Look out for the Crus Bourgeois.

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