Still today, a lot of people talk about “l’échelle des crus” with its labels “grand cru” and “premier cru” in Champagne. You still see it frequently mentioned in wine media, hear it talked about by wine loves, even by champagne producers sometimes. Still today, twenty years after it was abandoned.
Grand cru, and premier cru, in Champagne, is a historic denomination established in a system called l’échelle des crus. Today, it has been abandoned.
The system was created in 1919 as a tool to fix the prices of the grapes sold by Champagne grape growers to Champagne négociants (what is often called “Champagne Houses”). In 1919 it was established as a scale (échelle) that fixed the prices. We’re talking here about the price of a kilo of grapes.
This was the result of a period in the late 1800s and early 1900s with a lot of conflicts on price, geographical limits, grape provenance and other issues in Champagne. The échelle des crus was one of the mechanisms put in place to try and calm tempers and regulate the market.
Grand and premier cru for central price-fixing
With the échelle des crus system established in 1919, the “full” grape price was set centrally, based on a central negotiation between some of the interested parties. Each village (or commune) was then given a percentage “score”, from a maximum of 100% and down.
Grape growers from the different villages were then paid a percentage of this full price, depending on what percentage had been attributed to their village.
The highest grape price was for grapes from a small number of villages given 100% of the centrally fixed price. These grapes were evidently considered the “best”. These lucky villages were given the name grand cru. One notch down were the villages called premier cru, attributed to a larger number of villages. They were given a lower percentage of the price. Other villages, the majority of the region, had an even lesser percentage of the centrally defined.
Over time, some villages were promoted, moved up to a better group, up to premier cru or grand cru. The number of “cru villages” increased. There are now 17 grand cru villages and 42 premier cru villages.
The cru-system evolves
As time passed, the percentages also changed. Initially, the lowest percentage was 22.55%, going up to 100%. At the end of its life (we’re coming to that soon), the system gave the lowest percentage of 80%. The vast majority of Champagne villages were in the range 80-89%. The next level up from that, 90-99% villages, were premier cru. The 100% villages were grand cru.
The price-fixing is abandoned
With time this centrally controlled price of a commercial good (grapes) traded between independent commercial entities (grape growers and négociants) became increasingly contrary to the European Union’s fundamental principles of open and free markets. It became increasingly clear that this kind of anti-competitive rules would have to be abandoned.
The central price-fixing was therefore abandoned in 1990.
For some time, the CIVC kept up a ghost of the price-fixing system by announcing an “indicative” price, up until 2001, when it too was abandoned, following EU rulings that centrally indicative prices were also incompatible with a free and fair market.
The échelle des crus itself was abandoned in 2004. (What purpose could it possibly serve?)
Grand cru and premier cru as a historical remnant
Since 2004, when it was abandoned, Champagne’s denominations “grand cru” and “premier cru” have no official value.
The words can still be used, but they are not a classification, nor quality or price ranking. They are tolerated, can still be used, “by virtue of local, loyal and constant customs”.
This is fundamentally different from how grand cru and premier cru is used in other wine regions in France, where they still have an official value. There are essentially two other different uses of it, as part of the appellation system or as a “classification”, two quite different things.
So, in essence, there are three uses of grand and premier cru:
- as a sentimental and historical indication in Champagne,
- as a qualifier of an appellation, i.e. a specific plot of land, for example, in Burgundy’s grand cru and premier cru appellations; this is a geographic definition
- as an attempted ranking of wineries/wine brands, as in the various Bordeaux classifications, this does not necessarily have any link to a specific plot of land (vineyard)
Grand and premier cru in champagne today
Today, the main “value” of grand cru and premier cru is that the growers who are fortunate to have vineyards in those villages may be able to extract a higher price for their grapes and often can extract higher prices from the consumer for the thus labelled wines, without necessarily providing a better quality product. Yes, those villages often produce good and excellent fruit and wines, but that they by definition are better than those who don’t have the right to those names is simply not true. Today you can find outstanding top-level champagne that is not grand or premier. But there is still a lot of prestige connected to the two denominations.
Producers in the 17 “ex” grand cru villages and 42 premier cru villages still often put the two words on their labels.
Today, you can find top-quality champagne in all parts of champagne, disregarding if you can find the words premier or grand cru on the label. It is to a much greater extent the talent of the vine-grower and the winemaker that decides the quality of what you have in the bottle. Don’t let smoke and mirrors, or bling-bling, be what decides which champagne to drink.
Choose your champagne based on the producer or based on what you taste, not on a historical text on the label.
You can find much more details on the history of grand and premier cru here: “L’échelle des crus en Champagne” by Jean-Luc Barbier.
(Perhaps I should mention that when I talk about champagne here, I refer only to the sparkling wine coming from the Champagne region in France. Other sparkling wines are sometimes called champagne, but only outside the EU. But that’s a different story.)