The Grand Crus System is a Charming Anachronism

grand crus vineyardsMike Veseth, The Wine Economist, has a thought-provoking post on the possibility of new world Grand Crus. The occasion was a zoom event devoted to the subject hosted by Lauren Catena of Argentina’s Bodega Catena Zapata, whose family has been promoting the idea of Grand Crus vineyards for decades.

There are of course many practical difficulties in translating to the new world this essentially French idea of classifying vineyards or wineries according to a quality ranking. Would the public accept a Grand Crus designation as the marker of quality? And who gets to decide who is in and who is not? The latter is a fraught issue even in France where they are accustomed to the system.

Yet, as Veseth points out:

Talking about Grand Cru means thinking about wine in a particular subjective way that reflects respect and admiration for the very best that I’d argue is different from measures such as extremely high prices or 100 point scores.

Price is more a reflection of supply, demand, and marketing than a measure of quality. And scores have been shown to be too inconsistent to be a reliable marker. The wine world loves its traditions and singling out vineyards or producers whose product withstands the test of time has some appeal.

But my concern with a Grand Crus system is that quality is a moving target. Styles change both on the consumer side and the production side; our understanding of viticulture keeps advancing elevating the quality of more and more vineyards and regions; and climate change is likely to disrupt any fixed conception of where the best wine can be made.

Furthermore, if I am right that wine’s capacity for continuous variation is what fascinates wine lovers, then we should resist any attempt to define quality in terms of what I call “wine royalty” in Beauty and the Yeast. Wine today is simply too dynamic to be hemmed in by a classification system weighed down by the bureaucracy of politically-charged rankings and the inherent conservatism of tradition.

A Grand Crus system might have been appropriate in the relatively small production area and limited market of 19th and early 20th Century Europe. Most of the people who made wine there had been doing so for generations. There was little opportunity or interest in change.

That is not the wine world we live in today. The Grand Crus system is a charming anachronism, not a model for the future.

2 comments

  1. The Grand Cru system was established at a time when virtually all the winemakers in a given region were using identical techniques to create wines of extremely similar styles. This not only helped identify key vineyards, but even created much of the appellation system used in many countries.

    But now winemaking has evolved, and winemakers are using very different techniques, making different styles of wines, and the focus on a specific vineyard has become blurred, as has the identify of wines from any given appellation. And as you point out, as climate change continues, it will continue to introduce even more variables into the equation.

    1. Hi Paul,
      I think many wine appellations still have an identity. But that identity often isn’t the most interesting thing going on there. As you point out, the diversity of styles is exploding

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