Oct 01 2008

Grand cru: It even sounds impressive

Published by at 1:24 AM under Savvy Sip Tips,Wine Education

Throw around a phrase like “grand cru” (always said in an attempted foreign accent, right?), and you might impress your friends. Far more impressive, however, is knowing what it means, if anything, before you drop some serious dollars on it.

Literally, grand cru is French for “great growth.” In some regions, the use of the phrase is strictly controlled. Anything labeled such must be the best compared with the quality of the other wines from that year.

In other regions, winemakers can stick the designation on willy-nilly, counting on a sale to some unknowing poor soul too embarrassed to ask.

As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, 34 vineyards in Burgundy (in the communes of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune) may apply this classification, which is above even premier cru. Most were awarded this standing back in the 1930s, before which they were known as the first of three classes.

Several dozen vineyards in Alsace have earned this appelation. It can only be applied to wine from a single vineyard, from a single vintage, and that wine must be a Riesling, Muscat, Gewurtztraminer or Pinot Gris. The amount of grapes per hectare is lower, and the sugar is higher. Take this all with a grain of salt—the vineyards were selected back in 1983, boundaries have wiggled, and there’s no guarantee that everyone using this phrase is consistently performing.

Finally, in Bordeaux, this label might apply to a specific property or chateau, depending on the region. Some of the world’s best reds come out of Bordeaux, so if you see this name on the label, you’ll likely do all right.

Beyond these three areas of France, “grand cru” holds little regulated value. You can look up the specific vineyards in the designated French regions, or you can ask your friendly sommelier at your neighborhood wine store. Just Grapes offers a wide selection: You might find a bottle for more than $100, or a taste for $3.

And really, it’s a matter of taste. You might order an exceedingly pricey grand cru in your best French accent and still like it less than your $30 bottle of Syrah from the Rhone. It’s all about the wine you like best. And if the wine you like best is the best wine, now you know how to find it.

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