The difference between Premier Cru and Grand Cru Champagnes

A few Q and As to help introduce you to the champagne “cru” scale. Happy sipping.

If my champagne bottle has a “grand cru” or “premier cru” label, what can I expect to find inside?

A label with a “grand cru” or “premier cru” stamp must contain 100% grand cru or premier cru grapes, respectively. A bottle without a cru label may still feature cru grapes, however.

Okay…sure, but what does “cru” even mean?

At its heart, cru designation is really just a question of real estate. A throwback to a post-World-War-I method of land evaluation, the cru system ranks villages within the Champagne region according to their “terroirs” (or overall environments) and potential for grape harvest. A village with an optimal terroir is placed at the highest rung on the proverbial Échelle des Crus (translated as “ladder of growth”), while a slightly less favourable terroir is assigned a lower-rung status…and so on.

Of the more than 300 wine-producing villages in Champagne, 17 are categorised as “grand cru” (“great/best growth”) and 44 are listed under the marginally-less-extraordinary “premier cru” (“first growth”) label. The remaining territories, though they may yield exceptional grapes, have no cru status at all.

There’s just one problem: These designations are frozen in time.

Impressive as they may sound, cru assignments have remained the same since the system began. Villages that were granted top tier cru status at the turn of the 20th Century still enjoy the same prestige at the turn of the 21st. This means the system makes no account for changes in climate, farming techniques or production procedures that have occurred over the past hundred years or so. And it doesn’t discriminate when it comes to vineyards, either. An outstanding vineyard that just happens to exist outside the borders of a cru-designated village can never hope to achieve a cru classification.

Does cru affect quality and/or taste?

Not in the ways you’d expect.

Contemporary champagne producers seem to be in agreement that, in today’s wine world, cru is more a matter of personal preference than of measurable quality. For example, Pierre Larmandier of Champagne Larmandier-Bernier admits that, while grand cru sites may possess the best terroirs “on average,” a great premier cru vineyard can often yield better fruit than a grand cru winery.

Some winemakers even refuse to limit their champagnes to a single cru, opting instead to blend grapes from a variety of territories across the cru spectrum.  Case in point: Didier Gimonnet of Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils proudly avoids the grand cru label. “We have no grand cru blends, because the wines are better balanced when they’re blended with premier crus,” he announced in The Champagne Guide 2014-2015.

And the operative word there is “balanced.” For 21st-century oenophiles, the idea of cru classification conjures up specific flavours rather than specific degrees of excellence. Indeed, Duval-Leroy Chef de Cave, Sandrine Logette-Jardin, credits the steeper slopes of the grand cru villages with creating a “different level of maturity” for their grapes, resulting in a bolder wine. Similarly, Didier Gimonnet cites premier cru grapes as providing the signature freshness for the Gimonnet taste profile.

So how can I decide between the two?

The beauty of champagne is that you don’t have to. No one “in the know” will judge you for favouring one cru over another—or for selecting an artfully crafted mixture of several crus instead. Even Veuve Clicquot Chef de Cave, Dominique Demarville, told The Champagne Guide that vineyard designation wasn’t necessarily the best way to assess the greatness of a wine.

So whether you opt for premier, grand, a balanced blend or no cru at all, the general rule with this type of classification is to let your taste buds—and not your labels—be your guide.