What makes a Grand Cru?

IMG_0902(1)What makes a site a grand cru? The glib answer is the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (until 2007 the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine or INAO) which classifies the vineyards of France. More seriously, the evolution and elaboration of the concept of terroir over time is a fascinating subject for the historian. Thanks to the likes of Charles Curtis, whose Original Grand Crus of Burgundy (2014) collates important passages from  authors such as Arnoux, Morelot and Lavalle, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classifications of Burgundy’s climats are attaining wider publicity. A study of monastic and late-Antique writings on Burgundy’s vineyards remains to be written, presumably due to the considerable linguistic and archival demands such a work would make on its author.

But there is more to a grand cru than that: grand crus are expected to produce wines of a certain character. It is common to hear the wines of the Clos St. Jacuques or of Meursault Perrières, for example, described as “of grand cru quality”. Similarly, promising sites in the New World, or in unheralded or unclassified appellations, are sometimes identified, more or less plausibly, as emerging, potential or de facto grand crus.

In conversation with Levi Dalton, Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac adverts to this—what an oenologist might call the organoleptic characteristics of a grand cru. For Seysses, while Burgundy’s grand crus vary in their textural and aromatic signatures, they all naturally produce a ‘complete wine’; a wine with no gaps, no holes. That is why, he adds, no one would contemplate blending La Tâche, say, and Romanée Saint Vivant: both stand alone as great wines. The latter illustration calls to mind Saint Exupéry’s suggestion to the effect that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.

In the same series of interviews, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair addresses heritage and taste in tandem, arguing that a grand cru like La Romanée is “ninety per cent of dream and ten per cent of wine”, albeit wine at the highest level. For Liger-Belair, whereas tasting is description, drinking is perception; and it is in the realm of perception that the grand crus, steeped in history and in heritage, become evocative and emotionally charged. I find this approach particularly thoughtful: there can be no compromises, certainly, concerning the quality of that ten per cent of wine, but it is so much better (as I feel sure Liger-Belair would agree) to drink grand crus than to merely taste them.

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