Dateline: Leiden

We arrived in Amsterdam on the overnight, took a train to Leiden and were in Eric’s apartment within an hour of landing. After a short nap, we explored the neighborhood, which included an Albert Heijn supermarket, where we purchased provisions for our two week stay. Since he was in the US for a year, Eric had kindly offered us his flat. Moreover, he had instructed his parents to prepare it for us.  So it was we found on the diningroom table two bottles of 2004 Chateau Le Monteil D’Arsac, a cru bourgeois from the Haut-Medoc, and a lovely typewritten letter welcoming us to The Netherlands, “our small country,” instructing us on which appliances work and which don’t, how to “rule the temperature with the thermostat,” and which neighbors we might call on in an emergency.

Our dinner last night was simple travelers’ fare, roast chicken, green salad, red wine. Bordeaux is like mother’s milk to me, the first wine I really appreciated as the product of a winemaker’s craft, something more than a beverage, or accompaniment to cheese at a poetry reading. This wine was deep garnet with a blackberry nose, medium acidity and tannins very much in balance. A 60-40 blend of cabernet and merlot, this was a classic claret.

So what is a cru bourgeois anyway? Does the grower drive his harvest to the winepress in a Volvo? The classification of 1855, ordered up by Napoleon III for the Paris Exposition, identified the finest Bordeaux wines, all but one from the Medoc, and divided them into five groups, from premier to cinquieme. The rankings were done by wine brokers based on reputation and price, price in those days having a close correlation to quality. In 1932, however, as a marketing idea designed to give the industry a lift following the Great War, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce undertook to classify the unranked. Four hundred forty-four properties were permitted to use the cru bourgeois designation on their labels. By the end of the 20th century, so many wines were sporting the honor that, by ministerial decree, the category was shrunk to 247, and these were further divided into Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (9 wines), Cru Bourgeois Superieur (87 wines), and the standard Cru Bourgeois (151 wines).

As you can imagine, not every property owner was happy, and they sought redress in the courts. It wasn’t just that a claimant’s wine was excluded or placed in a lower category, it was that his neighbor’s wine earned a higher distinction. In 2004, the court found for over 70 claimants, a decision that was upheld the next year. In 2007, a magistrate in Bordeaux concluded that the rankings were tainted by self-serving members on the original selection panel and voided the whole new classification system, sending it back to 1932. By 2007, the courts went so far as to declare the use of the term cru bourgeois as illegal. An alliance of growers then managed to introduce the term Label Cru Bourgeois as a mark of quality, not a classification. So it stands today.

Since our wine was vintage 2004, it was indeed a classified wine; this year’s vintage is not. Which only goes to show, you can tell a lot about a wine from its label, but the proof is in the bottle.

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