Banned in 2007, but back in action by 2010, Bordeaux's cru bourgeois classification has had something of a rocky ride of late. However, after getting my palate around a significant slew of wines from the 2009 vintage selection, it's within this somewhat confusing category that many of the better Bordeaux buys from this exceptional year can be found.
If cru bourgeois draws a blank or leaves you bewildered, it's no surprise. Covering Bordeaux's "left bank" sub-region of the Medoc, cru bourgeois exists outside the region's famed 1855 five-level chateaux classification and its first growth luminaries such as Margaux and Mouton Rothschild.
It actually has a history that dates back to the Middle Ages. At that time, the inhabitants of the "bourg" (market town) of Bordeaux, the bourgeois, used the privileges bestowed upon them under British rule to grow their wine businesses, coming to buy some prime properties in the region which came to be known as the Cru Bourgeois.
However, its past is somewhat chequered with false starts and more recently court battles. After being left out of the 1855 classification, in 1932 Bordeaux wine brokers registered a list of 444 Cru Bourgeois properties with the chamber of commerce, which was never submitted for ministerial approval.
After the union of the crus bourgeois was created in 1962, the term "crus bourgeois" came to be permitted on wine labels provided the condition for its use were specified by French law. But it wasn't until 2003 that a ministerial decree finally approved the first official list of recognised Cru Bourgeois chateaux.
Another battle then began as some of the properties that had been left out of the 2003 selection denounced the classification as unfair due to conflicts of interest within the selection process. They won their case in the courts, resulting in the term being banned in 2007.
Now cru bourgeois is back, with its 2008 vintage selection launched in 2010. Any Medoc property can apply for inclusion, with estates audited and their production now assessed by a blind tasting.
With so much confusion surrounding it, one wonders how useful the cru bourgeois name really is to those buying or selling its wines. However, as all the wines are qualitatively assessed to earn their cru bourgeois status, it's arguably a better guarantee of quality than that provided by the 1855 classification, which has seen its properties remain largely unchanged and unassessed since its inception.
Attending the Official Cru Bourgeois Selection tasting for the 2009 vintage in London last year, I was able to make my own judgments on the quality of the category. And I was impressed. Making considerable inroads into the 246 wines of that year's selection, I found plenty of ripe, concentrated fruit, fine tannins and silky acids.
Unlike wines from the top tiers of Bordeaux 1855 classification, which have seen prices blown sky-high in recent years off the back of a series of good vintages and growing interest from Asia, cru bourgeois prices have largely remained sensible and stable.
There may be no Chateau Margaux amongst them, but there are plenty of lesser known properties making solid and affordable wines under the cru bourgeois banner.
Those hunting for bargains from Bordeaux should definitely consider cru bourgeois from the stellar 2009 vintage; and most likely from the similarly strong 2010 when it's released later this year. However, I'm going to reserve my judgment of the category as a whole for a little while longer, until I've had a chance to sample the selection from the more challenging 2011 vintage, which will be the real test of whether the quality of cru bourgeois is being upheld.
Chateau Tour St Bonnet Medoc Cru Bourgeois 2009 $29.50
If you're looking for good 2009 bordeaux and your budget can't extend to the $1500 a bottle the first growths are currently going for, here's a reasonably priced alternative. With equal parts cabernet sauvignon and merlot and a touch of malbec and petit verdot, this complex cru bourgeois from a consistently reliable producer offers rich smooth creme de cassis fruit with high notes of violet, liquorice and spice. (From here.)
Chateau Beaumont Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois 2009 $32.50
A seriously impressive cabernet sauvignon dominant blend with wonderful weight to its supple, satiny-textured blackcurrant fruit that's seasoned with toasty oak and roasted spice and set around a fresh mineral spine. (From here.)
TOUR DE FORCE
Chateau La Tour de Bessan Cru Bourgeois 2009 $52
Another cabernet sauvignon dominant blend with plenty of elegant appeal in its rich savoury undertones, svelte tannins and the smooth and concentrated dark berry fruit that characterises the 2009 vintage. (From Wine Vault, Point Wines, Bacchus, Village Winery, Maison Vauron, Fish Bone.)