There are currently 17 grands crus and 42 premiers crus in Champagne, and negociants work directly with growers to set prices in a completely free market. But the number of grands and premiers crus, the connotations of these terms, and the guidelines and mechanisms for pricing have changed throughout Champagne’s history. A grasp of this history is helpful in developing a thorough understanding of the modern Champagne landscape.
The échelle des crus was the longest-standing system of classification in Champagne, but, prior to its establishment in 1911, there were five major 19th-century classifications devised by writers and trade publications. André Jullien’s Topographie de tous vignobles connus was the first of these. It was published in 1816 and later, in 1825, translated into English as a buyer’s guide for importers, called Topography of All Known Vineyards. Jullien was a French wine merchant based in Paris, who regularly visited most of the vineyard areas of Europe. He had a profound knowledge of viticulture and winemaking and wrote meticulous notes about what he saw and the wines he tasted, mentioning specific sites as early as 1816 and elaborating on this subject in his third edition of the text, which was published in 1832, the year of his death. Soon after, in 1833, Cyrus Redding wrote A History and Description of Modern Wines. Redding was a successful author who developed a love of wine in Paris, between 1814 and 1819, where he was sent as correspondent for the Examiner, then remained as editor of Galignani’s Messenger. He spent much of his time visiting vineyards in France and Italy. His was the first book in English to deal exclusively with contemporary wines.
In the classifications up to this point, including those of Jullien and Redding, sparkling wine was of limited importance and the rankings led with still red wines—whose quality criteria could not be further removed from those required for sparkling wine. By 1855, however, sparkling wine had assumed such a dominating role in Champagne production that, only 20 years later, even the famed Bouzy rouge would become a rarity. This is how and why the classifications published in Le cuisinier et le médecin in 1855 were the first to include a ranking focused exclusively on sparkling Champagne.
In 1873, the grower newspaper La vigne offered the inaugural ranking of Champagne villages as a means for establishing a price scale for grapes according to the village in which they were grown. About two decades later, in 1895, Le vigneron champenois included the first recorded use of the term grand cru in a comprehensive listing of 137 Champagne villages. It named 13 grands crus, 38 premiers crus, and 86 seconds crus [sic].
In 1911, Champagne’s vineyards were quality rated on a village-by-village basis using a percentile system known as the échelle des crus (literally “scale of vintages”), which was used to determine the difference in price for grapes grown in each village. Just 11 villages were rated 100%, the lowest rating was 22.55%, and the margin between some of the rankings was as negligible as 0.02%. This classification was truly percentile in span and demonstrably fastidious about the smallest differential in quality between one growth and another, proving to be a fair and robust pricing system.
The 11 villages awarded the maximum échelle of 100% (Ambonnay, Avize, Aÿ, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Cramant, Louvois, Mailly, Sillery, Tours-sur-Marne, and Verzenay) became the first potential grands crus of Champagne. Puisieulx, which had traditionally been harvested with Sillery, later joined this list. The right to use the terms grand cru and premier cru was granted in the decree of June 29, 1952. In 1985, the 12 became 17 when Chouilly, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Oiry, and Verzy were added.
Well before its final publication in 2003, however, the échelle des crus had gone through so many reclassifications that the lowest rating had soared from 22.5% to 80%, the smallest differential in quality had swollen fiftyfold, and the system was widely regarded as little more than a politically biased shopping list. Yet it started out with the best of intentions. It was devised by houses and growers with input from courtiers (brokers) over a period of 20 years (the first meeting was in 1890), and the scale they agreed to was based on historic prices paid.
With no villages promoted to premier cru and only one additional grand cru (Puisieulx) in the first 34 years of the échelle des crus, it would seem on initial examination that Champagne managed to maintain a remarkable discipline throughout the first third of a century of this system. But if one digs a little deeper, it is clear that, within just nine years of its publication, the lowest échelle had begun to creep up and the percentile classification of no fewer than 192 villages in the middle and lower growths rocketed, 174 of them increasing by 10 percentile points. At the same time, the increase in classification of some villages was very modest. It took 20 years of objective computation to arrive at the initial classification. How could they have got so many villages so wrong? What could account for this mass reappraisal?
Understanding these changes requires looking back a bit further. In 1911, several months before the échelle of 1911 was published, the French government drafted a bill recognizing both the Marne and the Aube but as two distinct districts. The Aube and those districts of the Marne excluded by an earlier decree in 1908 were named the Champagne deuxième zone. This sparked riots in the Aube, causing Prime Minister Ernest Monis to backtrack, hastily announcing the government’s intention to annul the laws of 1908 and 1911. But this only made matters worse in the Marne, where the lack of any geographical definition was seen as a total abandonment of the protection of Champagne. Monis was quickly replaced by Joseph Caillaux, who withdrew the military in October 1911 and was left to resolve the seemingly unresolvable demarcation of Champagne. He never did.
On the economic front, France was experiencing a boom, but, in terms of foreign relations, this was a precarious period. After World War I, the conundrum of Aube wines was craftily handed over to the courts to decide. After six years of litigation, the case was decided in favor of the Aube. The deuxième designation was disposed of, and the Aube was named a legitimate part of Champagne.
When the échelle was revised in 1920, the matter of the Aube was still in the hands of the judiciary and would not be fully resolved until the court’s decision was enshrined in the law of 1927. Those responsible for the reclassification knew that, whatever the outcome, the Aube had been legally recognized as part of Champagne, thus the question was how to squeeze the Aube villages into the échelle des crus. At the bottom, of course, even if that meant a wholesale upgrading of the lowest-rated Marne villages. Justified or prejudiced? At that time, the classification was probably justified; as the Champagne riots had demonstrated, it was difficult for Aube producers to sell their wines, thus the prices obtained would be the very lowest—not because of quality but because of market demands.
Although the lowest-rated échelle crept steadily upward from this juncture, Aube villages remained firmly on the bottom rung until the demise of the échelle des crus, in 2010. Whereas the lowest possible classification might have been arguable in 1920, it certainly was not by 2010. The prejudice remains, and now that there is no valid échelle des crus to highlight the extent of this prejudice, it is time to classify the Aube’s first premiers crus.
Beginning in 1919, the Syndicat général des vignerons de la Champagne (on behalf of the growers) and Champagne et le syndicat du commerce des vins de Champagne (representing the houses) met every year before the harvest to discuss the economic situation and agree on the price of grapes in a 100% growth. The échelle served as a guide to the difference in pricing between the villages rated 100% and the other rated villages, but the price itself was not legally binding.
This worked well enough until the 1930s, when, because of the Depression, there was little demand for a luxury item like Champagne. In 1932, despite a run of small harvests, the cellars in Reims and Épernay were so full of unsold Champagne that if the then-current level of sales was maintained and not another grape was pressed, there would be sufficient stock to last 33 years. The last thing the Champenois needed was a large harvest, yet that was exactly what they got with the bumper crop of 1934. Many houses refused to buy any grapes. Not only were most of the houses in the same financial straits as growers, but they simply did not have the facilities to store any more stock, even if they could afford it. This was the period when many growers resorted to selling their own Champagne, either individually or, because most growers could not afford the necessary winemaking equipment, through the formation of co-operatives.
The next year, the decree-law of September 28, 1935, provided for the annual fixing of the minimum grape price by an interprofessional commission, called the Commission de Châlons, which was replaced in 1941 by the Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC). The CIVC was more successful in enforcing the price of grapes and distributed the crop according to what were considered at the time to be objective criteria.
In 1950, the minimum price became the prix obligatoire, which was indexed to the average ex-cellar price of a bottle of Champagne in the previous year. The prix obligatoire was for 100% growths as rated by the échelle des crus for the year in question, and the price of grapes from other villages was determined proportionally. Grapes for a growth rated at 85%, for example, would cost 85% of the prix obligatoire. Merchants claimed the prix obligatoire was disproportionately advantageous to the growers; in 1955, they refused to purchase any grapes.
Beginning in 1959, the volume of grapes a buyer was allowed to purchase was restricted in proportion to its previous year’s sales. If a house sold 1 million bottles and the harvest was 10% smaller, it could buy only enough grapes to produce 900,000 bottles, whereas if the harvest was 10% larger, it could buy enough grapes to produce 1.1 million bottles. The maximum permitted was 120%. Also in 1959, the Société d’intervention de la Champagne viticole was established to purchase any balance of grapes that might exist after prix obligatoire purchases in an atypically large harvest (thereby protecting the revenue of all growers), and was charged with selling off this stock when the market demanded (providing a safety net for houses).
In the same year, the first interprofessional contract (IC) between houses and growers was agreed on to guarantee a regular flow of sufficient grapes from the growers, who owned 90% of the vineyards, to the houses, which sold 75% of the Champagne. The IC was a fixed-term agreement that provided medium-term stability (periods of between three and nine years) yet allowed both sides repeated opportunities to reassess their position. Unsurprisingly, the houses negotiated each IC to increase the supply of grapes, while the growers tried to extract the highest percentage price.
Following a 15% drop in global sales in 1974, the Société d’intervention de la Champagne viticole purchased as much as one-fourth of the 1975 harvest. As yields increased, this system proved economically unsustainable. After a drop in sales of 10% and the two largest harvests in Champagne’s history (1982 and 1983), it was replaced by the blocage system, in 1983.
The blocage system, which had been used as long ago as 1938, was initially used on an ad hoc basis. Blocage (blocking) entailed the specification of a limited volume of grapes above the maximum legally permitted yield. Wines kept en blocage did not possess the Champagne AOC and were not paid for. They remained the property of the grower, although they could be stored at a co-operative or house, if under contract, but they could not be traded. These wines were held in reserve as vins clairs—never in bottle—until times of shortage, whereupon the wines would be granted full AOC status by ministerial decree and released for production (déblocage), whether by the grower or the contracted purchaser; they could also be sold. If better, fresher wines became available in subsequent vintages, lesser or deteriorating wines might be replaced, provided stock levels remained the same.
In 1990, after a failure to agree on a sixth IC and under pressure from the EU, which considered the prix obligatoire to be a form of price fixing, the prix obligatoire was replaced with the prix indicatif and grape allocations discontinued. Because the prix indicatif was a guide price only, the actual price paid was determined by buyers and sellers. This was in turn replaced in 2000 by the prix constaté (observed price), which remains in place today. The EU made clear that it intended to be very strict in its enforcement of antitrust and anticompetitive regulations; consequently, no price is given prior to or during transactions. The prices are recorded, after which the prix constaté is reported. This task was performed by the CIVC for the first four years, and it is now the responsibility of brokers (Le syndicat professionnel des courtiers en vins de Champagne) although inevitably reported by the CIVC.
In 2007, the blocage system was transformed from a global mechanism to an individual facility when it became known as the réserve personnelle, or réserve qualitative individuelle, and this scheme is still in place. Growers may keep up to 10,000 kilograms per hectare (8,000 before the 2011 harvest) in total as vins clairs, with the same rules as for blocage. While the maximum amount is specified annually, individual growers decide which wines, and from which vintages, to use for their réserve personnelle, provided the grower’s overall yield does not exceed the absolute maximum yield of 15,500 kilograms per hectare (which is usually significantly higher than the annual maximum yield set by the CIVC). In times of shortage, the maximum amount of reserves that may be kept (déblocage) is announced, but individual growers decide whether to take advantage of this.
The prix obligatoire inflated grape prices to the point where Champagne grapes became the most expensive grapes in the world of wine (a boast the Champenois loved to make). But it was a self-perpetuating inflationary cycle: Champagne prices would increase, enabling the growers to push up the cost of grapes during negotiations for the next supply contract, which would cause the price of Champagnes produced from those grapes to increase when released, which would in turn lead to the growers increasing the price of grapes during negotiations for the next supply contract, and so on. The level of stocks, because of where Champagne was in its cyclical boom-bust economy, might occasionally have had an ameliorating effect on this inflationary price cycle, but, as the supply contract was for multiple years, it was never the ultimate arbiter of the price agreed, and both sides benefited from the increasing price of Champagne.
The prix obligatoire era between 1959 and 1989 was the lucrative period for Champagne’s economy in the 20th century, when the price of grapes increased tenfold, the area planted with vines doubled, and the number of bottles sold increased fivefold. Since the introduction of a completely free market in 2000 (rather than the semifree market from 1990 to 1999) and, particularly, the discarding of the prix indicatif, grape prices have become relatively stabilized.
Jullien, André. Topographie de tous les vignobles connus. Paris: 1816. https://iiif.wellcomecollection.org/pdf/b21504660.
Le cuisinier et le médecin. Paris: L. Curmer, 1855. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6464383c.
Redding, Cyrus. A History and Description of Modern Wines. London: Whittaker, Treacher, & Arnot, 1833.
As always, Mr. Stevenson delivers the goods like no one else. If you like to know the whole story, he never disappoints.