Class dismissed: Natural wines & wine classification

The other day, a customer came into the cellar asking for a Grand Cru Chablis. The term Cru - which in wine vocabulary it references a great or superior growing site or vineyard, a concept linked to the French notion of terroir - is used a lot in conventional wine, but is scarcely seen in the world of natural wine. Some other countries have their own classifications: Italy’s DOC/DOCGs, the USA’s AVA/sub-AVAs and Spain’s DOP/IGPs.

What do these classifications actually mean and why are rarely seen in natural wine?

In Burgundy, the historical wine region in east-central France, one may find an AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée), AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée), Premier Cru (first growth) and Grand Cru (greatest growth) all along one slope. The distinction comes from the presumed quality of the grape that grows in the plot of land. One particular winemaker may have sole ownership over the entire plot, hence why they are able to stake their reputation on the name of the plot. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti comes immediately to mind. This is true for the other international classifications as well. Same goes with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars to an extent (there are other winemakers with “Stag’s Leap” in their name, but the aforementioned is the best-known).

The grape quality is one important factor of wine-making, but there are more factors in the final product. The weather conditions before harvest, the winemaker’s choices for human intervention, ageing vessels and extraction methods, just to name a few. To blindly trust a bottle for its classification’s reputation is like driving a Porsche 911 when the only places you go are a walkable distance away. They can get the job done and look very flashy, but they probably aren’t the best fit for the task at hand.

Here’s a real-world example of the confusion that classification systems have: I was at a blind tasting earlier this year with a table of other wine professionals, mostly French. There was a hidden theme and an odd one out. Most of us were able to identify that the theme was Bordeaux. When asked about our favourite cuvée we tasted, most of us preferred a beautifully constructed red wine blend with a rounded structure, smooth, silky tannins and delicious vanilla cream and stewed mixed berry notes. These cuveés were of different crus and vintages, so they all had distinctive differences. I wish I had a photo of my colleagues’ mortified faces when the crowd favourite was revealed to be a Chinese Bordeaux blend from Ningxia.

The Bordeaux blend outclassed all the Bordeaux cuvées by majority vote. Does this mean that classification systems are a scam? Not necessarily. Wine is a subjective drink and it has trends. These systems are in place for the preservation of the character related to the region, so wine-drinkers know what we’re getting ourselves into.

If you want to confuse others at your next blind tasting, I have picked a few bottles that match other appellations:

• Kindeli Luna Nueva 2022 has similar characteristics to a Chardonnay from Chablis because of its light body, characteristics of citrus fruit and green apple and the signature refreshing but not overpowering acidity.

• Bobinet Poil de Lievre 2022 has all the makings of a good Saumur Blanc, save the classification!

• Sato Northburn Pinot Noir 2020 shares similarities to a Côtes de Nuits for its juicy and slightly syrupy body of ripe red fruits with a slight menthol quality.

• The Jolie-Laide Syrah North Coast 2019 has the semblance of a Saint-Joseph, having a powerfully, black-fruity body and structured tannins but the acidity to give it some grace and expose some slightly more floral notes after opening up.

With natural wine, it is harder to find grand crus because the legal restrictions are tighter. Preservatives are also added to make sure the very expensive wine doesn’t spoil whilst ageing. Essentially, I hope that you can all take away that the label is not what makes the wine. Instead, talk to us if you’re unsure! La Cabane is here for you to choose the right bottle for you.

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