When I was about 16, I was always surrounded by my crew. That’s what we called our huge group of friends in South London in the early nineties. Our friends were our lifeline; this was pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days so we had no one else but our crew to connect with. My crew was everything to me – advised me about my (often unsuitable) boyfriends, provided sanctuary when things went awry with my parents, introduced me to cheap wine and cigarettes, and made every moment of those unbearable teenage years bearable.
My crew was an élite band of friends who were the créme de la créme (or so I thought) of central South London. There was even a classification system in place: the top tier was a few lucky ones from whom I would do anything, then the second level of people who were almost as good, then third level and so on and so on until you get to the outer circle of friends who I thought were nice, but I didn’t really know much about. But if they were friends of friends, then they were friends of mine.
I only say this as it’s funny that the French 1855 Cru Classification is very similar to my own crew 30 years ago. Not only is it pronounced the same but we have the same diminuendo effect: the best ones at the top, followed by lesser but nonetheless excellent versions cascading down. If being part of my crew in the 1990s was a privilege, being part of the 1855 crus was an honour.
Cru Definition: What Is a Cru?
If you have even a passing interest in wine, then the term grand cru wine will hold no secrets for you. But to those who are new to the wine investment game and are just now starting to use a wine investment app, you might need a little understanding.
Grand cru basically means “great growth”. Typical of the French, who can never do things by halves, the full term is “Produit de Grand Cru”. This loosely translates as “wine that is a product of grapes from a great growing site”. Although the French speakers among you will recognize the term cru as literally meaning raw, don’t be fooled into thinking that this cru is anything to do with uncooked grapes. The cru that is used in the wine term Grand Cru (also Premier Cru, but more about that later) comes from the archaic french verb croître or rather, to grow. Thus, a cru is something that has been grown. Get it?
Certainly, the most famous classification is the 1855 Bordeaux appellation, which ranks growths from first to fifth place. However, there are many interpretations across the globe, with several different meanings even within French wine regions. Well, we did say the French never did things by halves.
French Wine Classifications
Three is the magic number when it comes to official French wine classifications.
The elite in the wine world is AOC. This refers to “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” and indicates where the wine is from (geographical origin). An AOC wine is also a sign that the quality is generally good. All Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines are AOC.
Next up is Vin de Pays. This is the middle child of wine classification – not as brilliant as the older sibling, but less anarchic than the younger ones. Vin de Pays is, quite literally, wine of the land. So here we are looking at the global region, rather than the specific village (think Bordeaux, rather than St. Estephe). The overall style is more arbitrary than AOC, which gives winemakers more choice when making their wines. About a quarter of all French wines are Vin de Pays.
Finally, we have Vin de Table or Table Wine. This is becoming increasingly known as Vin de France in order to try and make it sound a bit sexier, but we all know that it is what it is: a hotchpotch of leftover grapes from several regions in France, thrown in together. This means that a Vin de Table (or de France) can be a mixture of any hand-me-down grapes from any region. Truly the last child of the family.
But for the wine investor, there are really only two cru definitions that are of interest – Grand Cru and Premier Cru. More about these below.
Grand Cru Wine
Here’s where we start getting interesting. What’s the difference between a Grand Cru wine and a premier (or even second) cru?
Exclusive to France, Grand Cru refers to wine made in Burgundy (Bourgogne). The term is one of the most searched for in internet searches, yet paradoxically it accounts for just two per cent of France’s wine production. There are 31 Grand Cru vineyards and 33 Grand Cru wines. Each vineyard is an appellation in its own right and unless you know your Chablis from your Charlemagne it can be a labyrinthine journey for the uninitiated. Interestingly enough, even though the grassroots of the classification were in place long before the Bordeaux 1855 system came and stole the limelight, the official Burgundy Grand Crus classification only dates from 1936.
Premier Cru Wine
The incomparable 1855 classification system is subject to much controversy, but it remains steadfastly in place and does not show any signs of movement (bar in 1973, when Mouton Rothschild was promoted from Second to First Growth). A total of 61 Bordeaux chateaux are included in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification for producers of red wine. This breaks down to five First Growths, 14 Second Growths, 14 Third Growths, 10 Fourth Growths and 18 Fifth Growth Bordeaux wines. All wines, from First to Fifth, are spectacular and offer phenomenal investable appeal. Many vineyards are lobbying for a reclassification (Liv-Ex has already done this), claiming that advances in technology, better vineyard management and superior oenological understanding means that some Fifths should be Fourths, some Fourths should be Thirds and so on. These Premier (First) Crus are the Holy Grail of wine investment, providing almost guaranteed results and a spectacular ROI, regardless of vintage. Read up on what wines to get, store and drink In our guide to wine regions in France
Italian Wine Classifications
With Italy and France being so close, yet so far apart, it is unsurprising that the two countries classify their wines differently. After all, Italians do it better, é vero?
While Italian wine regions follow a classification system similar to the French, there are four tiers that allow for greater flexibility and depth of detail.
Vini di Tavola
Vin de Table, or Table Wine. Pretty much does what it says on the label: low quality wine whose only specification is that it must be produced in Italy. Vino di Tavola is actually very good in Italy – nothing like the lacklustre Vin de Table that is produced over the border. By good, we mean good for drinking with your spaghetti alle vongole, no one in their right mind would invest in it.
The acronym stands for “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” – and was created relatively recently to recognize the increased quality of notably Super Tuscan wines. An IGP wine is not quite in the same realm as a DOP or DOCG, but is stunning nevertheless. This is used for wines made with non-Italian grapes (such as Bordeaux style wines that use Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot).
Much like the French AOC, the Italians use DOP, which stands for “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” and is a label of quality assurance – expects to see it on everything from cheese to honey. DOP wines are made with Italian grapes and the producer will have taken out all the lower quality grapes used for making vinegar or cooking wine, thereby elevating his source product (and charging prices to match). Liv-ex and investor’s favorite Tenuta del’Ornellaia is a DOP. It is also the largest of the wine groups, as entry into the next club is no mean feat.
DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) are the holy grail of Italian wine classifications. These wines (there are just 75 in the country) follow very strict quality control and are analyzed by a government-approved panel prior to release. These are wines that wear their status with honour; a status label and serial number need to be visible on the neck of the bottle – pink for reds, green for whites.
German Wine Classifications
Like everything that Germany produces – automobiles, beer, and roads, the country’s wine classification is very good, straight to the point, factually correct, and excels in its self-explanatory wisdom.
Deutscher Wein (German Wine)
The German Wine classification is a no-brainer. Made with ripe or slightly under-ripe grapes but belonging to no region in particular, the wine is adored by its country folk, detested everywhere else. So if you want some German Wine, you’ll probably need to go to Germany.
Deutscher Landwein (German Landwine)
Slightly higher up the German wine ladder is Landwine. In order to hold this classification, the wine needs to come from one of 19 distinctive districts. It also needs to contain fewer than 18 grammes of zucker (sugar) per litre.
Qualitätswein (Quality Wine)
Slowly but surely, we are getting there. Quality Wine does what it says: it’s a wine of quality. Qualitätswein is tested and needs to follow regional laws that include proof of where the grapes are grown and the ripeness of the grape at harvest before it can be given an AP number.
Prädikatswein (Wine with Special Attributes)
This is the top of the tree for German wines, but you have to like it sweet if you want a bottle. Prädikatswein is devoid of sugar, as the ripeness of the grape gives it its sweet taste. This category is divided into five subcategories and includes the fabled eiswein (which falls into the fourth category, beerenauslese). The others are (in order) kabinett, spätlese, auslese and trockenbeerenauslese and are classified according to the ripeness of the grape at harvest. Trockenbeerenauslese can sometimes include dried grapes as well.
Now that you have more knowledge about wine crus, you can learn more about how to invest in wine.