Wine Classifications: First Growth, Premier Cru, and Others You Need to Know
By Rai Cornell
Some of the best wines from around the world – like those pouring out of France, Italy, and Germany – have some pretty bizarre phrases plastered across their labels.
As you up-level your sophisticated palate, you’ll need to up-level your wine lingo, too. Wine classifications are a means of categorizing and describing different wines based on how they’re made, where they’re made, and the quality of the wine you’re about to enjoy.
Knowing how to translate these wine terms for your fellow drinkers means you can explain exactly why that expensive wine carries the price tag it does. Here’s what you need to know about wine classifications.
French v.s. English
There are two fancy terms you’ve likely heard sommeliers bandy about or that you may have seen on your favorite bottle of wine: premier cru and first growth.
Let’s be honest: the first one sounds far sexier, right?
The truth is, they mean the same thing. Premier cru is French for first growth. However, that’s right about where the similarities in the nomenclature end.
Some of the most incredible wines are produced in Burgundy, France.
Red Burgundy wines are classified based on their cru. Cru simply means “growth” and the wine classification indicates that the wine has been legally verified as a product of Burgundy.
What does this mean for wine drinkers? Good question.
Burgundy is known for its impeccable terroir, which imparts particularly impressive flavors on the lush liquid. Hence, only wines that are produced with grapes grown in this special terroir can carry one of these wine classification labels.
Although this term isn’t specific to wine, it’s important to know. Grand Cru refers to a the quality of a particular vineyard and the terroir in which the grapes grow. It is the highest and most well-respected wine classification within the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), which is the governing board over the wines produced in Burgundy and Alsace, France.
Premier Cru (aka, First Growth)
Wine labeled with Premier Cru is just a notch below Grand Cru wine. This wine is still highly coveted and the vineyards bestowed with the lavish title are among the best in the world.
More than a third of all Burgundy wine produced in France comes from grapes grown in small villages dotted around the countryside. Wine produced from these grapes are labeled “Village Wines”. However, don’t let the humble title fool you.
Oftentimes grapes that produce village wines are grown on the same hills or just next door to grapes that produce Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines. Unfortunately, the little villages just haven’t yet received the same recognition.
There are other wine labels, all of which imply varying degrees of notability of the wine, including:
Premier Cru Supérieur
Of course, Italy doesn’t like to do anything the way France does. Which is why the country began developing its own classification system in the 1960s (about 65 years after France created theirs).
Italian wines come in four different classifications.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (aka, DOCG)
The top classification of wine, seeing DOCG on a wine bottle’s label means it has been produced with controlled processes and the quality is guaranteed.
There are numerous factors that go into identifying a DOCG wine, including the maturation of the barrel and bottle, grape ripeness, winemaking methods, varieties of grapes used, and the volume of grapes a particular harvest yields.
The Italians are so serious about this wine label that each blessed bottle is stamped with a numbered government seal to prevent counterfeiting.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata (aka, DOC)
The largest of the wine groups, the DOC classification applies to nearly every traditional winemaking process. Those who aren’t special enough to make it into the DOCG are perfectly happy to belong to the DOC club.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica (aka, IGT)
Some winemakers like to go a bit wild – particularly in certain regions. Those wines are distinguished with the IGT label, which means when you’re sipping you may (or may not) notice some subtle differences unique to the region from whence your bottle came.
Vino da Tavola (aka, Table Wine)
While “table wine” is often thought to be a lesser quality product, that’s not the case with Italian wine. Vino da Tavola is high quality wine made in unorthodox ways. Due to the fact that some unique styles of winemaking cannot be verified or replicated in other vineyards, this wine takes the lowest spot on the totem pole, but not for lack of luster.
The Germans are obsessed with ripeness in their wine. Therefore, the German wine classification system reflects just that.
Deutscher Wein (German Wine)
This classification of wine is something you’ll likely only find if you visit the country. It’s rarely exported and conforms to very few regulations. Deutscher wein is made with grapes that are either just ripe or slightly under and is very popular with locals.
Deutscher Landwein (German Landwine)
With a slightly higher alcohol content, Deutscher landwein comes from one of only 19 distinguished wine districts. It’s limited to fewer than 18 grams of sugar per liter and is thought to be superior to Deutscher wein.
Qualitätswein (Quality Wine)
Ruled by regional laws and heavily tested, Qualitätswein is given an AP-number based on the grape varieties used, the ripeness of the grapes, the quality of the wine, and the region in which the grapes are grown.
Prädikatswein (Wine with Special Attributes)
Lastly, Prädikatswein refers to the ripeness of a wine and can range from Kabinett, which is a light wine made with ripe grapes, to Trockenbeerenauslese, which includes overly ripe and potentially dried grapes.
Wine Classifications Around the World
Other countries, like Spain and Australia have their own wine classification systems and wine terms. However, they’re either extremely close to the systems created in France, Italy, and Germany, or they’re rather self-explanatory.
For example, in Australia, wines are categorized as either “Exceptional”, “Outstanding”, or “Excellent.” We’ll let you enjoy that one.
Of course, everyone’s palate is different. While your dinner companion may rave about a Grand Cru Burgundy, you may not be as impressed.
The best way to find out which wine terms translate into a happy dance for your taste buds? Drink more wine! Let us know what you’ve discovered about your own palate in the comments below.