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Class act: Saint-Emilion

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Saint-Emilion’s classification is in crisis – embroiled in court cases and controversy. But why? And does it matter? Sophie Thorpe investigates

Saint-Emilion has been hitting the headlines. And not in the way it would like to.

In July, just after the region’s châteaux submitted applications for the 2022 classification, two of the region’s four Premier Cru Classé A estates – Chx Cheval Blanc and Ausone – announced that they would be withdrawing from the classification system. This week sees a dispute over the 2012 classification enter the courts – with accusations that the results were fixed.

The Médoc’s leading names were ranked in 1855 – with but one change (Ch. Mouton Rothschild’s promotion) in 1973. The classification was uncomplicated, with no fussing over terroir, tastings or winemaking talent; it was based purely on price. It’s hard to believe that it remains relevant today – but, while of course there are properties that stand out, it’s more or less accepted, and reflective.

Across the river in Saint-Emilion, they wanted something different. Something fairer. A system that flexed with an estate’s waxing and waning. The ambition was – and is – laudable. The reality, well…

The classification is overseen by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) – the body responsible for France’s appellation system. The concept was mooted in the 1950s, with the first list published in 1955. The idea was that it would be re-drawn every 10 years – both to be more democratic and provide an incentive for long-term quality. Unlike the Left Bank’s system, it would assess terroir and include a tasting of the wines. The aim was, and is – as a spokesperson for the INAO told me, to help consumers distinguish between the region’s many properties and help “maintain a level of excellence”.

The classification is based on a scoring system out of 20, with the breakdown of scores different to qualify for Grand Cru Classé (requiring a minimum 14 points) versus Premier Grand Cru Classé (requiring a minimum 16). In 2012, the possible points for Premier Grand Cru Classé were broken down thus: 30% based on the quality of the wine – with a tasting of 15 vintages; 30% on the estate’s terroir; 35% on the property’s renown (both national and international), promotion and distribution; and the remaining 5% on viticulture, vinification and traceability.

Even the first, 1955 list was disputed, changed just three years later, then again two months later, before settling on 63 Grands Crus Classés and 12 of the elite Premiers Grands Crus Classés. The very best of this latter group were named “Premier Grand Cru Classé A” (the rest Premier Grand Cru Classé B) – with just two making the cut, Chx Ausone and Cheval Blanc.

Since 1958 the region’s wines have been re-classified regularly – if not quite on the 10-year cycle forecast, in 1969, 1986, 1996, 2006 and then 2012. But there has always been an undercurrent of discontent. In 2006, five properties filed lawsuits and the ruling was declared invalid, with the 1996 classification reinstated.

For the 2012 classification, the INAO seemed determined to clean things up. The tastings and site inspections were, for the first time, outsourced by the INAO, with wine professionals from other regions (Burgundy, the Rhône, Champagne, the Loire and Provence) roped in – including Marcel Guigal and Robert Drouhin. A company called Qualisud was to handle the tastings, while Bureau Veritas would take on visiting the estates. These independent authorities would, they thought, make it indisputable.

The result was two new Premiers Grands Crus Classés A estates – with Chx Angélus and Pavie; while Larcis DucasseLa MondottePavie MacquinTroplong Mondot and Valandraud all promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé B, and significant changes to the Grands Crus Classés (with a new total of 64 estates).

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The approach to Ch. TrotteVieille

But of course that wasn’t the end of it. Enter Chx Corbin-Michotte, Croque-Michotte and La Tour du Pin Figeac. The latter two had applied for and hoped to be promoted to Grand Cru Classé, while Corbin-Michotte was demoted in the 2012 rankings. They argue that the decision against them was “incomprehensible”, challenging the criteria for classification and insisting that two individuals – Hubert de Boüard (of Ch. Angélus) and Philippe Castéja (of Ch. TrotteVieille) – had “undue influence” with their roles within the INAO. It’s alleged that de Boüard was “present at all stages of the process elaborating the 2012 classification” (with it implied he influenced the ranking not only of Angélus but seven properties for which he consulted), while Castéja “pulled strings” to guarantee TrotteVieille’s Premier Grand Cru Classé status.

The case went to administrative court, however the plaintiffs lost in 2015. They appealed, but lost again in 2019. And now they’re taking it to the criminal courts, with jail time and a fine of up to €500,000 on the cards for the accused.

When I asked Frédéric Castéja – Philippe’s son and General Director of Borie Manoux – about the accusations, he told me: “I can only tell you that the Attorney General has dropped all accusations against [my father] and stated that he was not concerned at all with this so called ‘influence’.”

“When it comes to a public ranking, the level of controversy is as high as the stakes,” the INAO told me. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, given the impact the classification can have on an estate’s bottom line. After their promotion in 2012, Chx Pavie and Angélus saw instant price hikes: 2012 Angélus was released at 30% more than the 2011 en primeur, while Pavie went up 58%. That’s big bucks. And beyond the actual wine, it’s the land prices that really rocket.

It wasn’t just these three (relatively minor) properties that seemed dissatisfied. Rumour has it that each year, the Médoc’s First Growths, Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Pétrus (“the group of nine”) all meet to taste the latest vintage. After Pavie and Angélus became newly minted First Growths, the group reportedly preferred to restrict the group to the original set. And in 2012 Ch. Ausone quietly removed the classification from its labels – a hint at what was to come.

Eric Morain – one of the lawyers representing the three disgruntled estates – has commented that the classification has become “a system that sells the brand and no longer the grape”. La Revue du Vin de France’s 2021 Man of the Year, the attorney is a specialist in the world of wine and has earned a reputation for standing up for the little guys. He was instrumental in establishing the Syndicat de Défense des Vins Naturels (which introduced the Vin Méthode Nature trademark last year – a formal definition for natural wine in France), and has defended several wronged natural wine producers, such as Olivier Cousin and Alexandre Bain. Morain’s latest crusade, however, is against two goliaths – with connections and deep pockets.

“The classification was thought out and developed and judged by people who had a direct interest. The rules were not the same for everyone,” Morain said on email to me. De Boüard and Castéja should have recused themselves, he argues. For Chx Corbin-Michotte, Croque-Michotte and La Tour du Pin Figeac (“They aren’t notable, just winegrowers who do their job well,” Morain says), this isn’t about money. They just want someone to admit they were wronged, unfairly excluded from the ranking.

“Will they be convicted?” Bordeaux expert Jane Anson pondered, “I would imagine not, but I guess we will all have to wait and see...” For her, the drama is an unnecessary distraction “from the excellence of the wines and the entire classification”.

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Pickers during harvest at Ch. Cheval Blanc

In the meantime, the process for the 2022 classification has been rumbling on, with applications submitted this summer. Some changes have been made, again trying to make the classification – once and for all – watertight. Independent third party Bureau Veritas is now in charge of both tastings and site inspections, and the weighting of the tasting element has been increased for the Premiers Grands Crus Classés (bringing it in line with the weighting for the Grands Crus Classés) – worth 50% of the score (previously 30%) – while the portion for a property’s terroir has been reduced to just 10% (previously 30%).

The puzzle is why the criteria remain different for a Premier Grand Cru Classé versus a Grand Cru Classé – something for which I haven’t been able to find an answer. Given estates need to score 17 for the heralded Premier Grand Cru Classé A, 16 for Premier Grand Cru Classé B and 14 for Grand Cru Classé, why make things even more complicated and declare that, for example in 2022, the quality of terroir has more significance for a Grand Cru Classé than a Premier Grand Cru Classé estate (20% versus 10% for the latter)?

To make it into the upper echelons of the Premiers Grands Crus Classés, reputation is considered key – and this is a sticking point for many. While reputation, promotion and distribution represents 20% for the Grands Crus Classés, it stands for 35% of a property’s score for Premier Grand Cru Classé status. Including elements such as wine tourism, social media, PR and the accessibility of an estate, it has prompted remarks that the size of a winery’s car park has more relevance than the quality of its soils. The INAO emphasises that the criteria are very similar to those of the original classification in the 1950s. Reputation has always been included, they argue – they are simply adapting this to the modern day. Either way, it’s a minor element, they assure me – with, for example, social media representing just 0.3 points, or 1.5% of the final score, while wine tourism makes up a mere 1%.

This hasn’t soothed the worries of the region’s two original Premiers Grands Crus Classés A properties, Ausone and Cheval Blanc. News broke soon after applications for the classification closed on June 30th that the prestigious estates had not submitted anything.

When I spoke to both estates ahead of en primeur (April this year), the responses were interesting. Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Technical Director at Ch. Cheval Blanc, noted it was “a touchy question” before he continued.

“We believe it’s quite difficult in 2021 to classify the wine like in 1855. This is not the same period this is not the same price per hectare, it is not the same price per bottle… Producing an outstanding wine is difficult on paper,” he said. “We don’t produce wine for the critics, for the classification – we make wine for the wine lover. Premier Grand Cru Classé A, Premier Grand Cru Classé B, Grand Cru Classé… we are Cheval Blanc, that’s it.”

When I enquired whether he felt a wine’s distribution should have as much weighting as its terroir, he shrugged and smiled: “The answer is in the question.”

Pauline Vauthier of Ch. Ausone was less willing to broach the topic, not wanting to be embroiled in the debate. “What counts is the quality of the product,” she said – making very clear that that is where the estate’s focus lies. “There are many classifications and they’re difficult for the public to understand. Ausone prefers to communicate about the quality of its wine.” She added: “[The 2012 classification] created much controversy, and that will certainly be the case with 2022.”

When the news broke in July that both estates were withdrawing (along with sibling estates, La Clotte and Quinault l’Enclos), Pierre Lurton (Director of Ch. Cheval Blanc) and Clouet told Terre de Vins that there wasn’t enough emphasis on “the terroir, the wine, the history”.

Edouard Vauthier (Ch. Ausone) explained, “Since 2012, some criteria added are not linked into the wine itself anymore. Some people apply for the classification for economic reasons more than quality and the respect of the terroir.” He highlighted that many of their customers hadn’t even noticed that “Premier Grand Cru Classé A” was no longer on the label. Indeed, why would they?

Interestingly, these estates agree with Eric Morain on this. For Morain, the tasting component should represent much more – and as long as it counts for so little, “the classification will mean nothing”.

The two behemoths are their own brands – brands that are much stronger than that of Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé A. The loser, sadly, is set to be the classification itself, and its top-tier properties – which will no longer benefit from Cheval Blanc and Ausone’s halo effect. Of course, the INAO was keen to emphasise that – whether classified or not – the two estates would always be closely associated with the region, and that there were plenty of other estates that eagerly submitted applications.

“Ausone and Cheval Blanc have always been driving forces behind the appellation and I hope will remain so,” Frédéric Castéja told me. “The risk is that at the next occasion other top estates (meaning other First Growths) do the same, then if too many leading estates leave, the classification is meaningless.” Morain – unsurprisingly given his campaign against the classification – is damning about its fate. Ausone and Cheval Blanc’s departure is, for him, “a symptom of a system on its last legs”.

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Pauline Vauthier in the vines at Ch. Ausone

So is the 2022 ranking set to be the Saint-Emilion classification’s swansong? Perhaps – the more important question is maybe if it matters.

“Saint-Emilion has so many châteaux (by far the most of any of the prestigious appellations) that there is a definite benefit to have some way of distinguishing the best wines,” Jane Anson said. “I fully agree with the principles, in fact think the idea of a renewable classification is very much consumer-driven and provides an incentive to estates to keep investing etc, but I think it has become unworkable.” And that is the problem – the theory is excellent, but how can it be put into practice?

While the classification sounds helpful in principle, for most people, I suspect it isn’t. There’s too much confusion with Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé and Premier Grand Cru Classé A or B. Unlike the Médoc’s straightforward numbering of First to Fifth Growth, it is not – to the uninitiated – immediately clear which is meant to be better than the other. Price and branding of an individual estate will be the more important differentiator.

Talking to other producers in the region, few have answers – and few wish to champion the system’s survival. I asked Noëmie Durantou Reilhac – of Denis Durantou estates – whether she’d ever wish to see something similar in Pomerol. The answer was a firm no (“definitely”). “What really saddens me is seeing some plots in Saint-Emilion Grand Cru that are truly devastated,” she tells me.

When I ask Nicolas Glumineau at Pichon Comtesse in Pauillac – a producer with a little distance – about his thoughts on it, he’s quick to quip: “That’s why we have an 1855 [classification] that we never move.” More seriously, he thinks the decade cycle is problematic. “I have this feeling that one classification every 10 years is probably too fast, too frequent. Probably 25 years – one generation could be enough.”

Of course applying for the classification is voluntary – and not everyone does. Ch. Tertre Rôteboeuf, notably, has never played the game – despite the high quality of its wines. (The property is also renowned for handling its own distribution, outside the négociant system.) Ch. Haut-Brion owner Prince Robert of Luxembourg recently highlighted a benefit to being outside the classification – announcing his plans to expand Quintus with vineyards from the recently bought Ch. Grand Pontet.

And this really gets to the point of what could make the Saint-Emilion classification work. As Anson said to me, “Saint-Emilion is the only classification in Bordeaux that includes the notion of terroir (and in fact taste) and that is also linked to a specific piece of land.” A classified property can’t automatically include new vineyards – unlike estates on the Left Bank. The classification is admirable in many ways – but how can you really quantify excellence? Is it ever really possible to pin down the true quality of a wine, or estate, with such exactitude? Is the picture not more nebulous than points can ever paint?

“All classifications are correct as long as all players clearly know the rules,” Frédéric Castéja noted. “One must remember that classifications are always the picture of the past, but of course confirm the potential of the estate.” For Saint-Emilion, even the past feels in flux – discussed and debated. What the future holds is hard to say – but, for now, we’ll wait to see what’s in store for the class of 2022.

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