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Did Someone Say “Classification”?

By |  June 9 2011

The latest ruling by the French courts entitles properties listed under the 1996 rating process (the penultimate classification) to display their ranking on their labels. But this is only until a new ranking can be drafted, which wouldn’t be necessary if the latest classification (2006) had been drawn up properly.

That producers should want classification at all is suspicious. Everyone is in favor of ranking but only on condition that no one gets left out. Those who aren’t promoted or are demoted will use every legal means at their disposal to have the new classification annulled. The slightest failure to observe the letter of the law, and the new ranking will be deemed void by the courts. Lawyers will meanwhile talk up the distress suffered by the also-rans, pointing out the heavy financial penalties in store. According to even the most conservative estimates, a cru classé promoted to premier cru can expect to double the price of its wines in just two years and triple the value of its vineyard land; a demoted cru faces losing half of both its value and its customers.

A bigger worry, though, is the philosophy that underpins this sort of classification. There is no justification for a system cobbled together from two conflicting sets of principles: on the one hand, the producer-driven Bordeaux model, based on a château’s reputation and trading price; on the other, the vineyard-driven Burgundy classification.

The 1855 Classification for Bordeaux red wines is founded on the name of the château. These rankings have remained unchanged ever since, no matter how much those châteaux may have increased or reduced their vineyard holdings. It is unfair that 1ha (2.47 acres) of Pauillac purchased by Château Latour will increase in value tenfold-significantly more than if purchased by Château Pédesclaux, and unimaginably more than if purchased by the La Rose Pauillac wine cooperative. But price is one thing and quality is another. A cru classé that wants to consolidate its position must commit to wine of uncompromising quality. However much its vineyard expands, its performance will always be up to the mark. Any newly acquired plot that fails to deliver will be declassified by the owner, even though the land may hold its price. This explains the longevity of the 1855 Classification and why it is still trusted. It was naive of the St-Emilion crus to think they could break with commercial wisdom and imagine this sort of injustice could be avoided by insisting on official approval before any cru classé could expand its vineyard.

Remember when Beau-Séjour Bécot was demoted for allegedly introducing an incompatible terroir to the mix? But who decides whether a cru should be promoted or demoted? On what objective criteria is soil classified and defined as grand or premier cru? And, scientifically speaking, does anyone understand those criteria? Referring to the Burgundy classification is pointless because Burgundy has never been ranked on the basis of terroir (meaning "agricultural land") but according to climats (meaning "vineyards"). These are two different concepts: a terroir is an accident of nature, but the Burgundy crus (as in Bordeaux) are man-made.

What they understood in Burgundy but largely failed to grasp in Bordeaux is that soil is not the only criterion. So, they added others, such as the position of the vineyard on the slope and its exposure to sunshine, wind, and rain. These enduring criteria, proved in turn by the taste of the wines, are what defined the official boundaries of the Burgundy climats today. The consistent character of the wines, in the hands of conscientious owners, has produced a precise classification that nobody questions.

Bordeaux undoubtedly has climats of its own, but the wines they produce are blended. Blended wines from a variety of plots may well be more complex, consistent, and original than those from isolated parcels. But since quality in this case is determined by human choice, the individuality of these crus is much more difficult to classify. What blind-tasting expert can claim that one château bottling is always better than another?

Who could name the St-Emilion crus classés and, in the same vintage, months or years later, still rank them in the right order? How many times have the producers of these wines actually failed to recognize them? Are we to trust expert brokers and enologists more than consumers? The judgments of the former are clouded by conflicts of interest; the latter are too unsure of themselves to go with genuine emotions that contradict traditional rankings. In the end, only the market can provide a respectable basis for the ranking and pricing of the Bordeaux crus, because only the market covers every possible angle of wine production and trade- and represents the greatest diversity of tastes and opinions. They understood that back in 1855, and they still understand it in Pomerol. Will they now understand that lesson elsewhere?

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