On September 6, 2012, the Champagne was flowing in l’Essentiel, the wine shop owned by Jean-Luc Thunevin, St-Emilion’s so-called bad boy and the owner of Château Valandraud. The latest edition of the St-Emilion classification had just been announced, and the property that had once launched the garage movement- albeit in a different guise-had been classified premier grand cru classé (B). It’s no wonder Thunevin was grinning from ear to ear.
The St-Emilion classification, unlike the 1855 Classification of the wines of the Médoc, is not set in stone and is reviewed and revised, theoretically, every ten years. A particular air of expectancy had been hanging over the 2012 edition given the annulment of the 2006 version and the legal shenanigans that surrounded it. Producers were not to be disappointed. Among the notable changes were the elevation of châteaux Angélus and Pavie to the exalted status of premier grand cru classé (A) alongside Ausone and Cheval Blanc, while joining Valandraud as newly instated premiers grands crus classés (B) were châteaux Canon-la-Gaffelière and Larcis Ducasse, as well as the 4.5ha (11-acre) La Mondotte.
All photography by Jon Wyand, from James Lawther, The Finest Wines of Bordeaux (Fine Wine Editions / Aurum and University of California Press, 2010)
All told, out of a total of 96 candidates, 82 were accepted, 18 as premiers grands crus classés and 64 as grands crus classés, the latter including 16 newly promoted estates. Those that fell from grace were few. From the previous classification, only châteaux Corbin-Michotte and La Tour du Pin Figeac (Giraud-Bélivier) were ousted, a further six châteaux disappearing from view either because classification had not been requested (La Tour du Pin) or because they had been merged with other estates. The most notable in this context was former premier grand cru classé Château Magdelaine, which has now been absorbed by sister estate Château Bélair-Monange, also a premier grand cru classé. Both are owned by Etablissements Jean-Pierre Moueix.
The lessons of history
Historically, St-Emilion, having failed to make the 1855 Classification (due to lack of support from the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and the city’s courtiers), was tardy in instigating a classification, the first endorsed in 1955. Initially, this was a system of appellations with four designated: St-Emilion, St-Emilion grand cru, St-Emilion grand cru classé and St-Emilion premier grand cru classé, the latter two numbering 63 and 12 châteaux respectively. An important clause in the rules was that the classification would only be valid for ten years.
An amendment in 1958 upgraded châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc to premiers grands crus classes (A), the other ten properties registered as premiers grands crus classés (B). A full revision then occurred in 1969, leaving the premiers grands crus classés as before but increasing the number of grands crus classés to 72. The third classification was postponed from 1979 until 1986 due to a change in the legislation.
St-Emilion premier grand cru classé and grand cru classé were no longer recognized as AOCs, but a set of rules was validated for their endorsement as a classification. This time, the premiers grands crus classés were reduced to 11, with the demotion of Château Beau- Séjour Bécot (due to a transgression of the rules, which require permission to increase a classified holding), and the grands crus classés to 63.
If the changes in 1986 awoke producers to the fact that classification should not be taken for granted, the carrot-and-stick approach was used to still greater effect in 1996. Châteaux Angélus and Beau-Séjour Bécot were promoted to premiers grands crus classés, taking the tally to 13, while the grands crus classés were reduced to 55. In the eyes of a professional jury, the present-day reputation, price, and quality of the wines had become as significant as terroir in determining the classification.
In 2006, the jury announced an even more radical revision. Two more châteaux, Pavie Macquin and Troplong Mondot, were promoted to premiers grands crus classés, taking the total to 15, while among the grands crus classés there were 11 demotions and six newly promoted châteaux, leaving a total of 46 in this category.
The sanction, however, was too much for several of the demoted châteaux, who instituted legal action, the jury accused of procedural irregularities. A stream of litigation and court rulings followed, the 2006 edition eventually annulled, and the St-Emilion classification itself at risk. Finally, in May 2009 a new law provided the compromise, permitting the 1996 classification to be reinstated with the addition of the properties promoted in 2006. This took the premiers grands crus classés to 15 and the grands crus classés to 57 and was binding up to and including the 2011 vintage.
An exam, not a competition With threats of further legal action from disgruntled producers hanging like the sword of Damocles over the 2012 edition, the procedures were changed. Instead of a jury comprised essentially of courtiers, négociants, and enologists from Bordeaux, INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité) assembled a commission composed of seven wine professionals from outside the region to oversee the classification. Two notable figures were Marcel Guigal from the Rhône and Robert Drouhin from Burgundy.
The commission then relied on two quite independent organizations to administer the proceedings: Qualisud for the tastings, and Bureau Veritas for the inspection of properties. In what is now regarded as an exam rather than a competition, candidates were judged on reputation, terroir, and winemaking and viticultural practices and via a blind tasting of ten vintages (1999-2008) for grand cru classé status and 15 (1994-2008) for premier grand cru classé. For the latter, candidates had to score a minimum of 16 out of 20; for grand cru classé, at least 14 out of 20.
The tastings represented 50 percent of the final score for the grands crus classés but only 30 percent for the premiers grands crus classés, with reputation (“promotion, distribution, value”) rising to 35 percent of the mark at this level. An appeal system was also set in place for candidates to argue their case if they initially failed to achieve the requisite scores.
It is too early to know whether the changes instigated have made the classification legally watertight. There are rumblings of dissatisfaction from one or two of the thwarted candidates, but whether this will go to the law courts is anybody’s guess. As I write, the classification has still to be fully ratified by the Minister of Agriculture, but already several observations can be made.
The first is that this is a fairly consensual classification. Following the annulment of both the 2003 Médoc Cru Bourgeois and 2006 St-Emilion classifications due to litigation, there was a real fear that this edition could go the same way, thus burying the classification for good-hence the allembracing nature applied this time around. All but one of the châteaux that were initially demoted in 2006 have made it through, as well as one or two others that local professionals consider borderline cases.
On the merit side, most promotions are deserved, particularly at premier grand cru classé level, where the market had already placed La Mondotte and Valandraud (both of which skipped through the grand cru classé stage) ahead of all the existing premiers grands crus classés (B) bar Angélus and Pavie. Canon-la-Gaffelière and Larcis Ducasse also have solid market recognition, the latter less high profile but likely to benefit from the added exposure. The list of newly promoted grands crus classés is ponderous but just about tenable, with names like Barde-Haut, Côte de Baleau, Faugères, and Fombrauge predictable, but le Chatelet or la Commanderie more of a surprise.
As to Angélus and Pavie moving to premier grand cru classé (A), both are significantly more expensive than any of the existing premiers grands crus classés (B) but are still a long way from the level of Ausone and Cheval Blanc. The 2011 release price for Ausone and Angélus-¤430 and ¤115 respectively -demonstrates the divide. Expect a steady rise, though, in coming years as the two newly appointed A-graders try to close the gap. Clearly the message from the commission was that when an all-out effort has been made over a period of time and all the boxes have been ticked, anything is possible. Those with a more time-honored view of the ranking will regret the decision, as they may the continued rejection of Figeac from the upper rung of the ladder. Whether the classification is of any use to wine drinkers and buyers is, of course, another matter.
“There are too many grands crus classés for the consumer to follow. Even professionals have a problem remembering their names,” declares Dominique Gruault, president of the négociant house Maison F Dubecq. There may be a little more visibility via consumer tastings (magazines are more likely to profile classified wines than regular AOC St-Emilion grand cru), but overall the offer seems too unwieldy and unstructured for wine buyers to understand fully or to care about. Certainly, it has had little impact on the market so far. Brand building and distribution are other problems, since a good proportion of the estates are tiny-not more than 6-7ha (15-17 acres): witness newly promoted 3.7ha (9-acre) Clos de Sarpe.
What is evident, though, is that for individual châteaux the classification is a boon for those that make the grade but a bane for those that slip from the system. For the promoted, there is not only the pride of being included in St-Emilion’s role of honor but commercial and pecuniary advantages as well. “The vision of the banks is more favorable once you have the security of classification, and the Place de Bordeaux is far more receptive to you, particularly if you are a premier grand cru classé,” says Jean-Luc Thunevin.
The biggest change, however, is in the value of the property. “A St-Emilion grand cru on a good terroir with claylimestone soils is presently estimated at around ¤300,000-500,000 per hectare [2.47 acres]. This rises to ¤1.5 million-3 million per hectare for a grand cru classé and ¤3 million-5 million per hectare for a premier grand cru classé (B). Clearly, for the premiers grands crus classés (A) it is in excess of this, with figures that could defy the imagination,” explains Bruno Marie of Real Estate Agents St-Emilion & Vignobles de Bordeaux. In other words, classified châteaux are sitting on a gold mine, while demoted properties take a serious financial hit. It is easier to see why there is recourse to litigation once the sanction is applied when all this is born in mind.
As a motivating force for producers, therefore, the St-Emilion classification still has a justifiable purpose. Consequently, in a certain respect and up to a point, the consumer does receive a guarantee of quality and consistency. The problem is the sliding scale of quality and the quite cumbersome nature of the classification-not to mention the variations in style of the assorted wines. It is all rather a lot to fathom.