Saint Emilion 2012 - first warnings of trouble


It took ten months of painstaking work, but the Classification Commission for Saint Emilion finally submitted its list of chateaux for approval to the National Institute of Appellations of Origin (INAO) on September 6, 2012. At first, it seemed there were to be fewer recriminations this time around, not least because there were fewer unpleasant surprises in the results. But four months on, as the new year rolled around, mutterings of discontent became louder, and lawyers were once again called in. As the news of another tribunal is digested, an uncomfortable question emerges. Is Saint Emilion in danger of becoming the classification that argued itself out of existence?

It had started well enough. When the letters first arrived on the morning of September 10, under bright sunshine, 82 estates were able to gather their staff around their desks and announce either a promotion (a full 22 chateaux), or that they had held on to their positions. Just two properties had to accept they had lost their classified status, Chateau Corbin Michotte and La Tour du Pin Figeac (Giraud-Belivier) – the latter being one of the four that had mounted a legal challenge against demotion in 2006. The other three who sued last time round - Cadet Bon, Guadet and de la Marzelle – got to keep their status in 2012. Besides the two demotions, an (unnamed) number of others had submitted application forms but had not been successful. Only one of those – Chateau Croque Michotte – would make a noise about it, threatening to sue and to take the system to court.

Jeffrey Davies, a long-term American resident of Bordeaux and owner of Signature Selections négociant house crystallises what many people were thinking after the list was published. ‘I felt that a number of wines should have been downgraded or declassified so as to give the theoretically "once-a-decade" classification real teeth, but that did not happen. I guess the committee decided that it had already sufficiently rocked the boat!’

Indeed. The results had been kept deadly secret - even the two new ‘First Growths’, Angelus and Pavie, who were promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé A alongside Cheval Blanc and Ausone, say they were genuinely unaware that promotion awaited, despite a rumour or two escaping in the days beforehand. But even disappointed chateaux were not able to say that they had been entirely blindsided, as they had successful argued they were with the 2006 classification.

Learning from past mistakes, this new version had worked extensively to ensure that it was legally robust. The whole process had been overseen by the INAO and the French Ministry of Agriculture, and had been expressly designed to ensure checks and balances at each stage.

To this end, there had been warnings sent out two months ahead of the final announcement, in early July, to any chateaux that had not achieved a score high enough for classification or promotion. They were then given two weeks to defend the areas where they had been found weak. Pierre Carle, owner of Croque Michotte, spent much of September firing off press releases and official complaints suggesting that the ‘legally robust’ system was in fact full of holes, and that his response to the warning letter was not sufficiently taken into account (in one instance, he was admonished for not doing enough environmental practises, when he insists he’s been practising organic viticulture since 1999). Even once the ranking was ratified in early November, and published in the governmental Journal Officiel, co-owner Lucile Carle warned that they were, ‘still considering what to do. We have spoken to lawyers, and must make a decision by early January – two months after the official publication.’

When those two months had passed, Carle did exactly what he had warned, and instructed lawyers. And he brought the two demoted chateaux along with him – both Chateau Corbin Michotte and La Tour du Pin Figeac also filed legal complaints. They insisted that they had tried to reason with both INAO and the local St Emilion syndicate, but had heard nothing in response.

Most producers, in contrast, had been very clear about wanting to celebrate the success of the classification and what it stands for, rather than complain about its shortcomings. Even Eric d’Aramon at Figeac, who grumbled a little at first, seemed to accept that Figeac didn’t join Angélus and Pavie at the top of the tree.

That might have been a sensible decision. As soon as you step outside of the medieval streets of Saint Emilion, you quickly see that more internal fighting and petulance is not going to help anyone. The wider wine market doesn’t want to hear it – and that means wine buyers, never mind drinkers. Some buyers complain that the constant in-fighting has meant consumers have given up trying to understand the region. Others have questioned how far a classification can be taken seriously when even by its own rules, the taste of the wines accounts for only 30% of the final score for Premier Grand Cru Classés, with reputation weighing a higher 35%.

So was anyone happy to see the new ranking published? Trading platform Liv-ex reported that Pavie saw strong interest from buyers after promotion. In October, the estate accounted for 8.8% of Bordeaux trade on Liv-ex by value and 6.3% by volume, compared to Angelus’ 2.8% by value and 2.1% by volume. Taken over a longer term, from August to October, it is Angélus that shows the strongest figures – with the 2000 and 2008 vintages of Angélus rising by 21.7% and 22.3% respectively, indicating perhaps that its promotion was less of a surprise than that of Pavie – as increased trading for the de Boüard estate started earlier.

Stephen Browett at Farr Vintners reported an initial rise in interest in September (and cynically, you might add, had an offer for the new Firsts out the door within 24 hours). But two months down the line and he sees little sustained effect. ‘Certainly I don’t think it is nearly as important as the people in Saint Emilion seem to believe. As a whole, our customers are pretty confused by the whole thing, particularly the three levels of quality that seem at odds with the rest of France. Grand Cru in Burgundy is the highest level of quality, for example, while in Saint Emilion it’s the entry level. So as a whole, the new ranking is regarded with an air of ‘what are these people talking about?’’

Browett stands by his initial assessment of the benefits to the two new Firsts, however. ‘Both Angélus and Pavie can clearly reap rewards from the ability to call themselves First Growths, and to bask in the reflected glory of the rest of the group, and their price rises may well be sustainable over the long term. Conversely, there seems to have been very little fillip in demand even for those promoted from Grand Cru to Grand Cru Classé. Overall, I personally don’t think it matters too much. If you look at Saint Emilion, Chateau Tetre Rotebouef remains a Saint Emilion Grand Cru and yet is consistently one of the best and most sought after wines of the appellation. Just as in the Médoc, Chateau Gloria is not a classed growth, but we would always sell it for more money and have more demand than for certain classified wines such as Croizet Bages. Frankly what makes Bordeaux wines expensive is still the Parker scores far more than classification.’

Other newly-classified producers would beg to differ. Anne Decelle of Chateau Jean Faure says, ‘We have found a clear rise in queries and orders, particularly from clients in Asia who already knew our wines but feel more reassured about placing orders now we have a Grand Cru Classé label. The classification also gives us the chance to be present at more tastings which are attended by significant journalists or other key players in various markets.’

Bernard Magrez, of Chateau Fombrauge, believes one of the issues for Saint Emilion is not the classification, but the general small size of the estates when compared to those of the Médoc. The average size of a property in the Right Bank appellation is between 5 and 7 hectares, compared to 40 on the Left Bank. At 60 hectares, his Chateau Fombrauge is the largest newly-classified Grand Cru Classé, which he sees giving it important leverage. ‘Fombrauge is currently sold 50 per cent in France, but we are expanding our export markets. I felt the difference almost immediately in being classified. We make 220,000 bottles of first wine, which is why brokers and merchants are interested, specifically now we are classified, in stocking us – they can get enough wine to make it worthwhile building up the brand. We are one of the few classified Saint Emilions with the dimensions of a classified Médoc. And no matter what critics may say, rankings still have a great weight in emerging markets. We have a commercial team based in China, and questions about classifications are among the first that people ask. The words Grand Cru Classé on a label is unquestionably a plus.’

Besides easier distribution, classification is widely recognised to add around 30% to the land values of the estates, so there are clear benefits to the system for owners. But even for those of us who care more about what is inside than outside the bottle, it’s hard to argue with a system that encourages winemakers to not let up on quality, even if this point sometimes gets lost among the internal politics. Jeffrey Davies points out that, ‘almost all of those wines that were either classified for the first time (Valandraud, La Mondotte, Faugères, Péby Faugères) or upgraded (Pavie, Angélus) deserved to be so recognised. I think this new classification also brought merited recognition to the areas to the east of the town of Saint Emilion, notably those in St. Etienne-de-Lisse’.

‘Becoming classified is about fine-tuning every part of the process,’ says Decelle of Jean Faure, who estimates the cost of preparing the application at close to €10,000, including fees. ‘And once you are classified, there is no letting up, as we all know this will be happening again in 10 years time. But classification is a recognition of excellence, and we are lucky to be in a wine region that rewards hard work.’

The latest round of complaints will end up in front of a tribunal in the next few months, but could drag on for years. Pierre Carle has said it was a ‘last resort’, and that he will ask for damages if he wins, pointing to the difference in wine prices for those with a classification and those without. Whether the ranking survives the challenge remains to be seen – but the risk is that buyers and drinkers will soon be switching off entirely, and the recognition of excellence will be hollow indeed.

BOX: Background

The classification of Saint Emilion dates back to 1955, and has been revised at approximately 10-yearly intervals ever since.

The Classification Commission comprised seven wine professionals, all members or former members of the INAO and all from outside the Bordeaux region. The chairman was Mr Robert Tinlot, and with him were Michael Bronzo, Philippe Faure-Brac, Gerard Vinet, Marc Brugnon, Robert Drouhin and Marcel Guigal. Although all highly experienced tasters, they were given training specific to Saint Emilion wines and terroir from a professor at Bordeaux University. Chateaux were judged on their terroir, renown, methods of vineyard and cellar work and through a blind tasting of ten vintages 2000-2009 (fifteen for Premier Grand Crus 1995-2009).

To become Grand Cru Classé, chateaux had to score at least 14 out of 20 in the blind tastings, while to become Premier Grand Cru Classé, the score had to be at least 16 out of 20. They also had to submit support documents to upheld each area to be examined.  Besides the Classification Commission, the INAO brought in two independent bodies to oversee the process - Qualisud for organising the tasting and Bureau Veritas Certification for the application process.

The final grade was awarded for:
Grand Cru Classés

- Tasting 50% of final score
- Reputation (promotion, distribution, value) – 20% of final score
- Estate and terroirs (land boundaries, uniformity, terroirs) – 20% of final score
- Estate practises 10% of final score

Premier Grand Cru Classés
- Tasting 30% of final score
- Reputation 35% of final score
- Estate and terroirs – 30% of final score
- Estate practices 5% of final score

BOX: Promotions / Mergers

Two properties were promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé (A): Chateau Angélus and Chateau Pavie. Four properties were promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé (B): Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere, Chateau Larcis Ducasse, La Mondotte and Chateau Valandraud. There were 16 estates promoted from Grand Cru to Grand Cru Classé. Chateau Barde-Haut, Chateau Quinault L’Enclos, Chateau Faugeres, Chateau Peby Faugeres, Chateau Cote de Baleau, Chateau le Chatelet, Chateau Clos de Sarpe, Chateau la Commanderie, Chateau de Ferrand, Chateau La Fleur Morange, Chateau Fombrauge, Chateau de Pressac, Chateau Jean Faure, Chateau Rochebelle, Chateau Sansonnet, Clos la Madeleine

Various chateaux were not on the new ranking because they had merged with other properties, namely Chateau Magdeleine (now part of Chateau Belair-Monange), Chateau Cadet-Piola (now part of Soutard), Chateau Bergat (now in Trottevielle), Chateau Haut-Corbin (now in Grand Corbin) and Chateau Matras (now in Canon). At the same time, Chateau La Tour du Pin Figeac (now called Chateau La Tour du Pin) had been partially (1.3ha) integrated into Cheval Blanc.


Full list of 2012 Classification:
Premiers Grands Crus Classés
Château Angélus (A)
Château Ausone (A)
Château Beauséjour (héritiers Duffau-Lagarrosse)
Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot
Château Bélair-Monange
Château Canon
Château Canon la Gaffelière
Château Cheval Blanc (A)
Château Figeac
Clos Fourtet
Château la Gaffelière
Château Larcis Ducasse
La Mondotte
Château Pavie (A)
Château Pavie Macquin
Château Troplong Mondot
Château Trottevieille
Château Valandraud

Grands Crus Classés
Château l’Arrosée
Château Balestard la Tonnelle
Château Barde-Haut
Château Bellefont-Belcier
Château Bellevue
Château Berliquet
Château Cadet-Bon
Château Capdemourlin
Château le Chatelet
Château Chauvin
Château Clos de Sarpe
Château la Clotte
Château la Commanderie
Château Corbin
Château Côte de Baleau
Château la Couspaude
Château Dassault
Château Destieux
Château la Dominique
Château Faugères
Château Faurie de Souchard
Château de Ferrand
Château Fleur Cardinale
Château La Fleur Morange
Château Fombrauge
Château Fonplégade
Château Fonroque
Château Franc Mayne
Château Grand Corbin
Château Grand Corbin-Despagne
Château Grand Mayne
Château les Grandes Murailles
Château Grand-Pontet
Château Guadet
Château Haut-Sarpe
Clos des Jacobins
Couvent des Jacobins
Château Jean Faure
Château Laniote
Château Larmande
Château Laroque
Château Laroze
Clos la Madeleine
Château la Marzelle
Château Monbousquet
Château Moulin du Cadet
Clos de l’Oratoire
Château Pavie Decesse
Château Peby Faugères
Château Petit Faurie de Soutard
Château de Pressac
Château le Prieuré
Château Quinault l’Enclos
Château Ripeau
Château Rochebelle
Château Saint-Georges-Cote-Pavie
Clos Saint-Martin
Château Sansonnet
Château la Serre
Château Soutard
Château Tertre Daugay (Quintus)
Château la Tour Figeac
Château Villemaurine
Château Yon-Figeac