What future for the Saint-Émilion wine classification? 🍷
I have a special attachment to Saint-Émilion and its wines. I grew up in the Libournais, played a lot in the vineyards, and even did my first summer jobs there. I love the richness of these wines, which are now among my favorite wines. They taught me how to appreciate red wine, introduced me to oenology and gave me the passion that drives me every day. So when it comes to talking about this little world, it's hard to stop... 🤭
The subject of the day is particularly close to my heart: the classification of Saint-Emilion wines is currently in turmoil. So I'm going to take advantage of this article to tell you about its history, to explain how it works, and of course to talk about the main subject: its questioning by some great châteaux. It's hard for me not to share with you my humble opinion on the subject, but I will try to be factual before giving you my point of view on the situation 😌
The history of the Saint-Émilion classification 🍇
As you may know, there are different classifications in France, which are established on a particular region and have a very specific operation. The one of Saint-Emilion has its own particularities and rules. It is nowadays considered as the most modern classification because it is the only one to be re-studied every 10 years, while some of them are unchanged for decades ⛓
This is in my opinion one of the great strengths of this classification, and I find it hyper important that it is reviewed regularly to give new winemakers a chance, encourage efforts to progress and promote their willingness to move the wine world.
The first classification of the wines of Saint-Emilion took place in 1955, and comes from a decision of the wine syndicate. It classifies the wines of the appellation Saint-Emilion Grand Cru only, and not all the appellations of Saint-Emilion and its satellites. The rules of the classification changed after the 2006 edition, which resulted in a complex court case that lasted several years. It was suspended in 2007, only to be reinstated the same year, then finally cancelled in 2008. The Senate subsequently reinstated the 1996 classification. The cancellation had to be confirmed again in 2009 and then 2011, so this case has dragged on quite a bit... Now and since this case, the INAO (the national institute of origin and quality) acts as the authority for the classification 🧑⚖️
The last classification was in 2012. It classified and awarded 82 properties: 64 Grands Crus Classés and 18 Premiers Grands Crus Classés. Again, several requests for cancellation for non-compliance with the regulations followed the classification verdict. Three declassified winegrowers filed a complaint for illegal interest, notably because Hubert de Boüard, owner of Château Angélus, was rewarded by the classification even though he was included in the designation of the members of the classification commission. In short, it has not been a long quiet river, and the 2022 edition is not missing. But we'll talk about that right after 👇
What is the current classification of Saint-Émilion?
The classification of Saint-Emilion wines categorizes properties into 3 statuses: the First Great Classified Growths A, the First Great Classified Growths B, and the Great Classified Growths. In 2012, the latest classification to date, 2 properties rose to Premier Grand Cru Classé A, 4 properties acquired the title of Premier Grand Cru Classé B, and 9 entered Grand Cru Classé. Here is the list:
First Grand Cru Classified A :
Château Cheval Blanc
First Great Classified Growths B :
I put a star next to my favorites:
Château Beau-Séjour Bécot
Château Bélair-Monange ⭐️
Château Canon ⭐️
Château Figeac ⭐️
Château La Gaffelière ⭐️
Château La Mondotte
Château Valandraud ⭐️
And the Grands Crus Classés are just over 60, so I won't list them all here, but here are a few I particularly like:
Château La Commanderie
Château La Dominique
Château Franc Mayne
Château La Tour Figeac
Clos des Jacobins
What's going on with the Saint-Émilion 2022 classification? 🌪
Let's finally get into the details of what you are here for: the storm that has (once again) settled on the subject of the 2022 classification. First of all, 2 of the 4 Premiers Grands Crus Classés A have decided to withdraw from the classification: Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc. Followed by Château Angélus.
Of the 4 big bosses of the classification, only Château Pavie remains, which wished to keep its participation. Recently, Château La Gaffelière, Premier Grand Cru Classé B, and Château Croque Michotte, Grand Cru Classé, also decided to leave the classification. Obviously, when the big guys leave, it makes a bit of a splash, but then why did they make such a decision? 🧐
For Angelus, Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal expressed herself by saying that "the estate will continue to make the greatest wines by freeing itself from a straitjacket of previously accepted contingencies." For their part, the owners of Château La Gaffelière say they no longer recognize themselves in the evaluation criteria. Alexandre Malet Roquefort says that they have "been tasted by amateurs" and that their "terroir has not changed since 1955". Pierre Carle, from Château Croque Michotte also expressed himself: "either it is manipulated, or it is terrifying amateurism". He even announced that he would like to see "the creation of a new classification society independent of the INAO, to avoid this melodrama every ten years".
And this is the source of the problem: while some terroirs have been distinguished by the AOC for their quality for decades, the first classification report would call them into question. Their common claim is that the rating system recently put in place no longer makes sense and sometimes goes against the scores given by critics for the last few years. According to the chateaux that withdrew, the terroir and tasting part did not occupy a sufficient part in the overall score, compared to the visitor reception, social networks and marketing part 🤳
For this edition, Bureau Veritas is the organization in charge of the tasting panel. The selected independent professional tasters were recruited on an announcement site to the entire wine industry, even though according to some properties, there are just about thirty professional tasters really able to taste and score Saint-Emilion wines correctly. And this is especially because they have a deep knowledge of the last 20 vintages.
The withdrawal of the 4 châteaux mentioned above has an impact on all the other participants. We can easily fear that the perceived value of the Saint-Emilion classification will be weakened.
To be or not to be in the ranking, how does it matter 🤷
So obviously, we can easily agree that it is easier for a Premier Grand Cru Classé A to retire than for a Grand Cru Classé. They already enjoy such a reputation that almost nothing and nobody could shake it. But in reality, what is the importance of this classification for the winegrowers?
There is an undeniable profit element. To be or not to be in the classification thus influences the selling price of the wine, but also the real estate value of the land. The better a château is classified, the higher the value of the land. And this raises the problem of transmission for family properties that do not want to impose huge inheritance costs on their descendants. Leaving the classification is sometimes a strategic act for these properties. This is not the case for properties owned by large groups.
Who will be the new "A's"? 🥇
A big question that will remain open until September. Gérard Perse of Château Pavie, the only A wine still in the running, has announced that they are maintaining their candidacy to this day, so we can of course expect them to remain A wines as long as they do not withdraw. Chateau Figeac, which is one of the favorites to climb to A, confirms that "the whole Manoncourt family is on the same line, we have put together a file that we consider to be of high quality, we remain in the race, we believe in this classification and we intend to go all the way". Château Troplong-Mondot, recently refurbished, as well as Château Figeac, are also still in the running. Two big candidates for the A title, we'll talk about it in September 🙃
In conclusion, it is necessary to repeat the INAO's answer to all the criticisms received. The institute is clear: the notes concerning the terroir and the wine represent 70% of the global note for the Grand Cru Classé and 60% for the Premiers Grands Crus Classés. No reason to cry scandal. The classification will still take place this year, with or without certain properties. What is certain is that I firmly believe that it remains an excellent way to make the whole vineyard progress on many subjects of quality and environment for example. So long live the classification of Saint-Emilion yes, but it will certainly have to accept to update itself a little in order to remain always so prestigious and respected. Saint-Émilion in search of meaning, torn between history and modernity: a matter to follow 😉
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