Tastings have begun for the new St Emilion classification system – results normally to be announced in September.
But what is to become to the ill-fated Classification system that merits buildings more than wine? 2022 marks the 10 year mark for a new list of the ‘best’ châteaux in St Emilion today be compiled, bringing disarray to the cute medieval village. New rules since 2012 where 70% of the marks have nothing to so with the taste of the wine has created an invasion of diggers and cranes to remodel the existing Unesco World Heritage site. (This % has recently been changed to 50%!).
Before the finger could be pointed Angelus has backed out of the reclassification to take place this year. In 2012 (the last reclassification) the ill-fated St Emilion classification changed its rules with only 30% of the ‘points’ awarded linked with the taste of the wine itself for the Premier Grand Cru Classé). The rest is to do with the ‘image’, social media prescence, impressive châteaux building , lavish tasting room, car park – rather like the marble clad WCs in Michelin star restaurants. You should have seen the cranes and building sites this year carving out the ancient terroir of this Unesco World Heritage site – it is the landscape including 5400 hectares of actual vineyards that are classified here. Apparently for the new classification both of these factors (wine and status) are now worth 50% – this is a recent change due to the criticism received.
Who cares what the place looks like? (in Bordeaux wine properties are called ‘Châteaux’ it literally means single estate and normally has nothing to do with the look of the place). We only care about the taste of the wine – say wine consumers across the world. A Classification system after all is meant for them, to be able to highlight and choose a ‘higher quality’ wine from the hundreds from St Emilion. This famous large wine appellation (the same as all the Left bank famous village appellations of Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and St Estephe together) is known as the ‘hillside of a hundred châteaux’ – there are around 800 or so today producing wine here. What is for sure today, is that the word ‘classé’ is always linked with a higher price.
It is the top châteaux owners in St Emilion who care what their châteaux look like as since 2012 has given them the golden key to opening the door into the new classification. Becoming part of the Classé elite (it is this word that means that they are part of the classification and only 100 or so châteaux qualify every 10 years). Immediately there is a price implication. In 2012 Château Angelus and Pavie spear-headed to the top of the pyramid ‘Premier Grand Cru Classé A’ joining the original two As Cheval Blanc and Ausone ‘A’s from the first classification in 1955 (there was talk that Angelus known previously as L’Angelus dropped its L to appear first in the Alphabetical list!). The newcomers released their ‘en primeur’ futures prices higher than the rest (and with black and gold embossed labels to boot), which resulted in a doubling of the price in a light vintage when other properties reduced their price . The original humble winery of Angelus was completely replaced with an imposing tudor looking chateau (with golden bells awry) using reconditioned timber and tiles to make it look part of the ancient landscape though its completion tied in nicely with the new classification (just to note here that the building and its vineyards are not on the prestigious limestone plateau but just down the hill).
The modern winery of Cheval Blanc Premier Hrand Cru Classé A since the beginning
It is the two autochthonous ‘As’ of Ausone and Cheval Blanc that decided not to apply at all last summer to the 2022 doomed classification making a statement we guess against this departure from the old system more linked to the wine and not the image. They will no longer be able to use Premier Grand Cru Classé A on their label from the 2022 vintage.
What has Angelus got to do with these recent developments? It was Hubert de Bouärd the owner of Angelus who was involved in introducing these new rules as President of the regional Wine committee of the INAO Bordeaux (2013 – 2016). It is the INAO that controls the appellation rules and it is attached to the Ministry of Agriculture. This body validated the classification regulations and their results, which were drawn up by a commission whose members it had appointed. In addition, Mr de Boüard was a member of the Organisme de défense et de gestion (ODG) des vins de Saint-Emilion, which participated in drawing up the specifications with the INAO. He was also consultant for no less than eight properties who were promoted in the last classification.
A newcomer ‘Le Dôme’ constructed in time for the new classification just behind Angelus.
De Bouard was fined last year for conflict of interests (which he did not appeal). So not only did they jump the sinking boat, they were the ones to put a darn great hole in the side of the old frigate to start with.
I feel sorry for the likes of Figeac who deserve to be a A with its unique wine of St Emilion, its finesse and power (yes they too have completely renovated their ancient cellars and winery). Even if the classification goes ahead without the two original As it will not have the value it once had and is destined, lets face it, to eventually plunder on the rocky shores. What will be able to change its course? In fact the châteaux apply for eithr Grand Cru Classé (10 past vintages are tasted*) or the Premier Grand Cru Classé (15 vintages are tasted) categories and if their scores are sufficient they get awarded the Superior A level. Speculators are already guessing the new A status domains – along with Figeac and the only exisiting A in the competition Pavie (a new A since 2012 with Angelus). is potentially Canon (owned by Chanel) and Troplong Mondot (owned by a Belgium Insurance company).
*In fact each different vintage is tasted blind together (all contenders GCC and Premier) and a mark out of 20 is given.
The real ‘château’ of Haut Brion (Left Bank Bordeaux city, Graves) the first real single estate wine in the 1600s.
Already two properties (Château Tour St Christophe and Croix Labrie have been initially rejected on becoming a Grand Cru Classé (the lower level comprising 65 châteaux currently) on a technicality (regarding the amount of first wine produced on its estate) and have subsequently taken the Classification to court. Apparently both Croix Labrie and Château Tour St Christophe (owned by Vietnamese business man Peter Kwok) are now back in the race as the troubled classification has conceded not wanting more negative publicity even before starting.
The valley in front of Château Tour St Christophe, St Emilion.
Chateau Tour St Christophe
The problem was that the acquisition of plots over the period studied (which is 10 years for Grand Cru Classé and 15 years for Premiers) led to production rates of less than 50% for the first wine on the declared plots. Château Croix de Labrie has increased its surface area by 300% since 2005 (from 2 to 5.4 hectares of vines, of which only 4.5 hectares are applying for classification).
One of St Emilion’s finer château, Chateau Bellefont Belcier also owned by Kwok currently a Grand Cru Classé
Since 2012 building impressive châteaux became an important part of the St Emilion classification ( we even have one Premier that has carved out a chunk of the prestigious plateau, poured tonnes of cement to solidify the ancient quarries underneath and building a massive impressive chateau building which they will move into abandoning the lowly farmhouse which has currently the name – well have to wait 10 years if the classification lasts that long). The has far reaching implications particularly for vignerons who make good wine but only have the wealth from selling wine and not from ‘outside’ wine. They have now been excluded from the classification and can never be part of it despite the quality of their wine. Over the past few years there has been an ever-widening gap between those ‘who have’ (luxury brands such as Chanel, LVMH, Clarins) and those who ‘have not’ – the original vigneron families who have inherited the land over the generations.
The vineyards of the village of St Emilion from Porte Brunet looking at Ausine, an original A.
This brings me to another important development regarding inheritance. Properties that have managed to stay in the same families for generations (the oldest I know is 14 generations – 8th or 9th is not uncommon!) are now having difficulty to keep it in the family due to the escalating value of their ancient lands. Recently the beauty products company Clarins bought the 5 hectare Château Beausejour Duffau Lagarosse Premier Grand Cru Classé for 10million euro a hectare. Inheritance is based on around 40% of the current value of the land. So this new astronomical figure has introduced a new scale for all families that want to pass on their lands to their children. I know of one property who wanted to go from Grand Cru Classé to the Premier level but know if they do so they will no longer be able to afford to pass their property on to their children. It would mean the end of the 9 generations of their families on their land. They have no choice but to pull out ( just to do a dossier costs around 20,000€ according to a contender).
An example of a real chateau in the Medoc, Gruaud Larose.
I would like to finish with the hypotheses of why the look of the château became so important to the new classification explained to me by an American client (I am a specialist wine guide) where they are more used to this than France, as it had me baffled. Traditionally St Emilion’s châteaux resemble big farm houses. This region has never had the prestige of the Haut Medoc’s Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac appellations on the Left Bank.
Château Margaux, one of the Medoc’s impressive châteaux.
In April each year it is to here that the wine buyers of the world speed after a brief morning tasting the St Emilion primeur wines. These grand châteaux command far superior prices and bigger volumes of wine (except for the iconic wines of Petrus and Ausone whose tiny ‘confidential’ production raises prices astronomically). The marketing coup of the Medoc was the 1855 classification which cleverly for them has never changed to this day (blood would flow if it ever did). Here owners are at liberty to add more hectares to their property without any restriction (apart from the risk of producing a lesser wine).
The little village of St Emilion at sunrise.
When I heard the following it made me feel that the St Emilion classification system introduced 100 years after its more famous counterpart has had its day (it is the only one that is completely redone apart from the newly revamped Medoc Cru Bourgeois). The owner of a shunned château walking in the streets of the small village of St Emilion, noticed that people he knew were crossing to the other side of the street so as not to have to talk to him. In a small village where everyone knows eachother we seem to have lost sight of what is important and it is not the size of your château.