After six years of legal squabbling, St.-Emilion has a new classification of top wine producers. The INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine), the body in charge of French appellations, announced the latest roster of top properties Sept. 6. A revamped classification procedure produced plenty of surprises, as several properties that have been known for innovation (and for ruffling traditional producers' feathers) in recent years were promoted.
Two of the sweetest triumphs came to Château Pavie and Château Angélus, both joining Château Ausone and Château Cheval-Blanc in the top category—Premier Grand Cru Classé A. “When I opened the letter this morning, my hands trembled a little. It was a moment of powerful emotion,” Gerard Perse, owner of Pavie, told Wine Spectator. “We’ve been here for 20 years, and I’m sitting here thinking of our journey and all of the people who have helped us get to where we are. You don’t do it alone.”
Unlike members of the famous 1855 Classification of the Médoc and Graves, St.-Emilion producers revise their rankings every 10 years. But that has led to problems: When the INAO announced the 2006 classification, demoted properties sued. The classification was annulled by the courts, then eventually partially reinstated.
In order to avoid the same melodrama, the 2012 classification differs significantly. In order to avoid any whiff of conflict of interest, the INAO outsourced the tastings and inspections to independent groups. The St.-Emilion Wine Syndicate and Bordeaux wine trade are no longer involved. The members of the seven-person commission hail from Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Champagne, the Loire Valley and Provence.
Also, there is no longer a fixed number of châteaus which can be classified. During the examination period, estates are graded, on a scale of 20, on four criteria: tasting, reputation, characteristics of the vineyard and infrastructure, viticulture and winemaking.
There are three rankings: Grand Cru Classé, Premier Grand Cru Classé B and Premier Grand Cru Classé A, with the latter being the best. (St.-Emilion Grand Cru is an appellation, not a classification.) Of the 96 applicants, 68 asked to be recognized as Grand Cru Classé and 28 as Premier Grand Cru Classé. Eighty-two got their wish, including 64 Grands Crus Classés and 18 Premiers Grands Crus Classés.
“The number of Premier Grand Cru Classé A—four—was a bit of a surprise,” Jean-Louis Buer, director of the INAO, told Wine Spectator. “It shows a real dynamic. So does the number of new entrants to Premier Grand Cru Classé B. It shows dynamism, work, investment and improved quality in St.-Emilion. All of this is good for the consumer.”
Châteaus Canon-La-Gaffelière, La Mondotte, Larcis-Ducasse and Valandraud were elevated to Premier Grand Cru Classé B. This is the first time La Mondotte and Valandraud have been classified.
“They have a lot of courage to classify a winery Premier Grand Cru Classé that has never been classified,” said Stephan Von Neipperg, owner of La Mondotte and Canon-La-Gaffelière. He has questioned the importance of the classification in the past. He says it is important in some markets, not so much in others, but it definitely was important for his staff and family.
Valandraud co-owner Jean-Luc Thunevin suffered a moment or two of anxiety in June when the commission questioned the homogeneity of his plots, so he agreed to reduce the classified surface by 3.7 acres to 22 acres. “It’s the first time I’ve succeeded at an exam, so I’m happy,” he quipped.
For Swiss businessman Silvio Denz, owner of Faugères and Peby-Faugères, both elevated to Grand Cru Classé for the first time, it was a heady moment. “Having one classified is wonderful; both classified is amazing,” said Denz.
The classification helps open doors to distributors who only deal in classified growths, and increases the value of the land, but growers say price hikes will be gradual. “You can’t wake up the next morning after being classified and hike your prices. The consumers won’t accept that,” said Perse, adding that it could take years before Pavie reaches first-growth prices.
Some previously classified properties were left out, including Châteaus Bergat, Cadet-Piola, Corbin-Michotte, Haut Corbin, Matras, Magdelaine, La Tour du Pin Figeac (Giraud-Belivier) and La Tour du Pin Figeac Moueix (aka La Tour du Pin). But several of those properties have been merged with others in recent years.
Of course, in another decade, anything can change, which is the crux of the St.-Emilion rankings. The thinking is that both consumers and winegrowers benefit from a system that puts pressure on winegrowers at the top to maintain quality for fear of demotion and gives winegrowers on the lower end a chance to improve their position. Theoretically, it also means that in between classifications, an estate cannot buy up mediocre terroir, dilute their classified cru with lower quality wine and sell it as a classified growth.
“I’m proud to be in St.-Emilion, where we have the courage and strength to question ourselves every 10 years and give recognition to the work done by the estates,” said Perse.