St.-Emilion's 2012 classification, which replaced a previous ranking that was scuttled by lawsuits, is facing legal challenges from three demoted wineries. Châteaus Croque-Michotte, Corbin-Michotte and La Tour-du-Pin-Figeac filed individual appeals to a Bordeaux administrative tribunal on Jan. 4, demanding the annulment of the classification conducted by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), the French agency that oversees appellations, which was made official last October.
“The financial loss as well as mental anguish is considerable. We’re not joking around,” Emmanuel Boidron, co-owner and commercial director of Château Corbin-Michotte, told Wine Spectator.
While confident of the procedures they put in place for the classification, INAO spokesperson Marlène Gloaguen said, “The filing of these appeals, if judged admissible, could call into question the current 2012 classification.”
Boidron as well as the owners of Croque-Michotte and La Tour-du-Pin-Figeac, the Carle and Giraud families, respectively, claim they are victims of unequal treatment on numerous counts, costing them the points necessary to be classified Grand Cru Classé. “Many points weren’t attributed, without reason,” said Boidron.
Lucile Carle claimed there were legal and technical errors, as well as inconsistencies such as deducting points for failing to take steps toward sustainability when her estate is certified organic. “Too many errors have been made," said Carle.
“My clients called me and asked how I could be a finalist in the St.-Emilion Grand Cru Classé Cup in June—finishing ahead of Château Canon-la Gaffelière, which was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé—and be declassified less than three months later,” said Boidron. In the cup, a tasting competition held during Vinexpo in Hong Kong last year, his 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintages beat out those of 38 Grand Cru Classés to finish second overall. That only increased Boidron's bitterness when the property was demoted in the classification four months later.
Gloaguen said that given the context preceding the 2012 classification, the lawsuits didn’t come as a surprise. "The three wine estates chose this procedure in an attempt to assert their position. This is a normal, legal method."
St.-Emilion launched its first official classification in 1955 with the caveat that it would be revised every 10 years. The 2006 classification was challenged by demoted châteaus (including La Tour du Pin Figeac) and courts sided with them, canceling the demotions. Croque-Michotte, also party to the lawsuits, was declassified in 1996, and has been refused promotion in 2006 and 2012. The INAO as well as Bureau Veritas got involved in the 2012 classification in order to avoid another legal imbroglio.
Overall, 96 estates presented themselves to the INAO for ranking as a Grand Cru Classé or Premier Grand Cru Classé, and 82 succeeded. “If the appeals are ruled admissible and we reach the lawsuit, there’s nothing to say other estates won’t join us,” said Boidron.
While many worry that the lawsuits will harm the reputation of St.-Emilion wines, open criticism has been muted. “We understand their position. The personal stakes are considerable, but we are a collective association, so we can't take sides," said Franck Binard, director of the Conseil des Vins de St.-Emilion, a trade group.
The 2012 classification criteria included not only the quality of the wine but soil homogeneity, media coverage and ratings, price, and hospitality features like tasting rooms and seminar facilities. And for now it stands. “The 2012 classification is valid. It's not invalid because someone disagrees and attacks it," said Binard.