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Court Throws Out St.-Emilion Classification

Ruling negates 2006 reclassification of grand cru estates—says tasting process was biased

Diana Macle
Posted: July 3, 2008

Château owners in St.-Emilion need to order new wine labels, just as they are preparing to bottle their 2006 wines. The administrative court of Bordeaux struck down the Right Bank appellation's classification system on July 1, which means any wines from 2006 or later cannot be labelled as Grand Cru Classé or Premier Grand Cru Classé. Château Ausone's ranking is no different from any other estate.

St.-Emilion's wine industry reclassifies its top producers every 10 years and each time the ranking is legally contested by some of the losers in the reshuffling. The 2006 classification, overseen by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine), the body in charge of French appellations, was not an exception to the rule. Out of 95 candidates, 61 châteaus were selected, including 46 grands crus and 15 premiers grands crus.

Four châteaus demoted in the review—Château La Tour-du-Pin-Figeac, Château Cadet-Bon, Château Guadet and Château La Marzelle—immediately filed legal complaints, alleging that the classification commission, which consisted of members of the industry, was biased because some members had business with the properties under review. (St.-Emilion's 2006 classification is the second to be overturned in Bordeaux since last year.)

After examining the claims, the administrative court ruled that the blind tasting of the applicants' wines had not been carried out in an objective manner. "According to the tribunal, the evaluation of the wines in two distinct groups—those belonging to the 1996 classification on the one hand and the new contenders on the other—had offered an advantage to the wines already listed," said Philippe Thévenin, one of the lawyers representing the contesting château owners.

For the producers, even those who took the matter to court, the ruling was a blow. "At present there is no classification in St.-Emilion for wines produced after 2005," said Philippe Genevey of Château La Marzelle, who qualified his victory as bittersweet. "This matter has caused a lot of tension in St.-Emilion, with us coming across as sore losers, when all we want is for a new classification to be established according to clear and fair guidelines," he said.

Genevey complained that commission members had not visited all the châteaus, including La Marzelle. "The list was solely determined following a blind tasting by a largely unqualified jury, even though other elements such as a property's buildings and surroundings are normally also taken into consideration," he said.

Despite the court's decision it is not certain that this latest ruling will be the last. But for now, the matter is out of St.-Emilion's hands. "We are waiting for a reaction from the Ministry of Agriculture and from the Ministry of Finance, who will decide whether or not to launch an appeal within the next fortnight," said Nadine Couraud, managing director of the St.-Emilion Wine Council. But any appeal would take years.

Other producers argue that the rankings mean little. For lesser known estates, a classification on the label can be a valuable selling point in wine stores. For the best producers, the wine's names are already well known.

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