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St.-Émilion Classification Survives Legal Challenge—For Now

A Bordeaux tribunal rejects three château owners' claims that the ranking was flawed; criminal investigation continues

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: December 22, 2015

Bordeaux’s St.-Émilion appellation is not revising its rankings of top wine estates. After three years of legal challenges to the legality of the Right Bank region’s 2012 classification, a local tribunal upheld the rankings on Dec. 17, rejecting the objections of Châteaus Croque-Michotte, La Tour-du-Pin-Figeac and Corbin-Michotte.

The ruling is a victory for the the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO)—the national body that oversees wine appellations and conducted the classification—and the local trade group, Conseil des Vins du St.-Émilion.

“We’re happy by the decision. It means the work done by the commission for the classification was, on the whole, well done. Everyone was treated equally,” said Jean-Francois Galhaud, president of the Conseil des Vins du St.-Émilion and owner of Grand Cru Château La Rose Brisson.

Pierre Carle, owner of Château Croque-Michotte expressed surprise at the swiftness of the decision, but said he was not giving up. “We will fight to the end for our estates, our terroir and our wines,” said Carle.

The decision came quicker than expected. Carle and his fellow owners had presented their case just nine days earlier, arguing before the crowded courtroom of the Bordeaux Administrative Tribunal that the court should annul the classification, approved by the French government in 2012.

The châteaus, which either lost their classification or were not promoted, had claimed that there were inconsistencies and procedural errors in the judging of 96 local wineries. At the heart of the dispute was their complaint that categories like wine tourism, communications, conference facilities, international reputation and price seemed to outweigh the value placed on the quality of the wine.

The INAO’s representatives sharply disagreed. The organization, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, assumed authority over the classification in response to similar court battles that sank the 2006 classification.

The ruling affirmed their role, said the INAO. “By this decision, the tribunal confirms the validity of the approach taken, the reliability of the procedures in place, the rigor with which they were applied,” said Jean-Luc Dairien, director of the INAO. “The INAO is pleased that the Conseil des Vins de St.-Émilion now has a consolidated set of specifications with a confirmed classification of Grands Crus.”

St.-Émilion’s wines were first officially classified in 1955. At the time it was decided to re-classify the estates every 10 years (unlike the Left Bank’s famed 1855 Classification), to reflect changes in quality. “We have a modern classification. We believe in excellence and questioning oneself,” said Galhaud.

The owners of Corbin-Michotte and Croque-Michotte say they will appeal the decision. “This decision, an appealable judgment, like the annulled 2006 classification, is only the first stage. It’s not the end point,” said Carle. “Moreover, remember that the criminal proceeding is moving ahead and there is much work ahead.”

Attacking on another front, the three châteaus’ owners requested a criminal investigation for conflicts of interest in 2013, targeting Hubert de Boüard and Philippe Casteja, both permanent members of the national INAO commission in Paris and owners of classified châteaus in St.-Émilion. Both men have rejected the charges, arguing they were not part of the decisions on the ranking.

The Conseil des Vins du St.-Émilion has no part in the criminal investigation. “The investigators will do their job,” said Galhaud. While sympathetic to the disappointment of the three châteaus, he encouraged them to focus on the next classification in 2022. Evaluations begin in 2021.

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