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New Pecking Order on the Right Bank

St.-Emilion releases a new classification of top wineries, met with muted response

Mitch Frank
Posted: September 11, 2006

St.-Emilion's winegrowers association announced the results of the Right Bank Bordeaux appellation's latest reclassification Sept. 7. The rankings, usually reevaluated once a decade, classify the appellation's estates into three top tiers in an effort to maintain high standards. And even though this is the only major Bordeaux appellation whose quality hierarchy is regularly reviewed according to several criteria (including tastings), few people in the industry thought the latest classification would have much effect.

"Did we have a reclassification?" joked Stephan von Neipperg, who owns several St.-Emilion estates. "Oh, you mean that hurricane in a water glass. Do you think consumers in America or China or Japan care?"

Two estates--Château Pavie-Macquin and Château Troplong-Mondot--were promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé b, the second-highest rank in the appellation, while five properties were promoted to the lower level of Grand Cru Classé. Another six lost their Grand Cru Classé status altogether.

"For Troplong-Mondot, it may not have a big impact because people have known the wines are good for some time," said Astrid Deysine, a spokeswoman for the Syndicat Viticole de Saint-Emilion. "But for the châteaus promoted to Grand Cru Classé, it could have a big impact."

Excluded from the 1855 Bordeaux classification, St.-Emilion developed its own system in 1955, which is updated regularly by a committee of French industry members appointed by the Syndicat and approved by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine. This was the first reclassification in 10 years. Syndicat officials said producers were judged on the quality and consistency of their wines from vintages spanning 1993 to 2002, winemaking and vineyard management, as well as marketing success.

Officials at the Syndicat, which oversees the classification, were quick to defend the prestige of the ranking, arguing that it is about high standards, not dollars and cents. "We do not focus on business," said Deysine. "But people overseas--in the U.S. and in Asia--always ask about the classification."

As with every reclassification, industry insiders looked for signs of politics, arguing that the committee was trying to send a message to the so-called garagiste winemakers, who make small-production, modern-style wines that often sell for high prices. But others argued that the decisions have little practical impact.

"The only classification that matters is the market," said von Neipperg, whose Château Canon-la-Gaffelière and Clos de Oratoire are Grand Cru Classés, and whose La Mondotte is considered a vins de garage (even though it's the most expensive and highly rated of the three). Von Neipperg unsuccessfully applied for a promotion for Canon-la-Gaffelière.

Troplong-Mondot's promotion did not come as a surprise. Located on a limestone slope just east of the town of St.-Emilion, the 70-acre property has been earning rave reviews for almost two decades. Some Bordelais questioned why it wasn't promoted in 1996. Its neighbor Pavie-Macquin, however, is a more recent success story, thanks to the biodynamic vineyard management of Nicolas Thienpont and the winemaking of consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt.

But the news wasn't all good for Thienpont and Derenoncourt. Another property that employs them, Château Bellevue, was demoted. The estate's wines had suffered during the '90s, but have scored well since the owners hired the duo in 2000. "Two or three declassified properties made substantial progress in the past few years, and to penalize them now is stupid," said von Neipperg.

Deysine retorted that while it was hard for new château owners and winemaking teams when properties were demoted based on wines from past vintages, there was always a good chance they could be promoted again in the next reclassification. Château Grand Corbin and Château Grand Corbin-Despagne were both demoted in 1996 and bumped back up to Grand Cru Classé this time around.

2006 Classification

Change from Grand Cru Classé to Premier Grand Cru Classé B:
Château Pavie-Macquin
Château Troplong-Mondot

New entrants to the Grand Cru Classé classification:
Château Bellefont-Belcier
Château Destieux
Château Fleur Cardinale
Château Grand Corbin
Château Grand Corbin-Despagne
Château Monbousquet

Not retained in the classification:
Château Bellevue
Château Cadet Bon
Château Faurie de Souchard
Château Guadet Saint-Julien
Château La Marzelle
Château La Tour du Pin Figeac (Giraud-Bélivier)
Château La Tour du Pin Figeac (Moueix)
Château Petit Faurie de Soutard
Château Tertre Daugay
Château Villemaurine
Château Yon Figeac

—The 2006 classification selected 61 Crus Classés, compared to 68 in 1996: 15 Saint-Emilion Premiers Grands Crus Classés and 46 Saint-Emilion Grands Crus Classés.

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