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My Recent Trip to Bordeaux and Concerns About the New Saint Emilion Classification

During my trip to Bordeaux last week I was able to stop off at Clos Fourtet, Troplong Mondot, La Fleur Morange, Gazin, Cheval Blanc, Haut Bailly, Lascombes, Pichon Lalande and Pontet Canet. It was great to touch base with some old friends and catch up with the latest news. I saw the harvest being brought in at Gazin under the watchful eye of the owner Mr. de Bailliencourt dit Courcol and the grape sorting and de-stemming at Haut Bailly being supervised by Technical Director Gabriel Vialard.

The weather was overcast and a little wet but that didn’t dampen the worker’s enthusiasm. The grapes looked in good condition and the roses were still flowering at the end of the rows of vines. I also saw the brand new cellars at Cheval Blanc which will be used for the first time with this years vintage.

The main topic of conversation however was not the 2011 vintage but the new Saint Emilion Classification which is due to come into effect with the 2012 harvest. Saint Emilion is the only vineyard in the world to review its Classification every ten years and the French wine regulator INAO has approved a new set of regulations which are being hailed as a “fresh start” and a “clean slate”. However not every château owner in Saint Emilion is that optimistic.

For a château to be classified a Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé it requires a huge amount of effort and commitment and new blood finds it hard to break through the existing canon.

The last Saint Emilion Classification in 2006 was a matter of ongoing controversy as 4 of the 11 châteaux who were demoted in the reshuffle took their complaints to court. Whilst the legal wrangling went on for months during 2007 no one knew what to print on their label and, in my opinion, it damaged the Saint Emilion brand.

As far as I understand it the big change to the classification system is the choice of a third party, in the shape of an independent organization (after an invitation to tender) to monitor the assessments and quality checks. A board of 7 members in the INAO (none of which are based in Bordeaux) will work with the list of tenders and the third party – which is to be unbiased and objective.

They will be responsible for the tasting of samples from a maximum of 10 vintages (1999 to 2008) which will be tasted blind. The verdict on these vintages will account for at least 50% of the final Classification qualification awarded to that château. Wines will be assessed on taste, their terroir, where they sit in the market, and their existing reputation. The legal status of the ranking changes as well. The former classification had a fixed number which was to be a maximum of 90 châteaux to be classified. The new version has none.

The submission of applications will also cost much more than the €1,500 required in 2006 and whilst I was in Saint Emilion I was told that one château owner had spent €6,000 on his submission for 2012. This a large amount of money to be spending if you are an up and coming château which could be why a lot of smaller estates do not even consider submitting.

There is also the problem of the political hierarchy in Saint Emilion – Decanter reported back in 2009 about the snubbing that goes on by the prestigious estates towards their smaller potential rivals (see St Emilion chateaux ‘treated like dogs’ over Classification dinner). I was told that another owner of a small château had said that such is the structure of Saint Emilion that although his wines are considered good enough to be classified he doesn’t think he will be, as he is ostracised for being a newcomer and for not following political etiquette.

It will be most revealing to see the results of the new 2012 classification and I hope to see a radical change in the Cru Classé listings which will truly represent the quality of the wines being produced by some of these new contenders.

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4 Responses to My Recent Trip to Bordeaux and Concerns About the New Saint Emilion Classification

  1. Good blog post Nick.
    I really do hope that the good folk of Saint Emilion can sort out this classification issue. It actually makes a lot more sense to review the classification every 10 years…unlike the 1855 classification or the Graves classification that started in 1953 and ended in 1959!!
    Unfortunately there is an enormous amount of money involved in these key decisions nowadays and the world becomes increasingly litigious!!!
    It does no favours for the reputation of Saint Emilion having all this squabbling.

    • Nick says:

      Thanks Hamish – you make a good point! The 1855 Classification would look very different if it was reviewed every 10 years or so!

  2. craig says:

    Thanks for the blog! It will be fascinating to see if any major changes are made under the new system.