Bordeaux châteaux are at each other’s throats over the classification of their vines, with producers in Margaux and St-Julien refusing to give ground. By Margaret Rand

Margaux has something of an anniversary this year, though there may not be many celebrations. It was 20 years ago that the new owner of Château d’Arsac, Philippe Raoux, set the cat among the pigeons by deciding that he wanted his Haut-Médoc château to be reclassified as Margaux. Some years later, proprietors in Cussac decided that what was good enough for d’Arsac was good enough for them, and they started asking for une partie of Cussac to be included in the St-Julien appellation. In St-Julien the pigeons are standing their ground and refusing to budge; in Margaux they’re prepared to reach an accommodation – but only if it’s the right one.

In Margaux the d’Arsac case eventually went to the Conseil d’Etat, the highest court in France, which ruled in its favour: 40 of d’Arsac’s 112 hectares are now within the Margaux appellation, which, according to its previous owner, they always should have been. In 1986, the then owner, Robert de Rijcke, pointed out that d’Arsac was the only growth in Arsac not to have the Margaux appellation. When the appellation was created, he added, ‘the proprietor at that time did not have a single vine, and did not consider it opportune to have his wine-growing lands included within the limits of the new appellation’.

Fair enough, you might think; why should today’s owner suffer because of the lack of foresight of a previous one? But the ramifications have been enormous. Once d’Arsac got its promotion (a drawn out process, with Raoux and the governing INAO not seeing eye to eye on the quality of the soil), a number of other owners on the edges of Margaux decided they too would like an upgrade.

So, in 1996, the Margaux syndicat asked the INAO to reopen all the boundaries and redefine them. A commission d’inquête, composed of the heads of ACs in other regions, was appointed to work with a committee of experts from Bordeaux University. However, it has taken so long that the committee is now on its third cast. Last June, the commission finally made its proposals. And did the syndicat agree with them? No, it did not.

The current head of the syndicat is Gonzague Lurton. ‘We have asked for a delimitation for the 21st century, not for the 20th,’ he says. ‘We have soil analyses now for most parcels of vines, and if we wait for these to be completed, we could resolve the issue in two years’ time. But if we stop now, with these boundaries, there will be problems with the courts for years.’ The same sort of problems, indeed, which have bedevilled the reclassification of the crus bourgeois. ‘The problem is not the number of hectares they proposed adding,’ says Lurton, ‘but the kind of hectares.’

The overall size of the Margaux appellation is unlikely to change much because some land will be removed – land that everybody seems to agree is not worthy of the AC. Angludet, for example, is set to lose some sandy soil that isn’t planted with vines because it is clearly not good enough; nobody objects to that sort of thing. However, classed growths Prieuré Lichine and cru bourgeois Siran are among châteaux resisting a move to have some of their vines declassified to Haut Medoc status.

And then there’s the thorny issue of granting AC status to newcomers. ‘We can have new soil in Margaux if it corresponds to the very best in the appellation,’ says Lurton. ‘But they compared some soils to the least soils in Margaux. Some they proposed adding are not good at all, and they didn’t use the same criteria everywhere.’

Some of the proposed additions are currently Haut-Médoc, some are Bordeaux Rouge and some, in the west of the appellation, are currently unclassified, but have good gravel. Lurton points out that when Margaux was delimited in 1954, Bordeaux was going through one of its worst crises. ‘When the Tari family bought Giscours there were only a few hectares of vines there,’ he says by way of illustration, ‘and everywhere only the historical soils were included in the appellation.’ A few very good soils were not included, particularly in the west of the appellation. ‘But even in the east there are some complications.’

So now it’s expert against expert, specialist against specialist. ‘The difficulty,’ says Lurton, ‘is that there is no objective way to prove that one parcel has a terroir superior to its neighbours. The more you work at it, the less you understand.’

The same may be true one day of the St-Julien dispute. It grew out of an earlier anomaly: because the 1855 classification happened before the delimitation of the appellation, some classified châteaux – Beychevelle, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Branaire – which owned vineyards in Cussac had them classified with the rest of the estate. When the appellation came along they were allowed to call wine from their Cussac vines St-Julien even though it was from outside the appellation.

Perhaps it’s surprising that it took so long for the other Cussac growers to say, ‘If they can be St-Julien, I want to be, too’. All 21 of them have joined together to suggest to the INAO that there could be other terroirs in Cussac capable of being transformed, though nobody knows how many hectares might be involved. Conflicts abound – the regional director of INAO is owner of Château Lanessan, one of the Cussac properties; he declined even to be quoted in this piece.

About 11 years ago a dossier was submitted to the INAO, since when nothing much has happened. ‘We have meetings with INAO now and again,’ says Anthony Barton of Châteaux Léoville- and Langoa-Barton, who opposes the motion. ‘The other week there was one at Branaire. Patrick Maroteau [owner of Branaire and president of the syndicat of St-Julien] had written a report, and the INAO asked if we could summarise the matter in a few words. They hadn’t read his report because they hadn’t had time.’

Maroteau points out that the parts of Cussac that can be included in St-Julien have been precisely defined, and that if they were sold they would revert to being Haut-Médoc. ‘The Cussac commune says that in the 19th century its wines were sold as St-Julien, and this is a serious argument. But there’s also the question of what consumers expect of the typicity of St-Julien. All the St-Julien owners oppose an extension of the appellation, even those with vineyards in Cussac.’

Barton claims that if you give the St-Julien appellation to Cussac, the commune of St Laurent will want it too, ‘and it has more claim to be St-Julien than Cussac does, because it has three classed growths (La Tour-Carnet, Camensac and Belgrave). Cussac and St-Laurent together would double the size of St-Julien.’

So is it just a matter of protectionism? It could easily appear so, particularly if, as Lurton says, there is no objective test of terroir. Perhaps they should do what Margaux is doing, and start again? A lot hangs on how rigorous the new Margaux delimitation is – when it happens. The trouble is, a system built on terroir when there is no objective test of terroir can begin to look like a house of cards. If you’re going to tamper with it, you have to do so very, very carefully.