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Jefford on Monday: And All Must Have Prizes

There will have been sighs of disappointment up and down the Rue des Frères Bonie in Bordeaux when the new St Emilion classification emerged on September 6th. The Richard Rogers-designed Bordeaux Law Courts even look like honey pots, but the accommodating 2012 classification seems unlikely to provide quite as many sweet legal briefs as the 2006 classification did.

St Emilion

The first I heard of it was when Magali Malet from Canon-la-Gaffelière mailed me to tell me that both that property and La Mondotte had made it into the Premier Grand Cru Classé (PGCC) category. I was happy for Stephan von Neipperg and his team, both because I’ve enjoyed these wines greatly whenever I have had the chance to taste and drink them, and because I’ve seen just how much work and effort has gone into those two properties over the past fifteen years. Ditto, by and large, for all the classification ‘winners’.

I was, though, startled. La Mondotte as we know it was Stephan von Neipperg’s indignant riposte to the St Emilion authorities. He had wanted to include La Mondotte in Canon-la-Gaffelière, but the authorities refused, saying that he could never make wine of the quality of Canon-La-Gaffelière at La Mondotte, and that he had to build a separate cellar there. He was furious. “I wrote to them at the time,” Stephan told me in December 2003, “and said, ok, I will build a cellar there, but in order to pay for it I will have to make something very special there, which will oblige me to break the classification of St Emilion. The letter exists; I have copies.”

Time, obviously, heals all.

Time has also smoothed embrocation all over the self-proclaimed ‘bad boy’ of St Emilion, Jean-Luc Thunevin: Valandraud, too, now finds itself one of the PGCC elect. Should we be surprised about this, given that fifteen vintages are scrutinized for PGCC postulants, and that ‘Valandraud’ has been a slow accretion of scattered parcels since its debut vintage (all of 15 hl) back in 1991? Thunevin’s best parcel, Bel-Air-Ouÿ, was only acquired in 1999, so the samples examined wouldn’t have been based on consistent plots.

No, we shouldn’t be surprised. Terroir is just one of a number of different criteria examined by the seven-member, non-Bordelais jury (which included Marcel Guigal and Robert Drouhin). It counts for 30% of a postulant property’s final score in the assessment. The moveable feast of Valandraud terroir may now have to stop, since the PGCC rules stipulate a ‘commitment not to modify boundaries without prior authorisation’.

The main drivers behind the new classification are effort (gauged via tasting and an assessment of estate practices) and – that great Bordelais virtue -- commercial success (or ‘reputation’): these qualities account for 70 per cent of the assessment. The contrast with Burgundy’s system of land-classification has never looked sharper. Such a vision is, of course, consistent with Bordeaux’s classification traditions since 1855.

Some of the grandest teeth in Bordeaux are, though, rumoured to be grinding at the fact that Angélus and Pavie now enjoy equal status to Cheval Blanc and Ausone (as PGCC ‘A’ properties). This must have sent ripples across the Gironde to the left bank, since it means that the informal grouping beloved of wealthy wine lovers, ‘the great eight’, has now become ‘the great ten’.

The great eight signified the left-bank first growths plus Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Pétrus: a perfect tasting peer group for those interested in ‘ultimate Bordeaux’. Most Bordeaux lovers felt reasonably certain that these properties included (in part if not in whole) Bordeaux’s finest terroirs. Will Pavie and Angélus now be routinely included in such tastings, as their co-classification with Ausone and Cheval Blanc suggests they should? Somehow I doubt it.

If there is terroir to equal Cheval Blanc and Ausone in St Emilion, it may lie within the holdings of Figeac (out of which, back in the first half of the C19, Cheval Blanc itself emerged). Figeac, though, hasn’t performed at the same level as Angélus and Pavie in recent years, so it remains a mere ‘B’ among the PGCCs.

Meanwhile, the scandal in St Emilion’s legislative framework continues unaddressed: the fact that the term ‘Grand Cru’ – of unparalleled significance within French wine culture as a whole -- is meaningless here (since it is in effect available to any property in this heterogeneous 5,565-ha appellation). That is a matter for the INAO to resolve. Since ‘St Emilion Grand Cru’ is the legislative foundation on which the GCCs and PGCCs are built, such a resolution looks distant. For all that, it wouldn’t be difficult: simply remove the word ‘Grand’ from all three designations simultaneously. For 2022?


Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com