St-Emilion classification: the bloodletting begins

  • Thursday 21 September 2006

The right bank is embroiled in rows over the new St-Emilion classification, with legal action against the judging commission looking a possibility.

At issue is the commission’s interpretation of the complex rules of the classification. Chateau owners are disgruntled – and in some cases outraged – at what they perceive to be illogicalities in the system.

One St Emilion veteran said it would not be surprising if 'some of the affected properties [mounted] some kind of legal challenge.'

More than bruised egos are at stake. Demotion can mean loss of distribution networks, plummeting prices, and devaluation of land.

Chateau Figeac owner Thierry de Manoncourt is understood to be extremely unhappy that his application to be promoted from Premier Grand Cru Classé

B to Premier Grand Cru Classé A was rejected on the specific grounds ‘that Figeac does not sell at the same level of price as Cheval Blanc or Ausone’.

Chateaux Cheval Blanc and Ausone are the only two Premiers Grands Crus Classés A.

Had Figeac’s application been rejected on grounds of quality, says Manoncourt, he would have had to grin and bear it.

But he and others think that although the commission is within its rights to consider price as a factor, it is illogical, since it discriminates against properties such as Figeac that maintain reasonable prices.

The Grand Cru Classé Chateau Grand Mayne sought promotion to Premier Cru, but was denied for the same reasons.

Other disagreements with the system are rising to the surface. Guy Meslin of Grand Cru Classé Chateau Laroze supports the system, but pointed out another potential flaw in a letter to the Syndicat Viticole of St Emilion.

A property must submit the ten most recent vintages to the commission, but in the case of a recent change of ownership, since any improvement in quality will only be evident in the most recent vintages, the owner could be penalised for mediocre wines for which he was not responsible.

This seems to refer to Chateau Cadet-Bon, demoted from Grand Cru Classé even though new owner Guy Richard, who has spent a fortune renovating the property, has only been in charge since 2001.

At Bellevue, also demoted, superstar winemakers Stéphane Derenoncourt and Nicolas Thienpont have greatly improved quality since 2000, but their efforts have been dismissed.

Meslin writes, ‘Is demoting them for the errors of their precedessors the best way to welcome them into our community?’

He also points out the huge economic costs of demotion: ‘For a demoted property there follows ten years of misery. Overnight, its commercial distribution network is destroyed, and prices plummet.’

In contrast, other voices are muttering about the swift promotion of Fleur-Cardinale, where the new owner has only been in place since 2001. This means the promotion was earned on the basis of a handful of recent vintages.

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