The 2006 classification scandal of St Emilion
- Friday 30 January 2009
As in any village, news travels fast around St-Emilion – and bad news travels fastest of all. A Unesco World Heritage site since 1999, it’s hard to picture just how perfect a place this eighth-century medieval wine centre is until you have it. For a start, there’s the honeyed limestone rock that forms not only its walls, churches and châteaux, but also its fabled terroir.
The place is littered with famous names tightly packed next to each other. In the short walk up and around the village centre, you pass La Gaffelière, La Clotte, Ausone, La Magdelaine, Château Canon, Clos Fourtet... These are the classified growths of St-Emilion, and the Right Bank’s riposte to the Médoc.
This glossy exterior, though, has recently hidden a very different underbelly. In March 2007, a Paris judge laid waste to the 10-yearly classification that has been the pride and joy of St- Emilion since 1955. The village gossip machine went into overdrive, and the quiet of Bordeaux’s most popular tourist centre was shattered.
The classification is a ranking system via which around 80 of the appellation’s 1,200 châteaux form an elite. A panel of independent oenologists, brokers and wine experts meet every ten years to decide which deserve to be promoted or be demoted. The classification focuses attention on the area, guides consumers, and forms a powerful incentive to its properties to continually invest in their winemaking to ensure they are good enough to be included.
Château Guadet has been classified since the very first ranking. It is right on the main street of the village opposite the post office, where pretty much everyone comes and goes during the week. Its presence is announced with a discreet entrance, bearing a gold plaque with the words ‘Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé’.
The château has just 5.5 hectares of vines, in one parcel that is enclosed by stone walls at the end of the main street. It is a reassuring presence, the Woolworths of the high street. Prophetic, then, that it lost its status in 2006, the jury citing poor results in the taste tests.
Fatefully, the owners decided to query the decision through the courts. Château Guadet was not alone. The original court case was launched by four of the 11 châteaux that lost their classified status – Châteaux Guadet, La Tour du Pin Figeac, Cadet Bon and la Marzelle.
They claimed discrimination, with the intention simply of being reinstated. What they got instead was the cancellation of the entire classification, and eventual reinstatement of the previous 1996 ranking. In theory, the châteaux had won their case. They got to keep their title, and the status that comes with it.
But seeing the 2006 classification crumble came as a shock to everyone, and the entire Right Bank was sent into a spin.classification, and, if I am honest, there were good reasons for it. But we worked hard and got back in the game.’
Things haven’t been easy for the president of the St-Emilion Syndicate, Jean-Francois Quenin of Château de Pressac, or the president of the Association de Grands Crus Classés, Alain Moueix of Château Fonroque. Both are responsible for fielding the numerous queries that have been raised over the past two years.
‘The most difficult thing has been the constant uncertainty,’ says Moueix. ‘It has been impossible to keep people up to date because we ourselves don’t know what is going on. The result has been that the classification systems for the whole of Bordeaux have taken a real hit.’
Libourne négociant Jean-Baptiste Bourotte of Audy thinks the commercial impact can be mitigated. ‘Luckily, the final consumer has by and large not been too affected by what has been going on, but it has been very difficult for wine merchants to price and deliver the wines. However, many US buyers are prepared to wait, and there is a positive side for the eight châteaux – they have been getting a lot of publicity and have benefited from a lot of goodwill. People feel sorry for them.’
Quenin says the most pressing issue is deciding how to move forward. ‘As president, I must try to take some of the drama out of the situation, and to think rationally about what we can do from here. What we all agree on is that, for the next classification, we will have to
establish some method for objecting to the results without calling the whole process into question.
And, perhaps, we must install an early warning system, so châteaux at risk of demotion are given an indication in the preceding years and an opportunity to improve matters.’
Not only is this a fight to establish whether tradition can ever win out over the reality of 21st century law, it is also, perhaps, an inevitable side effect of the ever higher commercial rewards enjoyed by the elite of Bordeaux wines.
‘No matter what happens in the end,’ says Quenin, ‘it will take some time to heal relationships in St-Emilion. But we will get there. And we still intend to have a renewable classification because we strongly believe that it makes our wines better quality for everyone.’