Ch’ng Poh Tiong column

  • Tuesday 30 January 2007

The scandal of St-Emilion’s high price culture

The scandal of St-Emilion’s high price culture

Ten years seems an unusually long time to discover you have been undercharging your customers. And, to add insult to injury, be ‘penalised’ for the conscientiousness with which you have treated your loyal clientele.

The 2006 Classification of St-Emilion was announced in September (and reviewed in last month’s Decanter). The 10-year revision saw the promotion to premier grand cru classé B of Troplong-Mondot and Pavie-Macquin. The former’s elevation was expected, but the latter’s sent a jolt of electricity up and down many Bordeaux watchers’ spines. Most have since reluctantly accepted the fact although some are still not walking straight. Or at all.

Six châteaux gained promotion to

the lower grand cru classé level even as 11 were thrown out and are now just

St-Emilion grands crus. At the grandest premier grand cru classé A stratosphere, Ausone and Cheval Blanc maintained their sole, pole positions.

Thierry de Manoncourt, proprietor of premier grand cru classé B Château Figeac, had apparently applied to be promoted. This was rejected for the reason that Figeac does not sell at the same price level as Cheval Blanc or Ausone. Dollars and cents – or in this case, euros and cents – being one of the grounds for promotion and, it is to be also assumed, for demotion too.

No one, as far as I am aware, has suggested that the 11 châteaux demoted have been trundled out of the classification because their wines were fetching too low prices. That being the case, we can therefore conclude that their diminished status is the result of a drop in quality.

When you have an expert committee tasting up to 10 vintages (in this case selected from 1993 to 2002) to determine a wine’s quality, it seems superfluous to have to resort to pricing to confirm – or refute – its own expertise. If the classification committee is really so insecure, why not take a vote of no confidence on itself?

The committee is appointed by INAO, the French national body responsible for the country’s AC system. For the 2006 St-Emilion classification, there were nine full-time members and three substitutes. They included two lawyers, wine brokers, merchants, wine academics and the honorary chairman of the INAO.

Since price seems so influential, perhaps the committee should dispense with tasting the wines altogether. Instead, they should give a midnight thump on the heavy doors of the châteaux and riffle through their order books to find out the prices the proprietors have been asking for their wines. And let decimal points – with the aid of the newest Blackberry – classify the wines of St-Emilion. Efficiency will rue the day.

Thank goodness the committee is not involved in determining the quality of art. Imagine, for a moment, if they were asked to judge 19th-century western painting when Van Gogh was still alive. Where would the committee slot the Dutch master in a classification of painters? If price were a determinant, Van Gogh would not even receive a mention, let alone be classified. After all, the ill-fated painter was exchanging some of his masterpieces for bed and board (which included the cheapest of south of France wines).

When a select committee of wine experts cannot do better than have to look at pricing to pronounce on quality, then they might as well pack their bags and go home and watch reality television instead. It would be as if an arts panel had to peep into the souvenir shop in order to be able to inform the public on what is great art. If we have become so cynical and obsessed with price, it would be easier to simply conduct surveys and compile reports.

Promoting a château on pricing also has the unfortunate side-effect of actually punishing the fair-minded proprietor who does not overprice his wine. Since that was the reason for Château Figeac not earning promotion, Monsieur de Manoncourt might want to reconsider being such a reasonable man. In fact, he should turn his back on his sense of fairness to his customers. To better win promotion, an honest man may now have no alternative but to give in to lust and greed.

In the 2006 Classification, the Syndicat Viticole de St-Emilion boasts this idealistic preamble: ‘Reassessment Every Ten Years: A Pledge of Quality.’

‘From the outset, the regulation governing the classification of St-Emilion wines provided for the list to be revised every 10 years in order to ensure greater reliability for consumers over time and to serve as an incentive for

St-Emilion wine growers to continually strive to produce quality wines.’

Figeac might want to substitute ‘expensive’ for ‘quality’ if it hopes to be promoted in the 2016 classification.

Ch’ng Poh Tiong is the publisher of

The Singapore Wine Review.

What Ch'ng Poh-Tiong's Been Drinking This Month

CFM Marselan 2004

At the Wine for Asia Exhibition in Singapore, over three Decanter masterclasses, I was struck by how very balanced, elegant and engagingly medium-bodied the cool-climate Vylvan Villány Pinot Noir 2005 is. Every sip reconfirmed why this ruby-red Hungarian took the Pinot Noir Trophy at last year’s World Wine Awards. I also drank, in a social setting, Champagne Salon 1996. This pure Chardonnay is a miracle of ripe fruit and unforgiving acidity. The competition between the two is so incredibly intense. Indeed, the Mesnil sur Oger house is already comparing 1996 to their all-time great, Salon 1928.

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