Ausone and Cheval Blanc have each separately announced their intention to withdraw from the St-Emilion classification, which is renewed every 10 years and is currently being revised for 2022.
The renowned estates were reconfirmed as St-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ in the 2012 classification, at the very the summit of the hierarchy.
While Ausone said a decision to withdraw was taken independently from Cheval Blanc, both châteaux cited issues with the judging criteria for the St-Emilion classification.
In a 12 July letter seen by Decanter and also sent to Bordeaux négoçiant houses and courtiers, Château Cheval Blanc’s director, Pierre Lurton, technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet and commercial director Arnaud de Laforcade explained their decision.
‘In 2012 (the last classification re-evaluation), we noticed a profound change in the philosophy of the classification, especially regarding new criteria that amount to “marketing drift”, such as the importance of product placement, how often an estate appears in media, including PR and in social media, along with wine tourism infrastructure,’ they wrote.
Amounting to only 15% of the final grade, far too little importance is given to terroir and viticulture in criteria to judge a wine, the Cheval Blanc representatives added.
They also questioned the ‘evaluation system’, which they described in the letter as having lost sight of the ‘notion of identity and typicity, as if the culture of wine, its aging capacity over several decades, and knowledge of the appellation were unnecessary for evaluating the estates’.
At the premier grand cru classé level for the 2022 ranking, 50% of an estate’s final grade will come from a blind tasting of the last 15 vintages. Tasting notes constituted 30% of the grade in the 2012 classification.
But several sources within Bordeaux who did not want to be named criticised a job advertisement seen earlier this year, seeking tasters for this important ranking assessment.
St-Emilion Wine Council defends process
Franck Binard, St-Emilion Wine Council director, defended the evaluation process as guided by France’s national appellation body, INAO, and said it would be managed by a ‘prominent wine expert’.
Replying to criticism of not emphasising terroir enough, Binard said St-Emilion is a ‘mosaic of terroirs’ and that ‘it would be very difficult to make a hierarchy of the different types of terroirs, many of which can make great wines’.
As for public job ads for tasters, Binard said that they were placed in a spirit of transparency so that no accusations of favouritism could be levelled against the system.
The Cheval Blanc representatives wrote that they ‘accept and appreciate’ evaluations of their wines when ‘often tasted by national and international critics and competent professionals’, but the rules for the official classification ‘are so far removed from our concerns, that we cannot bring ourselves to adhere to them’.
Ausone: ‘We had been mulling over our decision for a long time’
Château Ausone’s co-owner, Pauline Vauthier, stressed that her family’s choice to leave the St-Emilion classification wasn’t made ‘in concert’ with Château Cheval Blanc, but echoes the same reasoning.
‘We had been mulling over our decision for a long time, and finally decided to opt out (of the classification),’ she said. ‘Marketing and wine tourism are very nice things, but the measure of great wine comes down to terroir, viticulture and time.’
She said that a 10-year re-evaluation period based on verticals of 15 years is ‘too short’ to properly judge a wine’s capacity to age.
‘It was not an easy decision, but we continue to wholeheartedly support the St-Emilion and St-Emilion Grand Cru appellations,’ she added.
The Cheval Blanc letter also underscores the estate’s ‘pride’ for the appellation, and a commitment to defending it with ‘fervour’ and ‘conviction’.
Record number of applications for St-Emilion 2022 classification
The St-Emilion Wine Council, which represents hundreds of estates in both the St-Emilion and St-Emilion Grand Cru appellations, reacted with sadness to the news.
‘While we respect their right to withdraw, we regret this very much,’ said Binard.
He explained how 2021 saw the ‘highest number ever’ of dossiers submitted to the classification, according to the INAO, and that because the classification is re-evaluated every 10 years, that reflects the ‘dynamism’ of St-Emilion.
Château Angélus and Château Pavie were promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ in the 2012 ranking, a tier previously only home to Ausone and Cheval Blanc.
Yet there have been enduring legal challenges to the 2012 list. Châteaux Croque-Michotte, Corbin-Michotte and La Tour du Pin Figeac, which were demoted in 2012, have questioned the legitimacy of the ranking, although the hierarchy was upheld by a Bordeaux appeals court in 2019.
A final judgment over allegations of conflict of interest is expected in September this year, while a final judgment about the 2012 classification itself is still on hold for now, said Binard.
While the withdrawals of Ausone and Cheval Blanc mark a seismic change for the classification, some merchants beyond Bordeaux said buyers would likely still be interested in those estates’ wines.
‘I can see how Ausone and Cheval Blanc wanted to differentiate themselves from Pavie and Angélus, since those two estates became officially ranked at the same level’, said Michael Grimm, of Bacchus-Vinothek in Germany.
He said that his buyers will continue to purchase Ausone and Cheval Blanc, even if they lose their classification rank, because ‘what matters for consumers is the strong historical brand that both estates have’.
St-Emilion’s 2012 classification was the sixth revision of the ranking since its launched in 1955, having been agreed in the previous year.
The current 2012 list ranks 64 estates as St-Emilion Grand Cru Classé, with 14 as St-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé.
They are: Châteaux Beau-Séjour Bécot, Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse, Bélair-Monange, Canon, Canon-La-Gaffelière, Figeac, La Gaffelière, La Mondotte, Larcis-Ducasse, Pavie-Macquin, Troplong-Mondot, Trottevieille, Valandraud and Clos Fourtet.
Four estates got the Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ rating in 2012, as stated above: Angélus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Pavie.