It is a fact of life that as soon as you write something down, it begins to date. This is most apparent in printed media, where publication lead times sometimes approaching a year mean that reference books are not infrequently out of date before they even hit the shelves. Thankfully, with electronic media, pages can be updated as and when required. This is something I’ve been working on in recent months; all my Sauternes profiles have been overhauled and brought up to date, and I have nearly finished Pessac-Léognan. All of Bordeaux and the Loire is in the firing line, but next up is St Emilion, for several reasons, not least because references to the 2012 St Emilion classification, including details of promotion or demotion in the case of a good number of châteaux, need to be added or amended. I was all set to begin the ground work yesterday when news broke that, unfortunately, the chapter on the 2012 St Emilion reclassification has not yet been completed. How timely!
The most comprehensive report on the story can be found on the Terre de Vins site here (in French). The article opens with a slightly weary comment that “history seems destined to be repeated“, as this new problem is a legal challenge by demoted châteaux, exactly as we saw with the ill-fated 2006 St Emilion classification. In 2006 a group of disgruntled proprietors turned the show into a French farce with the classification reverting to that determined in 1996, except for the 2006 promotions which were allowed to stand. To be fair, however, the complainants had good grounds, not least a lack of impartiality on the overseeing committee. As a result, a robust system was established for the 2012 reclassification, including the handing-over of overall responsibility to the INAO rather than it being managed locally, the drafting in of big names from outside Bordeaux (who should therefore be impartial) to act as a reclassification committee, and engaging with two quality-assurance bodies, Qualisud and Bureau Veritas.
Ever since the publication of the listing, however, there has been discontent in one corner of St Emilion. The north-west corner to be precise, near the Barbanne and the boundary with the Montagne-St Emilion appellation. Here lies Château Croque-Michotte, from where proprietor Pierre Carle has orchestrated a challenge to the classification. It has been low-key – with a few articles in the French press, but little written beyond France’s borders – and a rather uninspiring YouTube video (which I don’t seem to be able to locate now – otherwise I would provide a link) detailing his complaints. I have to confess I thought the complaints would peter out, but it seems as though Pierre and his sister Lucile have a larger axe to grind than I had imagined. Having submitted their dossier pointing out the errors in the classification, and calling for amendments rather than annulment, their protests have not yielded any results, hence the progression to legal action. They no longer act alone, however, as the two other châteaux demoted have joined them; these are Château La Tour du Pin Figeac and neighbours Château Corbin-Michotte. The trio certainly appear to have a case, as they claim to have uncovered minutes from classification meetings where some of the defects in the process were pointed out and acknowledged.
As yet there is no reaction from Jean-François Quenin, proprietor of Château de Pressac (which was elevated in the 2012 ranking) and president of the Conseil des Vins de Saint-Emilion, who wishes to review the dossier before making any comment.
I have to confess I have a lot of empathy with some of the weary tone within the Terre de Vins article linked above. Pierre Carle no doubt feels exasperated, as he sees that if the error he claims to have uncovered had gone his way, he would have accrued enough points to be ranked as grand cru classé (14 points was enough for this, 16 for premier grand cru classé). And although the officials involved are currently tight-lipped (and no doubt stony-faced) there are bound to be strong feelings of déjà vu here. From the point of view of a interested outsider, however, I do wonder what the outcome will be here. From within the system there must be a strong desire to reject these claims; the system regained some credibility in terms of process with the 2012 classification (even if we can snort at the proportion of promotions to demotions) but another successful legal challenge like that seen in 2006 will be a crippling embarrassment.
And does it all matter to consumers, which is perhaps where the proprietors of St Emilion should be directing their attention, especially given the prices charged by some? I sense there is already little interest in these sorts of shenanigans beyond St Emilion’s borders anyway; modern-day consumers are far more interested in what Parker and others have to say on the wines than some outdated and allegedly flawed system of ranking. When I wrote of the 2010 Cru Bourgeois gang (I can’t think what else to call them) last year I penned some suggestions on how I thought the classification could be improved, including less frequent rating, looking beyond what is in the glass (that dreaded word, terroir) and introducing internal rankings (including cru bourgeois exceptionnel and supérieur, for example). All of which sounds a little like what they are trying to do in St Emilion of course. But with this latest development I’m beginning to wonder whether the best classification in Bordeaux is the 1855 Médoc. Everybody with even a modicum of common sense can see that it is outdated and really of historical interest only, and while some châteaux perform to their level others do not, either above (Pontet Canet and others) or below (Durfort-Vivens and others). None of which matters; what matters is that some proprietors are pulling out all the stops and making great wine, independent critics inform the consumer, and prices are set accordingly. Perhaps it’s time to ditch these classifications altogether? If the recidivous challenge brough by Pierre Carle is successful, thereby cementing in place a system over two consecutive classifications where everybody is promoted and nobody is demoted, there might be no other logical conclusion.