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The 2012 St Emilion Recidivism

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printed media, where publication lead times sometimes approaching a year mean that reference books are not infrequently out of date before they even hit the shelves.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.

La Mondotte - promoted in the St Emilion 2012 classification

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.

5 Responses to “The 2012 St Emilion Recidivism”

  1. These things are just such as turn off and detracts from what’s important and that’s what is in the glass.

    Make good wine, market your product and get people to notice and appreciate what you do and you will be able to set a reasonable price for your wine. If you get Parker to notice you get to charge a premium whether right or wrong is not for me to say, as I do not like the style of wine which typically gets the highest points as I have said numerous times.

    Their are Chateau which make terrific wine year in and year out and with all the pricing increases and swings depending on the year they continue to put out a quality product every year and their price varies little between vintages, good or bad.

    I am happy to purchase their wines every year.

  2. If you read the details of the complaint by M Carle at Croque Michotte he explains how the classification has been done. It is amazing to read some of the aspects that have been counted as contributing to the classification. For instance if the chateau has conference facilities.

    The classification also clearly has a major impact on both the “St E economy” as a whole, on the chateaux and on consumers. Shortly after the classification I spoke to JL Thunevin of Chateau Valandraud, one of the chateau that was promoted, and in his case dramatically so. He noted that “this is one of the rare instances when the state actually enriches the people”. With the stroke of a pen the state (the classification) have changed land values so that what was once worth €1M per hectare is now worth €4M (approximate numbers from memory). There will of course be a similar effect on the price on the wines. Lucky those who were classified or upgraded. Poor consumers who will pay more.

    So, yes, if it is the consumers’ interests you put first then I see no reason why we should have any classifications like this.

    The main benefactors of the classification are the owners, the insiders, for which the classification serves as a barrier to entry reducing competition. Not in the interest of consumers.

  3. Gary, Rastko, Per, thanks

    Quite right Gary, although there is clearly great interest in achieving classification. I think it means something to the producers, in terms of land value (see Per’s post below) financial support, interest from buyers, placement on lists, etc. But for many consumers it means nothing.

    Rastko, thanks for that link – it is a more interesting video than the one I was referring to, which was just screens of text, and would have been better as a webpage or even a powerpoint presentation. I much prefer the one you link to.

    Per, thanks for chipping in here. Jean-Luc is an interesting guy isn’t he? Last time I went round St Emilion with him we went to the boundary of the appellation with Castillon, close to Valandraud of course. Land on one side was €1,000,000 per hectare, on the other €25,000 per hectare. Same soils, climate and so on. Naming and renaming land can certainly have a massive impact on its value.

  4. Agree fully with the motivation for the Chateau owners and increased value of their properties.

    Fortunately there are so many good producers where you can get value for money, that if the consumer wants to they can ignore these top chateau on either side of the river and get really good wine for a reasonable price.

    You need to be smart and not get caught up in the chatter. As I have said I stopped supporting Bordeaux after 2005 when I bought selectively, but widely and while I overpaid a bit I can live with that, however, what has gone on with 2005 and certainly thereafter has just turned me off completely.

    In fact Chris yours is the only website which I follow and read, I do not really even look at En Primeur postings, etc… Just so turned off by the whole thing.

  5. Thank you for those words of support Gary! :-)