Saint-Emilion Classification: a French Farce

The long running saga concerning the re-classication of the top estates of St-Emilion took another twist this week when a court in Bordeaux ruled against the recently revised rankings.  The whole affair has been widely reported, as in The Daily Telegraph, and by Sophie Kevany on  Wikipedia’s current entry on this debacle is now right up-to-date and includes the useful, but now suspended, 2006 classification.  

If this sort of thing matters to you, one press agency report has resulted in several columns confusing the terms ‘Grand Cru’ with ‘Grand Cru Classe’.  The recent 2006 classification has been thrown out, meaning that ‘Grand Cru Classe’ cannot be put on the label, but there’s no change to the use of the words ‘Grand Cru’, which, confusingly, is not part of this classification or ruling.  ‘Grand Cru’ is part of the qualifying process for the St-Emilion Appellation, not for the Classification, and, as far as consumers are concerned, the words ‘Grand Cru’ in Saint-Emilion might sound grand but they mean rod all, unlike in Burgundy or Chablis.  There are hundreds of wines from Saint-Emilion bearing the words Grand Cru which, frankly, are pretty grim, while others rank as some of the most sought-after (and unclassified) wines of Bordeaux.  As for the words ‘Grand Vin de Bordeaux’…

I feel disappointed for some of the losers in this new ruling, such as Nicolas Thienpont of Pavie-Macquin and Christine Valette of Troplong Mondot, both promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classe, but their wines have been recognised as being at the top level for many years (and comparative bargains pre-2005).  But the 2006 ranking is already out-of-date, in my opinion.  Who knows, with everyone back to square one, perhaps no-one will rest on their laurels and others will try harder each year, without the prospect of having to wait almost a decade for the next re-assessment.

For all it’s faults, at least the ‘en primeur’ method of selling top Bordeaux is completely unregulated and provides a swift insight into what’s happening.  God forbid that the rules should ever by controlled by committees or the courts.  If a chateau raises its game and makes great wine, professionals will chew it over and market forces – and customers – decide as to whether it’s worth buying or not.  (If they don’t want to take part, they can still sell their wine through other avenues – just like the rest of the world).  If like-minded owners want to present their wines as a group or association, there’s nothing to stop them.

Over a relatively short period of time, the good guys succeed and the sloppy ones get found out.  Just ask the people in Pomerol next door.  No classification there – just plenty of classy wines, from Petrus and Le Pin, to Petite Eglise. 

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