St. Émilion Classification 2012: Vive la Meticulous, Compulsive, Anal-Retentive France

Alley Oop / Chagall. You’ve come a long way, baby.

I adore French cuisine. I am enamored of French history.  I love the sensuous roll of la langue française across the tongue—especially when it is accompanied by the crisp silk of a Cave des Vignerons de Buxy Chablis.  I dig French jazz (Stéphane Grappelli,  Christian Vander, Jacques Loussier’s Bach); I cream all over the philosophy of Liberté, égalité, fraternité; I love French wine, French countryside, French couture, French art, from the caves of Pech Merle to the halls of the Musée National d’Art Moderne.

French people, on the other hand, make me laugh—occasionally until I soil myself.

And nowhere are the chortles more chuff as when the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO)—the French organization charged with regulating French agricultural products with Protected Designations of Origin—starts getting all serious and scholarly about their wine classifications.

Yes, I am speaking of the recent re-re-re-re-re-re-classification (the sixth since 1955) of the Premier grands crus classés and Grands crus classés of St. Émilion—those thirteen thousand acres on the right bank of the Dordogne that represent about a sixth of Bordeaux’s total vineyards.

You can’t always get what you want.  Unless you’re Baron Philippe: 1902 – 1988

Even borderline enophiles are familiar with the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, which covered Médoc and Graves, and ranked them in importance based on reputation and trading price—then, the most reliable indicator of quality.  There were five categories into which a château might fall, First Growth to Fifth, and those fortunate enough to make the cut enjoy that status today: There have only been two changes made to the list in 157 years.  The first occurred a year after the fact, when Cantemerle was added as a Cinquième Cru, and the second in 1973 when a lifetime of lobbying by loudmouth liege lord Philippe de Rothschild saw Château Mouton Rothschild elevated from a Second Growth to a Premier Cru.

Otherwise the list is, and likely will remain, immutable.


St. Émilion

A century after the original Médoc/Graves classification, St. Émilion’s Syndicat Viticole convinced the INAO to take the lead in classifying the merlot-heavy appellation, which includes such luminaries as Château Ausone, Château Cheval Blanc and Château Figeac.  The 1855 exercise was used as a rough template for St. Émilion’s 1955 classification with two important differences: Instead of five levels of excellence, St. Émilion only recognizes two, and more importantly, the list itself is re-evaluated and rewritten every decade or so.

Alexis Lichine, 1913 -1989

Clearly, advances in technology, ownership swaps and vineyard divisions probably make the 1855 Classification obsolete—a modern revision is consummation devoutly wished by such weisenheimer wine windbags as Robert Parker Jr., Bernard and Henri Enjalbert (authors of L’histoire de la Vigne & Du Vin), Clive Coates (MW) and David Peppercorn (MW).  And devoutly past-tense wished by the late Russian sauce scribe Alexis Lichine, who sat on a 1960 revision panel (epic fail) and wound up publishing his own unofficial classification system.

And yet, like virtually every single opinionated statement made in our litigious era, the value of classification stagnation was demonstrated to all of Bordeaux following the release of the 2006 St. Émilion re-do when four of the estates whose status was revised downward—La Tour du Pin Figeac, Cadet Bon, Guadet and Château de la Marzelle—sued.  The legal claim was that some of the voting panel members had vested interests in Bordeaux wineries, and that may be true, but of course, like any lawsuit, bookoo bucks lie at ground zero, and any demotion will undoubtedly cost the estate dough, just as losing a Michelin star does for a restaurant.

Demote.  That’s what strikes me as so irresistibly funny.  You demote a fourth grader to the third grade; you demote a corrupt major to a recalcitrant captain.  You demote a maître d’ to a waiter and a waiter to a busboy and a busboy to a dishwasher and a dishwasher to a honey dipper.

But a three-hundred-year-old château with the hangover of history, the gravitas of glory days and the amour-propre of avowed ancestry?  Demoted by a silly panel of self-important, ethics-challenged judges, like a high school quarterback demoted to third string because he threw an interception or two?  I mean, ‘demoting’ an institution like Pin Figeac is a little like marching down the sacred corridors of Musée du Louvre and demoting the Mona Lisa to the status of primitive folk art.

I’d sue their sniveling little French derrières too.

Good Career Move

And anyway, it worked.  They blinked.  Having offered an apology, the INAO has promised to pump up their standards and work toward more transparent judging and more consistency throughout the process.  Last week, the Wine Council released St. Émilion Classification 2012. 

And, can you guess it?  Two new Premiers Grands Crus Classés A estates were added (for the first time ever): Château Pavie and Château Angélus, while the ‘plaintiff’ estates—indeed, all the demoted châteaux from 2006 this time passed the jury’s rigorous blind taste test… except La Tour du Pin Figeac!

Jeff Leve

That seemed to have taken a few folks by surprise, including Decanter editor Stephen Brook.  No doubt it also surprised respected critic Jeff Leve of Wine Talk Forum, who rated the last three Pin Figeac vintages 91, 92, 91 points respectively.

Regardless, pending ratification by the French Ministry of Agriculture, the 2012 St. Émilion Classification lists 18 Premiers Grands Crus Classés and 64 Grands Crus Classés, the most estates so honored since 1969.

The cynical among you might suppose that the lawsuits shook up some folks on the judging committee, but spin doctor Director of the Saint Émilion Wine Council Franck Binard finds not come-uppance but vindication:

“A number of chateaux were rejected in 2006, and this must have been an electro-shock to them – the quality we see now is a result of improved standards. It shows the force of the classification – that winemakers are encouraged to do their very best, and that St. Émilion is a modern appellation where nothing is set in stone – anything is possible for those who work hard.”

Whatever, Franck…

I’d guess that the chances that the jury’s effusive generosity in 2012  were not the result of political pressure to be somewhere in the neighborhood of one in an émilion, but no matter:  Personally, the re-re-re-re-re-revision means little to my world beyond an eye-rolling punch line, like some of the absurd antics pulled in Médoc—where, for example, estates ignored in 1855 were later granted the status of Cru Bourgeois, invented in 1932, revised in 2003, banned in 2007, reinstated in 2010.  This is stuff we are supposed to take seriously?

Liberté, égalité, fraternité, obsessive-compulsivité, anal-retentivité: 

Vive la Résistance.

(That would be me).





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3 Responses to St. Émilion Classification 2012: Vive la Meticulous, Compulsive, Anal-Retentive France

  1. This had me rolling with laughter as I have just been trying to make sense of it all for my Bordeaux novel. I will give credit, of course, ask permission, etc, if I use a few of your lines in the novel. But for today, thank you for the laugh!

  2. Jeremy Hart says:

    I refuse to remember any of the Bordeaux Classifications, ever. If it mattered what people found fashionable years ago, Inglenook would be OpusOne, or I guess OpusOne would be OpusOne – bad example. I think it’s bs that a second growth can buy a Cru Bourgoise next door and boom! it’s fruit is now a second growth. How does a 1st Growth make 25k cases and demand prices north of $500 depending on the sunshine hitting their bog on that calendar year, if I am spending that money then I am drinking something special from Burgundy mofos.

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