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On Tasting
Status in St Emilion Raises Issues
Sunday, 24th July, 2011  - David Farmer

Understanding the classification of French wine districts, the 'appelation controllee', and all the subtle nuances, requires a lifetimes study; and alas I'm rusty on the topic. I have though taken an interest in some recent decisions that have played out in the Bordeaux right bank appellation of St. Emillion and they raise issues which you may find interesting.

Despite dusting off 'Bordeaux' by David Peppercorn (1991 edition) I'm still uncertain how the initial classification for St Emillion was decided in 1955. In that year they created the first classification with 12 Premier Grand Cru Classes, and 72 Grand Cru Classes. These have continued to be revised.

St. Emillion is unusual as the grading system can be altered by a panel which meets every 10 years and bases some of its appraisal on tastings. It is said to be the only wine region in the world where status can be changed this way and I can well believe it. In a small town like St. Emillion, I for one would not want to be on any tasting panel promoting or demoting a chateau.

In 2006 it was time for the 10 year evaluation and tasting of the classified growths. The judging panel went to work and promoted 8 chateaus and demoted 11 chateaus.

One of the demoted, Chateau Guadet decided to challenge the demotion through the courts (French Court of Appeal) and were joined by three others, La Tour du Pin Figeac, Cadet Bon and la Marzelle.

The very sensible judge took one look at this action and decided to put it back in the 'too-hard' basket and reinstated the 1996 classification, meaning no demotions but also no promotions. So those losing status were relieved while those that had gained status and with it a potentially higher wine price, perhaps deserved after many years of hard work, were not happy, so peace was not restored. The eight unhappy were; Chateau Pavie-Macquin and Troplong-Mondot promoted up a notch to Premier Grand Cru Classes, with Chateau Bellefond-Belcier, Destieux, Fleur-Cardinale, Grand Corbin, Grand Corbin-Despagne, and Monbousquet becoming Grand Cru Classes.

Tensions continued and further judgment sought and in March, 2009 the eight unhappy chateaus were allowed the right to their upgraded status of 2006. More recently a revision on how to grade chateau has been decided which includes a tasting evaluation and other features and is more akin to an exam. This seems much more French and less forthright than the 2006 process. This comes into place in 2012.

Consider though the following. Classifying or grading the chateaux or vineyards of a region was initially based on knowledge built up over centuries. In Bordeaux it was recognised that some chateau consistently made better wines than others. They acquired the right to a higher classification by the location or 'sense of place' and this overrides wine quality. Over the last 40 years this term terroir has become popular-you either have it or you don't. On this basis it would seem you cannot lose status even if poor wine is made for decades. Quite a few chateaus on the left bank with favourable locations have indeed made poor wine for very long stretches.

Surely it is the market place that should finally determine the worth of a wine by paying less when the wine does not live up to its reputation. This highlights the unusual boldness of the St. Emillion system though the revised grading being used for the 2012 revision gives less emphasis to tasting.

We cannot leave St Emillion without referring to Ch Pavie. It has been a Premier Grand Cru Cru since 1955 and under Jean-Paul Valette made good wines from the late 1970s into the 1990s. In 1998 the chateau was purchased by Gerard Perse and with this came a dramatic change in style. The 'turbo charged' wines given high ratings by Robert Parker had arrived. What did the 2006 ratings panel make of this entirely new style for St Emilion? We may never know but it's hard to think it would have been favourable. I would love to hear the gossip about Ch Pavie from the tastings undertaken for the 2012 classification.

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