The Saint-Emilion classification has been around since 1995. Created by the viticultural union of Saint-Emilion wines, it exists for the promotion of the Bordeaux appellation’s grands crus, keeping the bar of excellence high. Every ten years, the classification is reviewed by the INAO to judge whether its members are still up to scratch, and whether others might be deemed worthy. And whilst the prestige of a Saint-Emilion label is much admired by amateurs and professionals alike, what goes on behind the scenes is not so straightforward.
A ranking within a ranking
The Saint-Emilion classification is a way of distinguishing wines within the Saint-Emilion appellation, with the following labels available: Grand Cru Classé, 1er Grand Cru Classé, and 1er Grand Cru Classé A and B. The Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO), in charge of recognising and protecting labels of origin, determines these titles using their own strict criteria. The boxes that need to be ticked often change, although some of them will appear every time. For instance, the wines are always judged on their quality and consistency, the character of the vineyard and how it is cultivated. Depending on the year, the weight of each element will vary for the final outcome. A welcome addition came in 2018, when eco-friendly efforts began to be considered. In concrete terms, any vintner wishing to be included in the classification must have some kind of environmental certificate by the 1st of January 2023 at the latest. A classification adapting itself to the tendency of the times, then…
These shifting goalposts aren’t without their critics, though. In fact, the classification has come under increasing scrutiny, provoking controversy among Saint-Emilion’s estates. In 2012, for example, certain châteaux were booted out of the elite circle for reasons they found unjust; employing multilingual personnel shouldn’t trump the quality of the wine as a qualifying factor, they said. The jury’s legitimacy and impartiality were also called into question. This fierce debate escalated and was eventually brought before the law, a battle that saw an attempt by Saint-Emilion’s disgruntled châteaux to cancel the 2012 classification. The case grumbled on for years and it was the INAO that eventually prevailed, though the decision remains highly contested in the appellation. In response, however, the INAO has had to compromise for their 2022 classification, changing some of the rules and criteria in the hope of avoiding further controversy. The weight of different criteria has been reviewed, with 50% of the final result resting on the tasting, and the jury will be made up of judges from outside Bordeaux. Transparency is key, and these changes have been made with the aim of restoring trust.
Cracks beginning to show?
Despite the efforts of the judging body, two historic châteaux have recently decided that enough is enough. Château Cheval Blanc, owned by LVMH, and Château Ausone, run by the Vauthier family, have both made the controversial step of not applying for their status in the classification to be renewed, a bold statement against the INAO and its power. This might look like a minor revolt in a market still largely leaning on label prestige and hierarchy, especially when there are still plenty of domains that consider the classification worthy of their time and effort. But could this be a sign of cracks beginning to show? It’s true that the right bank properties are constantly evolving in order to fit the criteria, reinventing themselves and even changing the style of their wines in the hopes of accessing the upper echelons of Bordeaux’s top signatures. Should critics be quite so influential in the choices made by wine producers?
Plus, these two châteaux aren’t just any old Saint-Emilion estates. Only four châteaux carry the super-label of Premier Grand Cru Classé A, so for half of them to effectively walk away from their reigning position is quite a shake-up in a world built around such recognition. They may not have totally undermined the power of INAO’s classification in one fell swoop, but the influence of Ausone and Cheval Blanc means that the wave they’ve started has the potential to become something much bigger. Could Saint-Emilion be the epicentre of an oncoming earthquake? Or will the power of the classification system endure?