They don’t want to anymore, they’re dropping out in protest: In the French summer of 2021, the high-class Châteaux Cheval Blanc and Ausone said goodbye to the Saint-Émillon classification (Classement de Saint-Émilion). At the beginning of this year, Château Angelus followed suit and also said goodbye to the equally renowned Saint-Émilion classification. Currently, of the original four top estates, only Château Pavie, also a Premier Grand Cru Classé A (A = top class), remains in the classification. Pure Premier Grand Cru Classé (without A) are the Châteaux Beau-Séjour, Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Bél Air-Monange, Canon, Canon la Gaffelière, Figeac, Clos Fourtet, La Gaffelière, Larcis Ducasse, La Mondotte, Pavie Macquin, Troplong Mondot, Trottevieille and Trottevieille, which now lead the classification.
FRANCE (Bordeaux) – Château Angélus is leaving the Saint-Émillon classification, explaining when asked that while the classification has long been a “wonderful collective motivational tool,” the associated actions of Châteaux not included have generated “numerous criticisms” and made the classification the target of a “system of denigration,” resulting in numerous lawsuits. Legal proceedings have been pending since 2006 and then followed since 2012, some of which are still ongoing.
Regarding his resignation, Angélus also referred to the recent court decision with which Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, co-owner of Château Angélus as well as also Philippe Casteja, co-owner of Château Trotte Vieille, were sentenced to a fine after more than ten years of proceedings for “allegedly” influencing the application for the Saint-Émillon classification. The accusations, initiated by three other châteaux that had lost their status, were “baseless” says Angélus.
The ongoing squabbles and accusations, he says, have strengthened Angélus’ decision to withdraw from “a process whose viability does not seem assured and whose benefits would not outweigh the risks of unjust attacks.” Saint-Émilion’s classification, once considered “progressive” and a welcome “tool” for prestige and marketing by the châteaux, has become a “vehicle for hostility and instability,” according to Angélus. A press release from Angélus states, “Angélus regrets this damaging discord, takes note of it and is leaving the system by withdrawing from the 2022 classification.”
Angélus’ departure from the Saint-Émillon classification is another and potentially decisive blow to the established ranking system, which has seen its share of controversy over the past decade. Despite the squabbles over participation in the prestigious ranking, the classification system “did a lot” to raise the perception, popularity and prestige of St-Emilion wines, Angélus acknowledges. Indeed, the ranking led to increased investment in the region and encouraged healthy competition between wineries with the common goal of improving the quality of the wines.
Too little focus on terroir, too short time frame, lack of recognition
The two Châteaux Cheval Blanc and Ausone, which had already left in the summer of 2021, unanimously justified their step with dissatisfaction regarding the evaluation criteria. Both châteaux had been classified as Premiers Grands Crus Classés A and thus in the highest category of the Saint-Émillon classification since the start of the ranking in 1954. The relevant wine press quoted Pierre Lurton and Pierre-Olivier Clouet, director and technical director of Cheval Blanc, when announcing the withdrawal: “It was a very difficult decision for us. The decisive factor was that we do not find ourselves in the classification. The grid of the rating is too weak, that is, too far from what constitutes the quality of our wines.”
Pauline Vauthier, director of Château Ausone, argued similarly. She is quoted as saying, “It is precisely terroir and tasting that do not receive enough attention in the Saint-Émillon classification, which is central to our wines. In addition, only wines from the last fifteen years are included in the evaluation, which does not do justice to our wines or those of other top châteaux. We believe that great wines should be considered and evaluated over a longer period of time. Our family wrestled with the decision to leave the ranking for a long time – it was also a painful process.”
It is noteworthy that the departures of the three prestigious châteaux on the website “Vins De Bordeaux” is still not corrected. And on the website “Les Vins de Saint-Émillon” the Châteaux Angélus and Cheval Blanc are still listed as Premier Grand Cru Classé A.
Other voices on the tarnished ranking from various media (quotes).
“From a collective perspective, we regret Angélus’ decision. However, the ranking must continue as planned. It is our duty to look to the future and respect the important work of the INAO so that the classification endures as an excellent tool,” Jean-François Galhaud, president of the St-Emilion Wine Council, is quoted.
“The move by Château Angélus, which both supported and benefited from the rankings for decades, was a shock. It can’t possibly be good for the appellation because this action now raises many questions. I refer to the relatively harmonious Pomerol appellation, which has no rankings at all. Here, there are no such disputes or even recriminations. This could be a blueprint for Saint-Émilion,” Philippe Faniest, owner of Château Rochebelle, belonging to the Grand Cru Classé of St-Emilion, is quoted as saying.
“If others follow suit, this could be the end of the classification,” Matthieu Cuvelier, owner of Premier Grand Cru Classé Clos Fourtet, is quoted as saying.
“The Saint-Émillon classification still remains useful and gives a boost to the entire appellation. The ranking, adjusted over decades, nevertheless forces us to reflect, to improve our practices in the cellar as well as in the vineyard. We must constantly question our work so that we all benefit,” Blandine de Brier Manoncourt, co-owner of Premier Grand Cru Classé Château Figeac, is quoted as saying.
“Now the speculations start how to proceed with the classification. My suggestion would be to return to 1er Cru Classé and Grand Cru Classé. The A and B designations, the latter of which has already been dropped, only confuse consumers. And if you now classify estates such as Figeac in A, for example, it looks as if you are replacing those that have left, and that is not good,” Gavin Quinney, owner of Château Bauduc (Bordeaux AOC), who writes the annual harvest reports for Bordeaux, is quoted as saying.
The Saint-Émillon classification, which is renewed or supplemented every ten years, is now weakened in the focus of trade and consumers. Undoubtedly, questions are now piling up about the impact on the remaining châteaux in the ranking or those seeking inclusion. It is noteworthy that the INAO received more proposals of candidates for 2022 after the withdrawals were announced than was the case in 2012. It remains to be seen how those responsible for the classification will now proceed in order to continue to remain credible, on the one hand to protect the wines of Saint-Émilion and on the other hand to give recognition again to the Saint-Émillon classification as a promotional tool. One thing is clear, the classification determines the price of the wines – which is ultimately decisive for many estates that do not manage economically without ranking like the renowned châteaux.