The 2012 St Emilion Classification

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On Friday 7th September INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) announced the new classification for St Emilion. The classification is revised every ten years to encourage producers to retain their top position by the quality of their wines. As estates can be downgraded as well as upgraded, the classification has a controversial history and was left in disarray in 2006 after its latest revision was contested in court. After a series of blind tastings, the new classification has finally been released and for the first time in its history two châteaux have been upgraded to the highest echelon of Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’, while 14 properties joined the ranks of  Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ and 17 properties received the status of Grand Cru Classé.

The History

Exactly a century after the wines of the Medoc were classified in the 1855 classification, the Syndicat Viticole of St Emilion with the approval of INOA released an official classification for the wines of St Emilion. The classification groups the best wines into two categories:  Premier Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru Classé. In the same way that the 1855 Sauternes & Barsac Classification is subdivided in Premier Cru Superieur (superior First Growth) and Premier Cru (First Growth), the St Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé is subdived into Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ and Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’. Unlike the 1855 classifications the St Emilion classification is reviewed every ten years. The producers need to apply for inclusion into the classifications and are judged not on price, but on their terroir and the quality of their wines (based on a tasting of their wines from the past ten vintages). The original classification included two Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ (Ch. Ausone and Ch. Cheval Blanc), 11 properties were awarded Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ and 55 were classified as Grand Cru Classé. The classification was revised in1969, 1985, 1996 and then in 2006.

Before looking at the 2006 argument, it is worth noting that the denotation of ‘St Emilion Grand Cru’ on a St Emilion label is not linked to the superior classification ‘Grand Cru Classé’  as discussed here. Unlike its Burgundian counterpart, in St Emilion this has little meaning. Like Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, ‘St Emilion Grand Cru’ reflects a lower yield for harvest (40hl/ha rather than the 45hl/ha generally allowed in St Emilion) and a 0.5% higher alcohol strength than basic St Emilion.

2006: The controversy

In 2006, 61 properties were graded. Ch. Troplong-Mondot and Pavie-Macquin were upgraded to Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’. Six chateaux (Ch. Bellefont-Belcier , Ch. Destieux, Ch. Fleur Cardinale, Ch. Grand Corbin, Ch. Grand Corbin-Despagne and Ch. Monbousquet)  were granted Grand Cru Classé status . Twelve chateaux had been demoted (Ch. Bellevue, Ch. Cadet-Bon, Ch. Faurie-de-Souchard, Ch. La Marzelle, Ch. La Tour du Pin Figeac (both properties), Ch. Petit Fourie de Soutard, Ch. Tetre Daugay, Ch. Villemaurine, Ch. Yon Figeac, Ch. Guadet Saint Julien (now known as Ch. Guadet).  Four of the demoted properties (Ch. La Tour du Pin Figeac, Ch. Cadet Bon, Ch. Guadet and Ch. de la Marzelle) questioned the new classification on the basis that not all chateaux had been visited (all blind tastings of the past ten vintages had been done). A lawsuit followed that brought the entire St Emilion classification into disarray. At first the classification was suspended and then in 2008 the decision was taken that as a short term solution all properties that were promoted would keep their 2006 promotion, while those that were demoted would keep their 1996 classification. On 21 June 2011 INOA announced that the new classification would go ahead and invited the estates to submit their applications to be included in the classification. On Friday 7 September the new classification was finally released.

The 2012 St Emilion Classification

After 16 years, St Emilion finally has a new classification based on the properties’ terroir, blind tastings and their position in the market. The new classification includes 82 properties in total, the highest number of properties since the classification was founded in 1955. In a surprise move INOA added for the first time since 1955 two properties to the top ranking of Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ on the basis of reputation and ageing potential. Ch. Angelus and Ch. Pavie joined Ch. Ausone and Ch. Cheval Blanc as the highest rated St. Emilion properties. Ch. La Tour du Pin Figeac and Ch. Corbin Michotte were the only properties to lose their Grand Cru Classé status altogether. Four properties were promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ (Ch. Canon la Gaffelière, Ch. Larcis Ducasse, La Mondott and Ch. Valandraud). The high number of classified wines comes as little surprise and reflects the fact that wine-making standard in St Emilion have been higher than ever. In the last few days much has been said about the promotion of Ch.  Angelus with its golden bell and Ch. Pavie, highly rated by Rober Parker and the classification in general.

Comments have been made that the 2012 classification of St Emilion is similar to the 1855 classification in terms of being ranked according to price. Liv-Ex noted that all wines that moved from Grand Cru Classé  to Premier Grand Cru Classé  had been trading over £450 per case. The only two Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ properties trading over a £1000 a case for the past five vintages, were awarded the suffix ‘A’ instead of ‘B’. Others have quoted the influence of Robert Parker on the classification. Ch. Figeac, in a long-standing dispute with Robert Parker who no longer rates the Château en primeur, was not promoted. Instead the richer, full bodied Ch. Pavie and Ch. Angelus joined the top ranking. So far this century Ch. Pavie twice received a perfect score (2000 and 2009) and is never rated below 94. Similarly Ch Angelus, with its golden bell, has only received scores of 90+ since 2000. Ultimately, however, the classification is based upon blind tastings and the reputation or market price are not the only guides.

As a result of the new classification, the wine trade has reported some speculative buying, but it is too early to say if the classification will have a serious impact on prices. This would depend on the emergence of a strong secondary market for these wines. All we know is that INOA has announced that it will continue to revise the St Emilion classification in the future with a view to encourage excellence.