St Emilion Classification blog from MWH Wines

Lovers of the wines of Bordeaux were shocked to hear of Château Ausone’s and Château Cheval Blanc’s decision to leave the St Emilion classification.  The classification comes up for its 10-year review in 2022 and both properties have made it clear that they no longer wish to be part of it.  While they took their decisions independently, there seems to be a common reasoning behind their momentous decision.  Decanter reported that it had seen a letter from Château Cheval Blanc’s director, Pierre Lurton, technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet and commercial director Arnaud de Laforcade which explained their decision.

‘In 2012 (the last classification re-evaluation), we noticed a profound change in the philosophy of the classification, especially regarding new criteria that amount to “marketing drift”, such as the importance of product placement, how often an estate appears in media, including PR and in social media, along with wine tourism infrastructure.’

This shift of focus from what’s in the bottle to how the estates are perceived evidently sat ill with them.

There’s been much speculation in recent months that the coveted Premier Grand Cru Classe A St Emilion classification would be opened up to more properties. In 2012 Château Angelus – rightly in our opinion  - was elevated – alongside Château Pavie - wrongly in our estimation, doubling the total to four.  Estates such as Figeac, La Mondotte and Beausejour Becot have beem mentioned in connection with an elevation which is frankly laughable.  All of these are great wines but are they in the same class as Ausone or Cheval?  Surely not.

The End of Bordeaux Classifications?

Their decision to leave is hugely significant and says a lot about the state of Bordeaux as a whole.  While these two have nothing to lose by leaving – Cheval and Ausone are legendary wines that are sought after by collectors for the quality of their contents, not the wording on the label – it further undermines the classification as a whole. 

The last classification in 2012 was controversial not just for its promotions but for its demotions.  Châteaux Croque-Michotte, Corbin-Michotte and La Tour du Pin Figeac, which were demoted in 2012 and they too questioned the legitimacy of the classification’s rankings.  For these lesser properties, official recognition matters and if there’s been a shift to consider things such as marketing and tourism (so curtly described by Ausone’s Pauline Vauthier as ‘nice’) then some properties will be at a disadvantage given their small physical size and the costs of accommodating said tourists.  It also moves focus away from the most important thing: the quality of the wine.

The MWH Wine team were saddened and surprised by this move, but we can only support it.   In terms of St Emilion Cheval and Ausone, they are peerless.  Angelus has been on a blistering run of form over the past couple of decades but if you take the long view even it can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with these titans.  As for the Parker-pandering Pavie, less said the better.  The outcome will inevitably be a classification that is hobbled as whichever properties hold the top spots, everyone will know which are the real first growths of St Emilion and that they are noticeable by their absence.

Do We Need Bordeaux Classifications?

Pomerol, home to glories such as Petrus, Lafeur and L’Evangile has never been classified and it seems to cope, while calls for the end of other classifications are as old as the classifications themselves.  The famed 1855 was thrown together at Napoleon III’s behest ahead of the Great Exhibition based on prices being fetched at the time.  It was never meant to be a long-term measure and over the last 150 years one or two things have changed in the vineyards of the Left Bank.  Yet, aside from Mouton’s elevation in 1973, its remained the same and has created a false pricing structure.  Anyone who’s tasted Lynch Bages on a regular basis knows that it’s a wine of Second Growth quality, not a Fifth, that La Mission Haut Brion is a First in all but name and that Boyd Cantenac – for all its improvements – doesn’t deserve to be considered in the same way as Palmer

With wine journalism a worldwide activity and access to high-quality information on properties and vintages available at the click of a mouse, basing reputations on a century and a half old classification seems bizarre.  Many will argue, and with some justice, that prices are based on current form not historic status.  However, we’d counter that with a look at Margaux, Mouton and Petrus, all of which have had periods of underperformance and yet remain expensive.

In the case of the Firsts, Lafite, Latour, Mouton and Haut Brion, prices have always been significantly higher simply as they are Firsts.  Yes, all of them are at the top of their game at present, but place Haut Brion 2009 beside La Mission 2009 or Latour 1990 against Levoville Las Cases 1990 and is the price difference justified on the grounds of flavour? 

Despite the effective decapitation of the St Emilion classification, the 1855 will remain in use.  There are simply too many vested interests and there’s far too much money at stake for any meaningful changes to be made.  And while buyers are better informed than ever before, the air of mystique that garlands the wines at the top of the classification still holds considerable sway and directly influences prices asked. 

It will be interesting to see how St Emilion’s leading properties react to Cheval’s and Ausone’s omission from the classification.  Cynical marketers will see it as a golden opportunity for Pavie and Angelus to declare themselves as the officially recognised best of the best, while others may speculate that other properties may follow suit.  When Latour left the en-primeur system many were quick to sound the system’s death knell, but the process of selling wines off before release has continued since 2012 and despite its problems it looks like it's here to stay. 

So goodbye, for now at least, to Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc Premier Grand Cru Classe A.  Maybe we’ll see you again in 2032?  Whatever you decide, we won’t think anything less of you.

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