Within the greater Bordeaux region, there are several key sub-regions and appellations, the most well-known being between the distinction between the wines of the “Right Bank” and the “Left Bank”, the latter of which is home to the well-known 1855 Bordeaux Classification and its five “First Growths.” Over on the Right Bank, things are (increasingly) more complicated; while the appellation of Pomerol has notably eschewed any formal classification of its wines, despite being home to some of Bordeaux’s most iconic names such as Chateau Petrus and le Pin, its neighbouring appellation, St-Emilion, has too devised its own classification system — a particularly hot topic over the past year.
To give a brief summary, there are four categories of wine to be found in St-Emilion: Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé, Premier Grand Cru Classé B and at the very top, Premier Grand Cru Classé A. There are over two hundred wines which are designated as a St-Emilion “Grand Cru,” however, it is important to note that this designation is based on abiding by the rules of the appellation and is not actually a part of the official qualitative classification, which was first established in 1955. If an estate chooses not to partake in the classification at all (something which is of even more relevant now) such as the notable historical example of Tertre Roteboeuf, they will still be labelled as a St-Emilion Grand Cru. There are 63 estates which have earned the classification of Grand Cru Classé, which requires them to prove a certain level of quality and consistency over the past 10 vintages to a panel of judges. Above that level is Premier Grand Cru Classé B, of which there are 14 estates, and who along with the Premier Grand Cru Classé A estates, which until July of last year had only 4 estates, and which now only have 1 estate remaining, are considered as the “first growths” of St-Emilion.
The St-Emilion Classification system has been under intense scrutiny over the past year, following the cloud of dispute which arose over the results of the 2012 Classification, with accusations that the results were fixed due to the bias of the judges. Several court cases ensued, and in November of 2021, one of the highest profile of these cases resulted in Hubert de Bôuard of Chateau Angelus being found guilty of having ‘undue influence’ on the rankings due to his role on the commission appointed by the National Institute of Wine Appellations (INAO). As a further twist, in July of 2021, the morning after the application had closed for the 2022 reclassification, two of the four Premier Cru Classé A estates, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone announced they were withdrawing from the system all together. Then just six months later, following the court decision, Chateau Angelus chose to withdraw their own application, which came as a great blow considering they are the only estate who has successfully climbed the ranks having been from a Grand Cru Classé to a Premier Grand Cru Classé B in 1996, and then again to become a Premier Grand Cru Classé A in 2012. With only Chateau Pavie remaining in this top tier of this system, many have been left wondering how this would all affect the future of this system, which was first established back in 1950 as a means to a regular and fair appraisal of the region’s many chateaux and whose significance has now become far less certain.
As far as what one can expect for the future reputation and price trajectories of Chateau Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Angelus, it is our belief that their departure from the Classification system will have little impact on their status as top tier estates within the region. The fact that they have already been identified by the classification system as being Premiers Grands Crus Classés A should ensure that they will continue to benefit from this system, even though their bottle will no longer bear the proof of this. It is also important to note that although they are leaving the system behind (at least for now) they have very clearly benefitted from having been a part of it and having been officially canonized as the very best that St-Emilion has to offer.
With the results of the 2022 Classification looming in just a few weeks’ time, it is highly speculated that Chateau Pavie will be joined by several new Estates in the Classé A category, with Chateau Figeac at the very top of that list, and a few others like Troplong Mondot and Canon also considered viable contenders. What is certain is that the classification will certainly go ahead as planned, but what is less clear is how will the withdrawal of some of the top estates in region affect the significance of these new promotions. After their promotion to Classé A in 2012, both Chateau Pavie and Angelus saw immediate price increases in the market as well as significant price increases in their 2012 release prices, with Angelus releasing 30% above their 2011 price and Pavie at a staggering 58% increase. Thus, it is easy to understand why there is such a high level of anticipation of who may have been tapped to rise from their status as a Classé to a Classé B, or indeed to be one of the very few to elevate themselves from a Classé B to join Chateau Pavie as a fellow Classé A. The results are expected to be announced imminently as early as September, leaving just a short window of time remaining to pick up any last cases of those estates which may be expected to ascend to the next ranking. No matter what the outcome may be, the wines of St-Emilion will continue to remain in the global spotlight and be continued source of debate and speculation for the next several months to come.