I have just returned from an intense week at Chateau Pey La Tour in Salleboeuf on route from Bordeaux to Saint-Emilion. I was there predominantly to teach second year Master of Wine students at the annual residential seminar, but while I was there I took the opportunity to visit several Chateaux and negotiant firms, giving me the opportunity to taste a dazzling array of current release Bordeaux. With the 2015 and 2016 releases, Bordeaux has never been so exciting.
No matter where properties sit on the various Bordeaux classification systems, the wines of Bordeaux are mid-Renaissance.
Years of dedicated effort into vineyards and wineries as well as a post-Parker balanced approach to ripeness and freshness mean that no matter where properties sit on the various Bordeaux classification systems, the wines of Bordeaux are mid-Renaissance. Whilst left bank Bordeaux classification, the 1885 classification of Medoc and Graves, remains dependably clear and useful, the classification of the right bank’s Saint-Emilion is more fluid, politically-charged and potentially confusing.
Since the classification of Medoc and Graves was established in 1885, there have been only three changes, with the addition of Cantemerle, promotion of Mouton Rothschild and the removal of Dubignon when it was absorbed into Malescot St Exupery. These are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Meanwhile, the classification of Saint-Emilion debuted one hundred years later in 1955 and has been fully updated five times since, in 1969, 1986, 1996, 2006 and 2012. It is intended to be updated every ten years, but the 2006 was so shrouded in controversy that it was dissolved, and the 2012 classification was instituted to restore faith in the system.
The reclassification of 2006 was a confusing and polarising embarrassment for the Saint-Emilion winemaking community. Four chateaux filed lawsuits after being demoted, and the classification was annulled. Producers were unable to label their 2006 wines with their classification, until May 2009 when a law was passed that permitted them to use their classification from 1996. However, it was clear that the entire classification system needed an overhaul.
Once the dust had settled, thoughts turned to a new classification for 2012. Rather than the former internal and potentially biased jury of courtiers, négociants, and enologists, the INAO (the body that manages France’s appellation system) appointed a commission of seven professionals from outside the region, ostensibly independent of local politics and self-interest, such as Marcel Guigal and Robert Drouhin.
Other factors included reputation in the marketplace, terroir, the estate and their vineyard and winemaking practices.
For consideration for the highest tier of Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) status, the judges tasted the past 20 vintages. For the next tier Premier Grand Cru Classé (B), they tasted the past 15 vintages and for the third tier Grand Cru Classé, they tasted 10. Other factors included reputation in the marketplace, terroir, the estate and their vineyard and winemaking practices. Whilst not perfect – no classification system really can be – the results are a useful and reflective guide to the quality levels of the estates of Saint-Emilion.
The highest classification of Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) is intended to be the first growths of Saint-Emilion. Indeed, the four chosen estates Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Angélus and Pavie justifiably qualify for that title.
The second tier, the hypothetical second growths are called Premier Grand Cru Classé (B). Just as for the Medoc second growths, there are currently 14: Beauséjour, Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Bélair-Monange, Canon, Canon la Gaffelière, Figeac, Clos Fourtet, la Gaffelière, Larcis Ducasse, La Mondotte, Pavie Macquin, Troplong Mondot, Trottevieille, Valandraud.
Rather than third through fifth growths as in Medoc, there is just one more official tier, Grand Cru Classé comprising 64 estates. There is as much variation within this tier as there is within the three tiers of Medoc classed growths, yet without the helpful three grades. However, as a group they can be considered roughly equal to Medoc’s lower-classed growths and for further reference, price is a good indicator of quality within this broad quality grouping.
Confusingly, wines labelled ‘Saint-Emilion Grand Cru’ do not fit within the 2012 Saint-Emilion Classification system. They are simply properties that fall within the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru subzone of Saint-Emilion. Look for the critical word “classé” to designate wines officially classified by intensive vertical tasting.
Whichever classification, as my own tastings last week proved, we are entering a golden age of Bordeaux. The 2012 Saint-Emilion Classification is a helpful guide and wines from these classified properties from the 2015 and 2016 vintages make for exceptional additions to any wine collection.
Matt Deller is one of just 47 Masters of Wine in the US and an internationally respected wine judge, panelist and speaker