After Jean-Luc Thunevin received the letter informing him his Chateau Valandraud had been elevated to Saint-Emilion premier grand cru classe B, he celebrated by opening many bottles of Dom Ruinart champagne.
It was sweet vindication for the wine maker. Fifteen years ago he was dissed by the region’s traditional winemakers as a “garagiste” upstart and called “the bad boy of Bordeaux.”
Unlike the famous 1855 classification of chateaux on Bordeaux’s Left Bank, Saint-Emilion’s three rankings—rising from grand cru classe to premier grand cru classe B to the exalted category of premier grand cru classe A at the top of the hierarchy—are revised every 10 years or so.
Saint-Emilion’s new wine list
Saint-Emilion’s new list of 82 names released in early September also brought triumphs to other well-deserving chateaus, such as Angelus, La Mondotte and Canon La Gaffeliere.
Not everyone is celebrating. Chateau Croque-Michotte failed to regain the grand cru classe status it lost during a revision in 1996. Its proprietor denounced the whole process, saying he may be consulting his lawyer.
More than half a dozen chateaus should have been demoted, in my opinion, because of their lackluster wines, but they squeaked through again.
So, does the classification matter? Few wine lovers pay attention to it, but a chateau’s placement can affect the price of its wine, access to distributors and the value of its land.
That’s partly why the previous revision, in 2006, quickly devolved into a heated legal battle. Several downgraded chateaus filed complaints alleging the classification commission was biased. Contradictory court decisions led to an annulment of the classification altogether, then finally, in 2009, a reinstatement allowed both promoted and demoted chateaus to retain their status.
Since then, the highly respected Institut National des Appellations d’Origine has taken over, enlisting professionals outside the region to review the chateaus’ applications, vineyards, reputations and prices, and taste the wines blind.
“The problem with the last commission was that it was full of people from Bordeaux, so everyone thought there was a conflict of interest,” says Hubert de Bouard, co-owner of Chateau Angelus. He was celebrating his new promotion from premier grand cru classe B to A.
London-based Liv-Ex said on its website that the Saint-Emilion’s 2012 wine rankings almost exactly follow the chateaus’ secondary market prices.
World-famous chateaus Ausone (truly great 2005 at $3,000 and Cheval Blanc luscious 2011, $680) have had the premier grand cru classe A category to themselves since the classification began in 1955.
Chateau Angelus and Chateau Pavie, the next most expensive Saint-Emilions at $300 to $400, have now joined them.
“Being promoted is like a two-star Michelin restaurant getting a third star,” Bouard says. “It will make a difference in China.” His rich, dense wine is known there as the Golden Bell after the symbol on the label. He assures me Angelus’s prices will not go up, at least not right away.
I’m less enthused about the elevation of Pavie, whose super-ripe wines have provoked plenty of controversy. I was disappointed with many at a 16-vintage tasting last spring, though the succulent 2009 ($350) impressed me.
Behind Saint-Emilion’s wine list three rankings
The complex wines of Ausone and Cheval Blanc obviously still reside in a higher taste-quality universe. Now that their rank isn’t so exclusive, will either decide to opt out in the future?
Premier grand cru classe B, the next level down, gained four new names, including Valandraud, Canon La Gaffeliere and La Mondotte. The latter two estates belong to Comte Stephan von Neipperg, who also feels vindicated.
“In 1996, the commission said Mondotte’s wines were no good,” von Neipperg says. “In 2006, my bid for Canon La Gaffeliere to be promoted from grand cru classe was rejected.” He toasted his staff with non-vintage Bollinger champagne.
The biggest surprise was the merger of Chateau de la Magdeleine, which makes one of my favorite wines, into Chateau Belair-Monange. Both are in the “B” category. Though Edouard Moueix, whose family owns both, says it’s a “quality decision,” it looks like they’re aiming for “A” status in 10 years.
The possibility of being classified or upping your category if you give your property a makeover was one reason Swiss entrepreneur Silvio Denz bought in Saint-Emilion.
The founder of luxury house Art & Fragrance, Denz invested millions in Chateau Faugeres and Peby Faugeres, including building a new $8 million winery designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. Both estates won places on this year’s grand cru classe list, instantly upping their real estate value.
“A grand cru classe sells for 1.5 million euros to 3 million euros per hectare, three to five times more than one in the basic Saint-Emilion grand cru appellation,” Denz says. “A premier grand cru classe for 2.5 million to 4.5 million.”
Among 2012′s 64 grands crus classes, only three were demoted. There remains a surprisingly wide range of quality and styles. Chateau Faugeres, for example, is modern, sleek and rich (the 2010 is $42). I prefer it to the exaggerated 2010 Peby Faugeres ($145).
By contrast, the 2009 Chateau Corbin, a grand cru classe for decades, is wonderfully classic and elegant, a bargain at $40.
When I reached the director of the Saint-Emilion Wine Council Franck Binard by phone, he was breathing a sigh of relief. He’s convinced the new process will withstand legal challenges.
“It shows anything is possible in Saint-Emilion,” he said. “Here, nothing is written in stone.”