For some keen Bordeaux-watchers, the news - reported by the French trade publication Terre et Vins - that two of the most illustrious estates in the region - Cheval Blanc and Ausone - had decided not to be included in St Emilion’s 2022 classification, came as a bombshell. For the Sud-Ouest newspaper, it could be “very bad news for the whole St Emilion appellation”. It could threaten the “very idea of the classification” which has been “made fragile” for years.
I was particularly struck by this story, having given a lot of thought to the pros and cons of classifications. My Chinese friend Lin Liu prompted some of this by asking whether I believed Cahors would benefit from having some Grands and maybe Premiers Crus. She was researching her dissertation for the Master of Wine qualification she subsequently obtained and, despite being co-owner of an estate in the appellation, was taking a commendably dispassionate approach to the question.
For the French, it's all about hierarchies
For most French traditionalists, there would be little debate. The Gallic way of looking at the world is based on hierarchies and qualifications. Hotels all have stars, as - thanks to Michelin - do some restaurants, while others have forks. Presidents and prime ministers are usually drawn from the same university and, as a sticker in the window of a French village bakery revealed, even people looking to sell loaves of bread have to have a brevet - certificate - confirming their qualification to do so.
Not only do the Médoc, Graves, Sauternes have their own classements, the first of these also has Crus Bourgeois and, at the foot of the pile since their revival in 1989, Crus Artisans. Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy and Provence all have Grands Crus, a term that has also been gifted to the sub-region of la Livinière in the Minervois. Each of these has to be rubber-stamped by the French government which famously (among those who follow these stories) approved a list of Crus Bourgeois in 2003 that was then annulled four years later by the Cour d’Appel de Bordeaux. Some estates were found to have been unfairly dealt with.
For anyone who has seen the 1966 Frost Report ’Social Class’ sketch, this is all very reminiscent of the days when ‘everyone knew their place’. If you were unfortunate enough to have been a human being born of humble parentage - or a vineyard in a lesser appellation, you accepted that you would always have to accept a lower valuation. The only difference is that in the modern French wine world, a few parts of Bordeaux have adapted the class system to accommodate the game of Snakes & Ladders. You’re still a marquis, but maybe only until the next classement.
Wine world without classification
But we no longer live in the 1960s. Today, members of the less-than-aristocratic Kardashian clan can buy and sell European dukes and duchesses with their spare change. Bottles of Napa red from Screaming Eagle, whose first commercial vintage was as recent as 1992, sell for three times the price of Château Margaux which has built its reputation over a slightly longer period.
Even in France, hierarchies no longer work. A wine with the humble Bourgogne Rouge appellation from Domaine Leroy commands over twice as much as a Grand Cru Clos Vougeot from another producer. In Provence, Domaine Jas d’Esclans is one of 18 estates that have been allowed to print the words Cru Classé on their label for 56 years. Château d’Esclans (no relation) has no such pedigree, but its Whispering Angel wines sell in immeasurably larger volumes across the world, and at higher prices. Gerard Bertrand’s Clos du Temple from Languedoc - a region with no history of premium rosé - is now the most expansive pink wine in the world.
Like his rosé from the little-known AOC of Cabrières, Gerard Betrand’s la Livinière Clos d’Ora red also commands a crazily high price. But not because of the region’s Grand Cru status. Many of the grapes picked in vineyards close to Bertrand’s are delivered to the local cooperative where they end up being sold as basic Minervois or even IGP d’Oc.
Back in Bordeaux, Pomerol has fared remarkable well without any kind of classification, of course, as auction prices and critical scores have regularly demonstrated. But it goes deeper than that. When 50 top fine wine professionals across the world were asked - by analysts Wine Lister for its annual report - to name the Bordeaux chateaux in which they ‘had the greatest confidence’, 10 got the highest 9/10 rating. Of these, half - Petrus, Lafleur Petrus, Lafleur, le Pin and Vieux Château Certan - were from Pomerol. Just as strikingly, of the 28 with an 8/10 rating, three - les Carruades de Lafite, Le Petit Mouton, and Les Forts de Latour - were Médoc second labels. Chateau Margaux’s Pavillon Blanc also features, along with several four and fifth growth Médocs including Lynch-Bages, Beychevelle and Grand-Puy-Lacoste. Some second growths, on the other hand, are notably absent.
No need for an additional qualification
Last year, the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc published its latest classement, divided into Crus Bourgeois, Crus Bourgeois Supérieurs and Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels. There are 249 of these, including many I was quite unaware of. The list doesn’t include some of my, and many other Bordeaux drinkers’, favourites such as Phelan Ségur, Chasse-Spleen, Potensac, Poujeaux and Haut-Marbuzet.
Like Châteaux Cheval Blanc and Ausone in St Emilion, none of these Médoc estates saw much reason to be in a classement. The fact that Phelan Segur was part of this group was particularly damning: Thierry Gardinier, its owner, was former president of the Crus Bourgeois.
In 1855, classifications were purely based on price. Today, the people charged with drawing up these hierarchies take account of perceived quality, marketing and wine tourism. Which raises a fairly simple question: if a wine estate is getting all of these right, why does it need to apply for a place on a bureaucratic leader board?
And that was my answer to Lin Liu. That classifications can be wonderful for anyone or anything that’s on their way up: a restaurant getting its third Michelin star or Chateau Pavie getting to stand alongside Ausone. But after that, the best you can hope for is to hold on to that position; there’s no further to climb.
Petrus, Sassicaia and Screaming Eagle all transcend any form of official classification, as do chateaux Palmer and Lynch Bages and Gerard Bertrand’s Clos du Temple Rosé. They don’t rely on a committee to quantify their significance every five or 10 years. Like novelists, film makers and car manufacturers, they make and market products that people consistently choose to pay for. And that, ultimately, is what matters. If St Emilion lost its ‘fragile’ classification, even the rarefied world of fine wine would barely notice.