Mixed feelings in Bordeaux

The owner of one St Emilion chateau has to pay a fine, while another does not. Robert Joseph considers this latest storm-in-a-wineglass.

Credit: Adobe Stock/sabthai
Credit: Adobe Stock/sabthai

The verdict from the Bordeaux court on October 26th will have come as a relief for the region’s wine establishment. The headlines may have made much of the €40,000 fine levied on Hubert de Bouärd for unduly influencing the 2012 St Emilion Grand Cru classification, but it was the decision not to sanction Philippe Casteja, who faced similar accusations that the great and good of Bordeaux most wanted to hear. 

De Bouärd is a familiar face for readers of glossy publications like the Wine Spectator, thanks to the fame and success he has brought to Chateau Angélus – a much starrier property than Casteja’s Trotte-Vieille. It was Angélus that – at significant product-placement cost – has appeared in no fewer than three of the last James Bond movies, including the latest, No Time To Die. And, of course, it was Angélus that was promoted to premier grand cru Classé ‘A’ status in the 2012 revision of the classification. Trotte-Vieille’s position on the lower rung remained unchanged.

Like de Bouärd, Casteja was a member of the INAO committee charged with overseeing the 2012 classification, but unlike him, he was not also on the board of St Emilion’s Organisme de Défense et de Gestion (ODG - Organization for Defense and Management).

Casteja is quintessentially a pillar of the Bordeaux establishment. Owner of several other estates and the Borie Manoux negociant business, he has held prestigious roles in organisations such as the Association of 1855 Grands Crus Classés and the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. If any culpability had been attached to him, the ramifications for the region as a whole would have been significant. De Bouärd is seen as more of a maverick, both as a producer and in his role as a consultant.

While no one likes being found guilty and made to pay a fine, it is worth putting the court judgment in perspective. €40,000 fine represents the ex-negociant price of less than 30 six-bottle cases of 2020 Château Angelus. And significantly less than a page of advertising in the Wine Spectator, let alone the cost of being poured onscreen by James Bond.

Unhappy neighbours

If the revision had only seen the promotion of his top chateau, little fuss might have been made. However, the fact that recognition was given to eight other estates for which de Bouärd acts as a consultant, was not well received by three chateaux that lost their Grand Cru Classé status in the same revision.

Following the judgment, the French news platform Vitisphère reported fears by the Conseil des Vins de Saint-Émilion that it raised the question of whether a professional might no longer be able to be involved in “a structure such as the INAO.” This, organisation, it was pointed out, since its foundation in 1936 “had been characterised by a dual governance system associating public authorities, professionals and ODGs, so that the professionals can contribute their experience and vision.”

There was no suggestion that the modus operandi and raison d’etre of a system created over 80 years ago, at a time when chateau owners neither acted as consultants to their neighbours nor had the means to promote their wines in big Hollywood movies and glossy US magazines, might need to be reconsidered.

Even the departure from the St Emilion classification of its illustrious members, Châteaux Cheval Blanc and Ausone, doesn’t seem to have dented the confidence of the other estate-owners of St Emilion in their model. Nor does the continued success of their neighbours in Pomerol which, extraordinarily, seems to survive without a classification and an argument every 10 years over whom should be included and excluded from it.

Robert Joseph

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