St Emilion, a playground for lawyers

No other appellation or classification in France or elsewhere rivals St Emilion in the creation of regular disputes between estate owners and the authorities, and each other. And, as the most recent verdict by the Bordeaux court against the INAO reveals, nothing has changed.

Image: Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash
Image: Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

The appellation of St Emilion may produce some very fine wine. It also provides regular employment for lawyers, and material for journalists who want to write about something other than the contents of the bottles.

Hot on the heels of last year’s court case in which Hubert de Boüard was found guilty in the Bordeaux appeals court of an illegal conflict of interest in the creation of the St Emilion 2012 classification, comes another embarrassing legal ruling. This time, the embarrassment has been suffered by the INAO, France’s all-powerful Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité, which is responsible for all of France’s appellations.

The case involved the Courdurié family’s Château Croix de Labrie, and Château Tour Saint-Christophe, owned by the Chinese investor Peter Kwok, both of which had had their application to become Grands Crus Classés in the 2022 classification rejected by the INAO. 

The authorities justified the rejection on the grounds of the non-fulfillment of the requirements of Section 4 of the Classification Ordinance. These state that in the decade before applying, a chateau must have regularly used the vineyards that are to be classified, for wine sold under its own name. 

The vineyards to be classified must account for an average of at least 50 percent of the wine sold under the estate’s name during the 10-year period. No expansion of the vineyards is allowed over that period. 

Lack of precision

However, in his pronouncement of December 24, 2021, the judge for interim injunctions, Julien Dufour, overturned the INAO's rejection on the grounds that the calculations on which its decision was based were not sufficiently specified in the ordinances of the classification. 

"This legal error would leave serious doubts as to the legality of the decision," continued Dufour. According to French media, the administrative court declared the applications of the two châteaux admissible for the time being and took the view that the deficiencies could be remedied by a new decision by the INAO. 

According to reports, the INAO now wants to implement the court decision and declare the two applications to be admissible (with reservations). 

And then there was one

Whatever the final decision regarding Châteaux Croix de Labrie’s, and Tour Saint-Christophe’s admission to the St Emilion classification, the structure of the Grands Crus Classés has now suffered a separate blow in the decision by Hubert de Boüard's daughter, Stephanie de Boüard-Rivoal, who now runs Château Angelus to withdraw her estate from the classification process.

In the 2012 Classification, Angelus was one of four estates to be ranked as Premier Grand Cru Classé A. Last year, two of the others – Ausone and Cheval Blanc – also declared that they were no longer interested in being part of the system. The only remaining Classé A estate is Chateau Pavie which, like Angelus, was only promoted to its position in 2012, though of course promotions from Classé B are possible in the new classification.

in 2012, there were four Premiers Grands Crus Classés ‘A’, 14 Premiers Grands Crus Classés ‘B’ and 64 third level Grands Crus Classés.

(Apart from over 200 St Emilion Grands Crus that, confusingly, have nothing to do with this classification.)

Some suggest that the new St Emilion classification be split into two levels rather than three, with one layer  of Premiers Grands Crus Classé and another of plain Grands Crus Classés.

Others wonder if it isn’t reasonable to question the value of a bewildering hierarchy that now excludes three of the finest estates. Would the 1855 classification have as much value if Margaux and Lafite were no longer part of it?

For the moment, as the latest court judgment illustrates, there are still plenty of estates wanting to be part of the St Emilion classification. And given its track record, every ten years as it is revised, there will be plenty of opportunities for lawyers to profitably make their arguments in court.

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