Bordeaux and the vexed question of classification
The process of classifying the wines of the Bordeaux region has been going on for over 350 years and for most of this time it has been in flux. The process has been traditionally determined by the traders and brokers whose livelihood depended on their knowledge of the châteaux. The reclassification of St Emilion wines has raised so much dust that Charles Curtis, MW, delves into history to place the issues in context.
Until the mid-19th century, few wines were commercialised according to the name of the proprietor, but rather by the name of the merchant who sold them.
The classification of 1855 was undertaken by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce at the request of the Imperial commission for the Universal Exposition of 1855, headed by Napoleon Jerome, cousin of Napoleon III. This body, composed of leading citizens requested an up-to-date and complete list from the syndicate of wine brokers or courtiers. The courtiers duly produced a list, and the display of wines to be presented was finalised.
This list is referred to in the communication from the brokers as a "complete list of the classified red wines of the Gironde as well as the great white wines". In other words, the Classification of 1855 purportedly encompassed the entire region. Although it recognized 61 châteaux producing red wine, all save one (Château Haut-Brion) are from the Médoc. Pictured: Château Beausejour Duffau-Lagarrosse St. Emilion, Premier Grand Cru Classé B wines. (More here)
This is due to the fact that the wines of St-Emilion and Pomerol historically did not achieve the same price as those of the Médoc. The Bordelais merchants controlled the route to the sea and thus to export markets, and they were loathe to allow these wines from the "Right Bank" of the Gironde the same access to market enjoyed by the others.
While the 1855 Classification has been in continuous use, there have been other classifications added to it. The first region to do so was the Graves, in 1953, followed by the classification of the wines of St-Émilion in 1955. This classification created two broad categories, with Premiers Grand Crus Classés divided into two subcategories (A and B), and Grands Crus Classés.
This classification differs from that of the Médoc in that it was based on a tasting held by a panel of local luminaries, and was designed to be renewed every decade. The first classification noted 12 Premiers Grand Crus Classés, and 63 Grands Crus Classés. The first official revision came in 1969, and subsequent revisions were issued in 1985, 1996, 2006 and 2012. The classification as it stands today includes 64 Grands Crus Classés and several Premiers Grands Crus Classés
One of the strengths of the St-Emilion classification is that it is open to amendment, and it is unique in this regard. It is also the only one to be sanctioned by the INAO. On occasion, however, these unique qualities can lead to difficulties. This state of affairs endured until this year, when a new classification was issued. Pictured: Château Cheval Blanc cork in a glass of wine (More here)
However, even the new classification is not without controversy. To cite only one example, many connoisseurs are scratching their heads over the omission of Château Figeac from the top rank since most believe it is at least the equal of Angélus and Pavie. Equal, but in this case, decidedly different. One of the hallmarks of all of the promoted properties is that they are known for a fruit forward style with soft tannins and low acidity. This is certainly a crowd-pleasing style, and one favoured by the preeminent American critic Robert Parker, but it is not universally seen as the apotheosis of the St-Émilion style. Many notable English critics, for example, tend to favour a style with more structure and backbone.
It is precisely this style that Figeac represents, whose wines are done in a classic style that has stood the test of time. Perhaps one day Figeac, too, will have its day. In the interim, however, it is time to appreciate the generous, hedonistic style of the new kings of St-Émilion.
Abridged version of the original article in SI Issue 6, December 2012/January 2013