How a battle over the ranking of St. Émilion chateaus may change the way we value wine.
BELLS PEALED, echoing through the ancient limestone village and out over the sea of grapevines that surrounded it. With thousands of spectators, I watched as men and women draped in scarlet robes processed up St. Émilion’s main street. They were members of the Jurade, the local winemakers’ guild, whose main function seems to be to promote St. Émilion’s expensive wines with the occasional burst of pseudomedieval pomp.
But there was little the Jurade could do on that sunlit September morning to dispel the legal cloud that hung over this winemaking region in Bordeaux. By coincidence, one of the people responsible for hanging that cloud turned up next to me in the street. A slender middle-aged man in a double-breasted blue blazer, he waved at the Jurade members as they passed, his sad eyes seeking their attention.
Some of the scarlet-robed grandees ignored him. Others smiled weakly and turned away. Things have not been easy for Guy-Petrus Lignac since February 2007, when he and eight other vineyard owners filed an infamous lawsuit that rattled the global market for Bordeaux wine and set the normally peaceful village of St. Émilion at war with itself. “He’s a good friend of mine,” said the St. Émilion winemaker Laurence Brun, when I interviewed her last year, “but it is impossible to deal with him now. He is fighting with everyone.”
Lignac has deep roots in Bordeaux. As his middle name — Petrus — suggests, his family once owned several local vineyards, including Château Pétrus, whose wines can retail for $2,000 a bottle. These days, however, all that remains of what might have been Lignac’s inheritance is Château Guadet, 13.6 acres of vines just outside the village boundary of St. Émilion.
Guadet is no Pétrus, but for the past half-century it possessed the distinction of being in the classification of St. Émilion. A classification is a kind of order of nobility for vineyards: a ranking of the top properties in a given area (or of those that produce a certain type of wine) according to historic prestige and price. So it came as a sickening shock when, in the spring of 2006, the government commission charged with updating the St. Émilion classification tossed Guadet out of the ranking, citing poor scores on a taste test.
“Being declassified was very, very difficult,” Lignac says. “My mother told me if my father were still alive he would take a gun and shoot himself.”
Lignac and five other winemakers who were demoted at the same time sued. Their goal was to be reinstated in the classification. Instead, they set off a series of court cases that ended last month when the local court in Bordeaux declared the 2006 St. Émilion classification invalid and canceled it. Since then, the French government has stepped in with an emergency law that reinstates the 1996 classification for a few more years. After that, the future is uncertain.
“The court’s decision came as something of a bombshell,” admits Jeffrey Davies, an American who is a high-level wine exporter based in Bordeaux. “Chateaus are confused about what they should put on their labels now, and it’s hard to know what the best way forward is for St. Émilion.”
THREE DAYS BEFORE the Jurade’s parade, I joined Lignac on his morning walk through his vineyard. The vines, bright green and jaunty, marched in rows up the hillside, but September is always an anxious month, since winemakers must choose the perfect time to pick. Harvest too soon, and you lose the final days of sun that impart fullness and complexity to the grapes. Wait too long, and the same sun will bake the life out of your fruit.
Lignac bent down and snapped a single merlot grape from a tight, purple-black cluster hanging low off the vine and popped it into his mouth. It was sun-warm and sweet, and the seeds imparted the pleasant mouth pucker produced by what wine buffs call tannin. “We are fighting the rain all this year,” Lignac said, referring to the soggy summer of 2007. “But we have sun in September, and I think it will be right to harvest in six or eight days.”
Satisfied that all was well, Lignac walked back up the hill, past the traffic circle at the edge of St. Émilion, to the stone town house on the village’s main street where he was raised. The house has an austere beauty. Centuries old in places, it has been allowed to decay in a way that suggests old-fashioned good taste. Lignac, who is 59, is better preserved. Compact, with a full head of graying hair, he is an energetic, cerebral man of deep emotions that he plainly struggles to contain.
Unlocking the heavy wooden door of his house, Lignac made his way through the cool, narrow building to the backyard. There, not 50 feet from the street, was the equipment for sorting grapes, fermenting juice and aging it in barrels. This modest setup produces around 25,000 bottles of wine a year. Lignac wouldn’t open his books, but he did say the vineyard nets just enough to support one nuclear family. That is common in St. Émilion, where the average vineyard is about 17 acres, and it is why Lignac heirs have always sought their fortunes elsewhere before returning to the vineyard in middle age.
Lignac himself took over in 2000, when he was 51. “Year after year, my father would say to me, ‘Next year the vineyard is for you,’ ” he recalled. “So I worked for a pharmaceutical company and waited, but my head was always with the vines, thinking of what I would do.”
Lignac is proud of his vineyard, his lineage, his wife, Catherine, and the four grown children they raised. But these days his pride is marred by anxiety. He seems haunted by conspiracy theories, all of which swirl back somehow to the demotion of Guadet from the classification. Lignac suspects fellow winemakers of cheating at competitive tastings by doctoring their wines. He also sees bias in the fact that a friend of one of the administrators he sued over the estate of the great-aunt who owned Château Pétrus sat on the commission that judged wines for the classification. “He should have recused himself,” Lignac told me.
THE CONTROVERSY over the St. Émilion classification is a classic village squabble, but it is a village squabble with global implications. It is a fight over who has the authority to declare quality in the wine world, a clash between 19th-century agrarian tradition and 21st-century administrative law and a sign of the growing rift between the handful of superelite vineyards in Bordeaux and the less prestigious vineyards just beneath them. It may also signal the demise of Bordeaux’s 150-year-old tradition of classification.
St. Émilion is but one of more than 50 different wine growing areas, or appellations, in Bordeaux, a region in southwest France that is home to more of the world’s established high-end vineyards than anywhere else on earth. Until all the trouble started last year, Bordeaux had five classifications. The oldest and best known is the Classification of 1855, which ranks sweet white wines as well as the top 61 vineyards in the Médoc and Graves areas, commonly known as the Left Bank, into five categories, from “First Growth” to “Fifth Growth,” and contains in its first rank such famed vineyards as Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion.
It is no insult to Lignac’s vineyard to say it lacks the kind of international reputation enjoyed by the very top Bordeaux vineyards. In the United States, Guadet retails between $25 and $40 a bottle, far below the hundreds or even thousands fetched by elite Bordeaux wines. Most distinguished small properties in St. Émilion, an important area on the Right Bank, fall into this category. They are rarely reviewed by the important critics. They don’t come up at the big wine auctions. The winemakers aren’t personalities; they are artisans, producing an agricultural product whose biggest selling point is where it comes from rather than a brand name recognized by much of the wine-buying public.
While Lignac’s wine might not have had a global reputation, it did have an internationally understood credential. Its membership in the St. Émilion classsification was signaled on the label by the words “Grand Cru Classé.” Seated at the small metal table underneath the squat palm tree in his garden, Lignac told me that he applied for the 2006 classification with confidence, assuming that tradition and the numerous improvements he had instituted in his vineyard would win the day. (Unlike some of the other Bordeaux classifications, whose rankings never change, St. Émilion’s version resets every decade. A government commission accepts written applications and bottle samples from vineyards and puts together a new ranking for the next 10 years.) “I had no idea anything would go wrong,” Lignac said. “My parents, other people in St. Émilion, said this wine has always had the classification. There is no problem.”
But in 2006 the telephone rang in Lignac’s cluttered office on the ground floor of his town house. A French journalist was calling to ask how Lignac felt about having his wine stripped of its ranking. A few days later the letter arrived from the government. Roughly translated, it read, “A great number of the vintages tasted were judged to be insufficient by the members of the commission.” A total of 11 chateaus were demoted, Lignac’s among them. “I was amazed,” Lignac said, putting his hands to his forehead, “and I was very, very upset. I had done all of this work. We had many years of history, and it was for nothing.”
This winter, while he was waiting for the Bordeaux court to render its judgment, Lignac told me that he would be content to see the entire classification canceled, if that would lead to the creation of a fairer version. This attitude was not shared by many of Lignac’s colleagues. Again and again, people in the Bordeaux wine business told me that losing the classification, even for a year or two, would be a blow. Without it, no one would know what to print on their labels, and some vineyards wondered how they would price their wines.
It was said around Bordeaux that Lignac and his allies had no right to sue. They didn’t have to be in the classification, the argument went. They had applied for the privilege. So why should they complain about the results now? Anyway, their wines weren’t up to par. “The case was brought by four properties who produce rubbish,” the noted St. Émilion winemaker Nicolas Thienpont was quoted as saying in Wine Enthusiast magazine last year. “Whatever the tribunal decides, they will still produce rubbish.” Lignac professed to take this criticism in stride. “If we decide to sue him, no problem,” Lignac said of Thienpont. “We would be awarded money. But I decide, ‘No I won’t pour gasoline on the fire.’ ”
LAST MONTH, after the court canceled the 2006 St. Émilion classification, the French government reinstated the one from a decade earlier, which will be valid until 2009. In theory, this will give St. Émilion time to write a new one; whether that’s possible remains an open question.
There are those, especially on our democratically minded side of the Atlantic, who would be glad to see the end of the classifications. They regard them as a bit of Gallic fustiness designed to wow the impressionable and help France’s patrician farmers avoid competition with less-ennobled vineyards at home and abroad. In “Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wine,” Robert Parker includes a section mockingly titled “Who’s on First” that argues the Classification of 1855 is now largely of historic value.
It is true that much has changed since 1855. Bordeaux and Burgundy are no longer the only sources for elite wines. New World wines and wines from upstart vineyards across Europe also attract attention and fetch big prices. Vast new markets have emerged in Asia and the former Soviet Union; the growing power of critics and the Internet allow obscure vineyards to rocket to fame in scant months. Yet, as Parker himself admits, the 1855 classification continues to assert a strong influence. There have been informal classifications in Bordeaux since at least the 18th century, and the prestige they confer is recognized worldwide. “I’ve had winemakers tell me they long for the kind of advantage the classifications give Bordeaux,” David Milligan, the noted U.S. importer says. “The classifications lend a legitimacy no one else can match.”
As Lignac can testify, the consequences of losing classified status can be swift and harsh. After the wine was declassified, one local wholesaler who distributes Château Guadet refused to take Lignac’s calls. Most declassified vineyard owners find that their vital distribution lines have dried up, and the market will take their wines only at a discount of 30 to 50 percent. With his revenue dropping, the owner of a demoted vineyard must decide whether to accept his new lowly status — and thereby sink into greater anonymity and lowering prices — or gamble big money on a 10-year program of upgrades that may or may not get him back into the classification.
It is a gamble complicated by the problem of land value. The day a vineyard is declassified, its worth as real estate plunges. For many vineyard owners, this is the real tragedy of declassification. Yearly profits from winemaking are not high in Bordeaux; 3 percent is considered good. But the value of vineyard land has skyrocketed over the past 30 years. A winemaker stuck with a declassified vineyard that he can’t afford to whip into shape — or with a vineyard co-owned by nervous family members who want out — may be forced to sell for a fraction of the land’s potential price. Shortly after being declassified, Lignac was contacted by bottom feeders, hoping to acquire his land at a big discount. “I have received three offers,” he sniffed. “They know the earth is good.”
In France, as in much of Europe, wine is thought of more in terms of soil than in terms of grape type, say, chardonnay or pinot noir. Tied up in this is the idea of terroir, the notion that topography, soil and climate can make two wines taste different, even if those wines were made from the exact same grape and grown within a football field of each other. There are those who doubt the concept of terroir, but it is held in wide esteem; the classifications are an implicit endorsement of a vineyard’s terroir. Alexis Weill, a banker specializing in high-end vineyard sales and acquisitions for the Rothschild Group in Paris, told me that a classified St. Émilion acre is worth between $800,000 and $1.2 million in today’s market. If the land were declassified, it would be worth a third as much.
Many people in the wine business seem conflicted about the classifications. Clearly, they mean something: they affect the price of land and wine, and people are eager to spend time and money for the status they confer. On the other hand, almost everyone plays down their importance. It seems there is no constituency in the wine world willing to admit the classifications’ power, perhaps because they would prefer to reserve that power for themselves. Critics and sommeliers typically argue that their taste buds are more reliable than any classification. Vineyard owners and wine retailers and wholesalers will argue for the primacy of the market. “The market is logical,” one Bordeaux wine trader told me. “A good wine will find its price over time with or without classification.”
Still, the classifications have always been part of the conversation. The first, the Classification of 1855, was prompted by an international trade fair in Paris. In order to mount an exhibition of Bordeaux wines, the region’s wine brokers drew up a list of the best Médoc and Graves vineyards, based on price records and informal rankings dating back centuries. Since then — apart from the addition of a Fifth Growth vineyard in 1856 and the promotion of Château Mouton Rothschild from Second Growth to First in 1973 — the 1855 classification hasn’t changed, but it has grown in importance. In the 19th century, there were classified vineyards that didn’t even bother to mention their status on their labels. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the 1855 classification’s impact grew. This was especially true after World War II, when the small, English-dominated market for fine wine first went global and new buyers, many American, looked for a way to determine quality.
At that time, 50 years ago, St. Émilion was a relative backwater. The wines that attracted all the money and attention were made in the Médoc, where the 1855 classification reigned. St. Émilion’s village elders hoped a classification of their own would draw attention to their wines. St. Émilion based its initial 1955 ranking on several criteria, including terroir and the market value of the wines, relying on such sources as the wholesale prices the Germans negotiated with Vichy France during World War II. “We used the prices the Germans paid,” says a 90-year-old local winemaker, Thierry Manoncourt. “Those were the best records we had.”
There have been five St. Émilion classifications since 1955; each has produced controversies among vineyard owners. But this has not deterred St. Émilion’s leaders from making the classification ever more rigorous. There were 84 vineyards classified in 1969. In 2006 that number was brought down to 61. “We want a classification that is serious,” says Hubert de Bouard, proprietor of a classified and critically acclaimed vineyard, Château Angelus, and the local representative of the French government’s wine regulatory body. “It is done for the protection of consumers.”
And, as de Bouard and others argue, it has worked. By updating their classification every 10 years, St. Émilion’s elders hoped to encourage competition while maintaining a recognizable St. Émilion style. And, indeed, St. Émilion has become one of Bordeaux’s hottest regions today, with wines blended with cabernet franc and merlot, among others, that, most expert tasters agree, retain a distinct local flavor.
But for those who dislike the idea of classification, the opposite is true. In their eyes, St. Émilion has grown in stature thanks to the so-called “garage wines.” These are made by tiny wineries that have popped up in the past 30 years, which produce small quantities of wine, using the latest winemaking techniques. While Bordeaux is known for making perfumed, restrained, food-friendly wines that are reasonably alcoholic and capable of long aging, garage wines are known for being intense, higher in alcohol, ready to drink and, for some palates, too brash for pairing with most foods. (In recent years, there has been talk that the fad for garage wines is coming to an end. But some of these rich, opulent wines continue to do well on the market, particularly because critics, notably Robert Parker, often reward them with high scores.) Since garage wines operate outside the classification system and can sell for prices that exceed all but the very top classified wines, they are cited as proof that classification is a dated idea. “Now people buy wines according to many reasons,” Stephan von Neipperg, a German count who makes various renowned St. Émilion wines, including two classified wines and a garage wine, told me. “Who needs the classification?”
Well, some answer, St. Émilion’s numerous small, traditional vineyards do. The few dozen superelite Bordeaux wines that sell for hundreds or thousands a bottle (classified historic vineyards and top garage wines alike) have benefited from globalization. Luxury goods of limited supply, they are now in greater demand than ever. But globalization has been rather unsettling for the wines just beneath this exalted category, a group that would include most of the Grand Cru Classé wines of St. Émilion.
How can 17-acre, family-owned vineyards, making a more traditional style of wine, compete in a global marketplace? Such vineyards have been snapped up by international beverage companies and some winemakers have discarded traditional styles in search of high ratings from critics. Vineyards in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa benefit from reliable weather, lower production costs and less interference from government regulations. Year in and year out, they can turn out drinkable wine at lower cost. In France, by contrast, the weather is more fickle, and every aspect of wine production is subject to regulation, down to whether a winemaker can irrigate a field or introduce a new grape variety into the blend of a certain wine.
“If the classification vanished, the problem will be for the less-known chateaus,” says Laurence Brun, the St. Émilion winemaker. “They are little; they are not structured to be a brand; they need the protection of classification.”
De Bouard agrees: “The classification is the chance for a small vineyard to show what it can do. Maybe it doesn’t get a good score from Robert Parker, but it is classified, and maybe people will taste it and buy it.”
Lignac’s critics say he produces wine that just isn’t good enough to compete in the global marketplace without the crutch of classification. Lignac argues the classification is a bulwark that allows him to compete in a marketplace that might otherwise be indifferent to his wine’s considerable charms. “I don’t like the wines that taste like they could have been made anywhere,” Lignac says. “I want to make a St. Émilion wine.”
EVEN THOSE WHO would like to see French winemaking relax its traditions would concede the courtroom is not the ideal place to effect that change. When the lawyers for the demoted vineyards sued to have the 2006 classification annulled, they focused on procedural and legal arguments that had little to do with the relative qualities of their clients’ wines. They argued that the commission was composed of people with conflicts of interest and others who weren’t qualified to judge St. Émilion wine. They pointed out that the commission’s methods were unfair: some vineyards were visited in person, and others weren’t. As Lignac’s lawyer, Philippe Thevenin, later admitted to me, the strategy in such cases is to throw all available arguments at the wall and see what sticks.
The commission that assembled the St. Émilion classification had nine members: some were experts in St. Émilion wine with ties to the village that might influence them; others may have been less qualified to judge the local wines but were not from the area. The members met around 40 times over 18 months. At each meeting they reviewed a certain number of vineyards by tasting 10 years’ worth of wine. The tastings were blind, meaning the bottles were covered and presented by French government officials who were not on the commission. After the wines were tasted and graded, the names of the chateaus were revealed, their written applications scrutinized and the new ranking voted on.
Public sentiment in Bordeaux is that the commission did a good job. Not perfect; there were flaws. But as good as you can expect in judging wines, which is an inherently subjective activity. “It was done well,” says Nicolas Thienpont, who at the time managed three St. Émilion chateaus: one demoted from the classification, one raised from the lowest to the middle rank and one that held onto its ranking.
In the end, the three-judge panel in the Tribunal Administratif de Bordeaux, the court charged with deciding the case, tossed the 2006 St. Émilion classification out on the grounds that the tastings were unfair because wines that were in the 1996 classification were tasted separately from those that were not in that classification. According to Lignac’s lawyer, this separation into two categories violated some general principle of fairness in French law. Lignac hailed the ruling as vindication. “Our position was correct,” he told me last month by phone from France. “The classification was not right.” But even Lignac’s lawyer called the ruling a narrow, technical one. “It was a question of form and procedure,” Thevenin said. “The court didn’t say the classification was bad.”
Hubert de Bouard says that St. Émilion is hoping to write a new classification after the 2008 harvest. But he cannot or would not tell me what form he thought the new classification might take. The problem facing St. Émilion now is both legal and political. The Bordeaux court’s recent decision in the St. Émilion case didn’t really prove anything about the quality of St. Émilion’s wines. What it did prove was that an entire classification can be brought down by legal technicalities. The fear is that rather than a new, even better classification, there may be none at all.
That is what happened last year. In a case strikingly similar to the St. Émilion affair, the classification of the cru bourgeois, or midlevel, vineyards of the Médoc was declared illegal by a judge. As Thierry Gardinier, president of the Crus Bourgeois Association, put it: “Tradition has come up against modern law, and the law has won. We are following the American system. You need lawyers and lawyers and lawyers. Voilà! That is the modern world.”
Given the classifications’ current legal precariousness, the difficulty in writing a new one lies in figuring out how to keep vineyard owners happy while creating a ranking that stays current. This is the puzzle being worked on by the former cru bourgeois vineyards. According to Gardinier, the new classification they are drafting will be overseen by an independent company, to remove the appearance of conflict of interest. More important, the new classification will be reviewed every year; the period of potential demotion would be so short — one vintage — that the incentive to sue would be greatly decreased. Gardinier played a major role in writing these proposed changes, but he said what he and his colleagues have come up with isn’t really a classification in the traditional sense. “A classification is an order of nobility,” he told me. “It doesn’t change much over time. If you change it every few years, you no longer have a classification exactly; you have a form of certificate.”
Toward the end of my stay in France, I spent an afternoon with two lawyers who represented disaffected winemakers in the cru bourgeois and St. Émilion cases. Alone among the major players in all of this, the lawyers were pleased. They took on high-profile cases and were much more successful than they imagined they would be. At the end of the meeting, we went out to lunch.
When I first asked them if they could think of a way to challenge the famed Classification of 1855 in court, they scoffed. It was the first, they said, the one that established the others, and it had the advantage from the legal standpoint that it doesn’t change. Then over duck breast and a nice Bordeaux wine, they began to work on the problem. Eventually, they saw at least a way in. The 1855 classification was given legal status by formal government decree in 1949. But when Château Mouton Rothschild was raised to First Growth in 1973, it was done with a lesser form of government proclamation called an arreté.
In French law, an arreté can never modify a decree, so the lawyers said that an argument could be made that the Classification of 1855 in its current form isn’t exactly right. “There’s always a way,” I said to Eric Agostini, who represented the disaffected vineyard owners in the cru bourgeois case. Agostini smiled. “Yes,” he said, “There’s always a way.”