How French wine rankings are dividing the town of Saint-Emilion

When the new rankings of Saint-Emilion wines drop on Thursday, Jean-Luc Thunevin could see the value of his vineyard double overnight, the payoff for years of efforts to meet France's most exacting -- and mystifying -- taste test.

How French wine rankings are dividing the town of Saint-Emilion
Grapes are seen in a during the harvest of the Chateau Angelus Saint Emilion vineyard, in 2018 in Saint-Emilion. (Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP)

“It’s the reward, or the non-reward, for your work,” Thunevin, a relative newcomer to this revered corner of Bordeaux, said among his manicured rows of vines laden with grapes just days from their harvest.

The assessment, held every ten years, aims to encourage more of the vintages that make Saint-Emilion one of the world’s most sought-after wines, with bottles that can fetch hundreds, if not thousands, of euros each.

Yet recent rankings have been bitterly contested by estates who say that marketing — having a cellar designed by a star architect, or placing your bottle in a Hollywood blockbuster — now counts as much as how a wine actually tastes.

The rancour deepened after three of the current top four estates — Angelus, Ausone and Cheval Blanc — surprised everyone by pulling out of this year’s rankings altogether.

Ausone’s owner Alain Vauthier told Le Monde newspaper he was riled by requests for favourable press clippings and hints he  should invest in tourist facilities like parking spaces. “This totally contradicts our environmental efforts.”

Others suspect jealousy of new arrivals, or fears of being demoted despite providing hundreds of pages of documentation alongside their bottles.

Whatever the reasons, the controversy could leave wine fans wondering what a Saint-Emilion ranking really amounts to.

“It’s such a big deal but it’s just become increasingly confusing for anybody on the outside,” the British Bordeaux expert Jane Anson said.

“And it’s fair to say it’s a system that doesn’t seem to be pleasing anyone at this point.”

Truth in the glass?

The rankings began in 1955, when owners created a more restrictive Saint-Emilion Grand Cru appellation that called for lower density yields and other restrictions to ensure the distinctive taste by the soil and climate, which combine to make up the “terroir.”

Within the new grouping, estates could also apply for a quality ranking: Grand Cru Classe, Premier Grand Cru Classe B, and the ultimate Premier Grand Cru Classe A.

Making the grade secures a reputation and allows premium pricing, but more important is the boost to land values in what has become one of the most coveted wine parcels in the world.

“No other wine-growing region has dared to create a ranking system that gets revised every 10 years — you’re constantly being challenged,” said

Jean-Francois Galhaud, president of the Saint-Emilion wine council.

He dismisses claims that taste matters less these days — “The truth is always in the glass!” — but believes that investments to promote the wines and attract more tourists will benefit all vineyards and the regional economy as a whole.

“We have a million, a million and a half visitors a year” to the medieval city and its surroundings, deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, Galhaud said.

“It’s good that we encourage our winemakers to open their doors.”

Thunevin, whose Chateau Valandraud wines were catapulted to Premier Grand Cru B in 2012, has since built an onsite hotel alongside a sparkling modern cellar topped with solar panels. Rentals for wedding receptions are already being booked for next summer.

“It certainly changed how my banker looked at me! I had a lot of debt and now he knew the money was backed by something with real value,” he said.

His nine hectares dedicated to Valandraud are worth an estimated €10 million each, “and if tomorrow I’m a Premier Grand Cru A, it could go up to €20 million.”

“That’s why there’s so much talent and people coming in from all over the world,” he said.

‘Family affair’

But other top estates now belong to multinational firms or their owners including LVMH for Cheval Blanc; the insurance group Scor; the Dassault family of military contractors; or more recently wealthy Chinese.

“These days it’s the CAC-40 in the vineyards,” said Nicolas Despagne, whose family hails from Saint-Emilion, referring to the Paris blue-chip stock index.

He makes organic wine just over the hill in Montagne-Saint-Emilion, while his brother manages the Chateau Grand Corbin Despagne, which is hoping to see its Grand Cru Classe ranking confirmed.

“A family estate has to compete but it doesn’t have the resources of a billionaire who walks in and says, ‘How much to make it bio-dynamic — a million euros, or two or three or five, or 10 million? Here you go, plant some trees!’,” he said.

Another historic estate that pulled out of this year’s contest, Croque-Michotte, denounced in June “a ranking of companies and not wine, made for investors and not consumers.”

Croque-Michotte was one of several who filed lawsuits over the 2012 rankings, and although they lost their final appeal earlier this year, it raises the spectre of new legal wranglings after Thursday’s announcement.

But over 140 estates are believed to have applied to France’s INAO appellations board for a ranking, up from around 90 ten years ago, a sign for Galhaud that owners increasingly value the healthy competition.

“I have friends with simple, unpretentious vineyards, they haven’t built fancy cellars, who got ranked in 2012 and I hope they will still be this year, or even promoted,” he said.

“Saint-Emilion is a family affair, and in a family there are people who get along and people who don’t… But we’re looking to the future, and this ranking is going to prove its worth.”

Member comments

  1. Thanks for this. Could benefit perhaps from a bit more exploration of the core issue — a classification template that runs to several hundred pages now (and which apparently vineyards have to buy for over 100 euros!) and which some fear skews positive ratings more towards deep-pocketed wineries that can focus on innovative marketing, outreach and green technologies. For a culture that so values terroir and the creative abilities of multi-generational vineyard owning families and the inherent artistry in creating a top-level wine, there is a sense that commercialization may be set to win out over craft.

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Macron caps US state visit with New Orleans trip

President Emmanuel Macron on Friday headed to the southern American city of New Orleans, which retains much of its French-infused heritage, as he wraps up a rare three-day state visit to the United States.

Macron caps US state visit with New Orleans trip

After vowing continued support for Ukraine and seeking to quell a EU-US trade dispute during White House talks with President Joe Biden, Macron was expected to meet with local officials and energy companies in New Orleans and unveil a French language program.

Once a French colonial city, New Orleans was sold to the United States by Napoleon as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and Macron has called it “the quintessential francophone land.”

Macron will promote an initiative to broaden access to French language education for American students, with a focus on disadvantaged groups “for whom the French language can be a multiplier of opportunities,” the French leader said.

Addressing members of the French community in Washington on Wednesday, Macron added that he wanted to revamp the image of the French tongue in the United States, “which is sometimes seen as elitist.”

Macron will follow in the footsteps of French President Charles de Gaulle, who visited New Orleans in 1960. As he strolls through the streets of “NOLA,” Macron is likely to stop by the “Vieux Carre,” or “French Quarter”, the bustling historic city center.

“We have a history in New Orleans and important things to say there concerning both our history and what we want to do for the future,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

Energy and climate

Besides celebrating French-American ties, Macron will pay tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina which killed more than 1,800 people in and around New Orleans and caused billions of dollars in damage in 2005.

Macron will also meet with businesses “devoted to energy and climate issues,” according to his office, while French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and Louisiana Governor John Edwards will sign an energy deal.

Accompanied by French film director Claude Lelouch and dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Macron will meet local artists and prominent cultural figures of New Orleans, known as the birthplace of jazz.

The visit will come on the heels of a lavish dinner at the White House, headlined by master jazzman Jon Batiste, who comes from a family of New Orleans musicians.

Macron’s state visit — the first such formal occasion since Biden took office in January 2021 — symbolized how Washington and Paris have buried last year’s bitter spat over the way Australia pulled out of a French submarine deal in favor of acquiring US nuclear subs instead.

The visit featured a full military honor guard for Macron, including service members from the marines, army, air force and even a detachment of soldiers in 18th-century Revolutionary War garb.