The cobblestone streets of Saint-Emilion have been alive with delighted smiles and sideways glances since its new wine ranking was unveiled a few weeks ago.
The classification of the wines of this pretty medieval village dates back to 1955, and has been revised at about 10-yearly intervals ever since - the only region in Bordeaux to take the risk of promoting and demoting estates depending on performance.
The latest version, announced last month, sees 82 Saint-Emilion properties named either Premier Grand Cru Classe (A or B) or Grand Cru Classe. At stake is personal pride, renown of the wine, and revenue potential - classification should add at least 30 per cent to the bottle price, and perhaps double the value of the estate itself.
The big news this time is that, for the first time in 60 years, there are now four instead of two estates at the top of the tree - with Chateaux Angelus and Pavie joining Cheval Blanc and Ausone as Premier Grand Crus Classes A (equivalent to the Medoc's First Growths). But there are also 18 newly classified names that are worth investigating; 16 new Grands Crus Classes chateaux, and two that were promoted directly to Premiers Grands Crus Classes B, from being unranked previously. These estates should move more firmly onto wine lovers' and sommeliers' radars. But it's worth understanding a little more before handing over the extra money required to buy a classified bottle of wine. What exactly does it take to move up from non-classified to classified in Saint-Emilion?
Answers range from "blood, sweat and tears" to "patience and hard work" to - most frequently - "money". Jean-Luc Thunevin, whose Chateau Valandraud leap-frogged up to Premier Grand Cru Classe B, says: "At times friends of mine questioned if it was worth the hard work, and the agony. But I wanted to pass something concrete on to my daughter. Being classified would change the perception of my wine - it is no longer Jean-Luc Thunevin, it is Valandraud. It was that sense of heritage that I wanted."
For others, it's a reward for the work of past generations - Stephanie de Bouard, at Chateau Angelus, was with her grandfather when she learned of their promotion to the elite A grade. She remembers, "he was so moved to see the work that he started being continued by his son and now his granddaughter, and that it is being recognised by the wider community".
At Chateau Jean Faure, moving from unclassified to Grand Cru Classe was reward for a decade of intense work since Anne and Olivier Decelle bought the estate in 2004. Jean Faure had been classified until the 1985 ranking, when it lost its status. A brief look at the exhaustive improvements gives an idea of what it takes to become classified, and why we as consumers can trust the words on a wine label.
Anne Decelle credits above all other things the fact that they moved into the property full time (they also have vineyards in Burgundy and the Languedoc) and single-mindedly attacked what needed to be done. Among the improvements, they added 2.5 kilometres of drainage channels, and imported more than 2,000 tonnes of stones to improve the soil's water-regulation capacity. They hired renowned terroir specialists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who recommended stopping the use of all chemical fertilisers and over-working of soils, and introducing organic treatments to allow biodiversity to flourish and encourage root growth in the vines.
A further in-depth soil study was carried out by expert Xavier Chone for the classification to prove that the terroir had responded to the drainage channels, and to show its similarity to many of the great chateaux of the region. The vine training and pruning system was changed and there are ongoing experiments in biodynamic farming. In the cellars, new winemaking spaces were created, with small oak and cement vats for plot-by-plot winemaking. Today, only natural yeasts are used, grapes are put into the tanks without stems, but still intact (to help the aromatic profile of the wine). They have also reduced the percentage of new oak.
"Becoming classified is about fine-tuning every part of the process," says Decelle, who says even preparing the application for the classification committee took two months and cost close to €10,000 (HK$100,000), including fees. "And once you are classified, there is no letting up, as we all know this will be happening again in 10 years time. But classification is a recognition of excellence, and we are lucky to be in a wine region that rewards hard work."
The new Grands Crus Classes:
- Chateau Barde-Haut
- Chateau Quinault L'Enclos
- Chateau Faugères
- Chateau Peby Faugeres
- Chateau Cote de Baleau
- Chateau le Chatelet
- Chateau Clos de Sarpe
- Chateau la Commanderie
- Chateau de Ferrand
- Chateau La Fleur Morange
- Chateau Fombrauge
- Chateau de Pressac
- Chateau Jean Faure
- Chateau Rochebelle
- Chateau Sansonnet
- Clos la Madeleine
And those promoted directly to Premier Grand Cru Classe (B):
- Chateau Valandraud
- La Mondotte