St Emilion Classification questioned as Angelus owner faces legal battle

The St Emilion Classification system could be said to be also ‘on trial’ as Chateau Angelus’ owner awaits the outcome of a legal battle which is adding to the shock-waves caused by the announcement earlier this year that Ausone and Cheval Blanc would withdraw from the 2022 ranking. How will this impact on the investment wines of the region?

‘Bordeaux Baron’, Hubert de Bouard, co-owner of Angelus (now managed by his daughter Stephanie) is one of the region’s big personalities. He, along with Philippe Casteja of Chateau Trotte Vielle, are now facing the final decision of a legal battle brought by three other chateaux owners following the publishing of the 2012 St Emilion ranking. Mr.s De Bouard and Casteja are accused of allegedly ‘rigging’ entry into the St Emilion 2012 Classification and their rankings within it, which saw Angelus granted with the highly exclusive, top-grade Grand Cru Classe A status and Trotte Vielle with Classe B.

Achieving the regional top level ranking was a significant coup, making Angelus one of only four St Emilion Grand Cru Classe A Chateaux, adding considerable value to the estate and the wines it produces. The 2012 vintage bottle design commemorated this achievement with a striking gold label and the wine has become a collector’s item.

Now a landmark case which could have major implications adds to the announcement made in July 2021 by Chateaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc, that the two original Grand Cru Classe A estates had decided not to apply for the 2022 Classification. The news shocked the fine wine market and Cheval Blanc’s Technical Director, Pierre-Olivier Clouet commented about their rational to depart the ranking as “the areas for evaluation went too far beyond what we consider to be fundamental: the terroir; the wine; the history”.

The Plaintiffs’ lawyer in De Bouard’s case considers that the St Emilion Classification system could be considered to be on trial, “we are going to talk about a system that doesn’t tell the consumer that the tasting note only accounts for 30% of the ranking” and that it is “a system that sells brands and no longer grapes”.

The value of understanding the brand  is clear to an investor – fundamentally, the wines are critiqued by independent, international wine critics, expert wine makers and merchants and this information is in the public domain. Viticultural operations are regulated by the AOC. Consumers should have no concern over the quality of the wines they are acquiring. Brand profle of course helps guide the consumer to a producer they can trust to deliver a certain standard, as with any brand in any sector.

Will the market forces shift if the classification structure changes? Will Cheval Blanc attract higher prices by stepping away from the Classification or Angelus lower if it is deemed to have achieved an ‘A Classe’ status unfairly? Time will tell, but it is unlikely, these are highly established vineyards revered for the quality of the wines they produce.

For Hubert de Bouard personally, the cost should he lose the case; a personal fine of up to €500,000 and a potential jail sentence. He strongly denies the charges and insists that he acted “within the framework of the INAO, and states “I respected the rules from start to finish” and the “Classification decisions involved dozens of wine makers.”

A huge personality in the fine wine world, De Bouard has always courted the press and media successfully throughout his career. Will this just add more interest? And should he win the case, be vindicated and a champion of his cause, deemed to have publicly suffered the vindictive jealousy of his neighbours. Any news is good news – isn’t it?Chateau Chevel Blanc 1947 Wine Bottle

Finally, the future of the Classification – it is changing, the 2022 ranking will be without the original giants of St Emilion; Ausone and Cheval Blanc. Its aims will still be to guide the market on the quality of the region’s wines, and will reflect the changing ownership, where significant new investment has been made into key vineyards and where wines have improved. For example, Troplong Mondot, Figeac, Canon and others have consistently impressed the market with the quality of their wines as they have evolved over the last decade. News this week of Prince Robert of Luxembourg (owner of First Growth Haut Brion) merging his recent acquisition, Chateau Grand Pontet with Chateau Quintus to create one of the largest St Emilion estates. With aspirations to achieve Classe A status, this is a classic example of the changing landscape of the region. How the St Emilion Classification will reflect this in 2022 is all to be seen.

Like it or not, understanding the story of a wine; its owners, heritage, terroir, viticulture is all integral to the brand and where the brand sits in its regional ranking is an important guide to consumers, collectors and investors in fine wine.

Such is the importance of the ranking system to the protagonists, it is almost predictable that there is some level of furore at the time of a new edition of the Classification and the next version is just months away. 2022 will certainly be interesting.

For more information contact the Vin-X team on 0203 384 2262.