Bordeaux’s unique system for classifying wines, although it varies between appellations, is praised by industry participants, especially by those at the high end of the market, who see it as a reassuring signal to consumers.
Whether carved in stone since 1855, as is the case with the reds of Médoc and the dessert wines of Sauternes; unchanged since 1955 in the case of the Graves appellation; or revised every decade as is done in Saint-Émilion, “outside France, a classification is a true point of reference,” according to Gérard Perse. He is the owner of Château Pavie, which earlier this month was promoted to the top of the new Saint-Émilion classification of plus grands crus.
According to Perse, the Chinese market – the largest importer, by value and volume of Bordeaux wines – “buys a classification first.”
That view is confirmed by François Lévêque, a broker specializing in grands crus: “The Chinese market today functions like the American market of 20 years ago. If the Chinese entered the Bordeaux market via Médoc wines, it’s because there was volume and – more importantly– a classification,” he says.
The classification system is unique to Bordeaux and, according to Lévêque, it facilitates marketing. The classifications “signal fame and reputation and, above all, are good for consumers because they say, ‘You’ve bought a quality wine,’” he says.
Because of this importance, producers wait anxiously for the new Saint-Émilion classifications, sent to the Ministry of Agriculture for validation at the beginning of September.
This year’s classification has been unanimously welcomed by the négociants who buy wine before reselling to importers and distributors. But the annulment of the 2006 classification by the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State), following action taken by demoted producers, raises fears of further litigation.
“I hope it won’t come under attack,” sighs Hubert de Boüard, director of Château Angélus, which was promoted to Saint-Émilion premier grand cru classé A alongside Château Pavie. De Boüard is also regional director of the Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité (INAO), the entity charged with regulating French agricultural products with protected designations of origin.
Château Croque-Michotte, a candidate for grand cru classé, was not selected by the INAO and has asked the Institut to “review our grades and fix its errors,” associate owner Pierre Carle told AFP. He said he had “legal arguments” for attacking the classification.
However, classifications don’t entirely negate the law of supply and demand, even though they facilitate sales.
Xavier Planty, president of the Sauternes-Barsac winermakers' organization, even argues that "the market sets the rules. Consumers know how to recognize a good wine.” He adds that in his appellation, “some unclassified wines sell at higher prices than others that are classified.”
As well as the classifications, the grades awarded by the judges are "very important for the market," according to François Dugoua, a négociant specializing in grands crus with Ulysse Cazabonne. "The grade is the variable which determines the price, because the terroir, the reputation and the classification, apart from Saint-Émilion, are unchanging."
Dugoua also confirms that last spring’s regrading of the 2009 vintage by the highly regarded American critic Robert Parker created strong demand for those wines. He gave a grade of 100/100 to 18 Bordeaux châteaux.