St-Emilion reacts to 2022’s divisive classification

It was a tumultuous build-up to the 2022 reclassification in St-Emilion. Panos Kakaviatos takes the temperature in the Bordeaux region following an announcement that saw top billing for Château Figeac

Words by Panos Kakaviatos

chateau figeac vineyard
'In the right place': Château Figeac welcomes its 'A' grade in the St-Emilion classification

Château Figeac has gained the highest honours – as one of only two top-tier ‘A’ level estates – in the new St-Emilion appellation rankings. On Thursday September 8, the French national appellation authority (INAO) announced the results of the much-anticipated 2022 classification for the revered Bordeaux sub-region, with Figeac reaching the heights of Château Pavie, which obtained ‘A’ status back in 2012.

Just 14 Premiers Grands Crus Classés were awarded, including the top two ‘A’ level estates. The reclassification – which takes place every ten years – also recognised 71 Grands Crus Classés, with a total of 16 promotions. While the INAO told ClubOenologique.com that it ‘does not give out such information,’ a source in the appellation says that some 114 applications were submitted.

The classification has a rocky history. Since the last revision in 2012, the two leading Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ estates, Château Ausone and Cheval Blanc, abandoned the system, later followed by Premier Grand Cru Classé estates Château Angélus and Château La Gaffelière.

As a result, many wine industry observers have called the classification system into question – like German merchant Michael Grimm of Bacchus Vinothek, who dubbed it a ‘carousel’ and suggested that St-Emilion should adopt the same system as in Pomerol, which has no classification.

saint emilion vineyard and view

St-Emilion-based merchant Bruno Baillarguet, CEO of Vignobles & Châteaux, agrees that the classification is ‘problematic’ without some top estates entering into it – but he also praised the latest round as ‘a renewal of competition among the many remaining estates.’

Château Figeac, for example, has been seen as deserving of its new top-tier ranking. Neighbours like Matthieu Cuvelier of Premier Grand Cru Classé Clos Fourtet expressed his ‘content’ for its promotion.

The notion of terroir should count for more

In a major change from 2012, the 2022 edition stipulates that performance in blind tastings by an independent panel counts for 50 per cent of the overall grade for those vying for Premier Grand Cru Classé status, compared to just 30 per cent previously. Forty independent tasters assessed 10 vintages (2010 to 2019), for all applications to be considered Grand Cru Classé and five more for Premier Grand Cru Classé (2005 to 2019). The tastings were held blind in horizontals comparing applicant estates for each vintage.

It is interesting, however, that for the Premier Grand Cru Classé category, reputation, such as media coverage, counts for 35 per cent of the tally (more than for the Grand Cru Classé category), with 10 per cent for terroir quality and five per cent for winemaking techniques.

‘The notion of terroir should count for more,’ says Clos Fourtet’s Cuvelier. ‘That was what made Ausone and Cheval Blanc leave.’

(Photo: Mathieu Anglada)

In any case, wine industry representatives praised the Figeac promotion. ‘It was long overdue,’ said Ben Giliberti, wine educator for US wine importer Calvert Woodley. ‘The dream of former owner, the late Thierry Manoncourt, has been finally realised due to the hard work of director Frédéric Faye and his team, and perhaps most of all, to the magnificent terroir of Figeac.’

Estate co-owners Marie-France, Hortense Idoine and Blandine de Brier Manoncourt said in a press release: ‘The entire team has a special thought for Thierry Manoncourt, who ardently wished to see Château Figeac “in the right place” as he shaped the estate of today and breathed into it the spirit of innovation, the uniqueness, the exacting standards, and the authenticity that still reign.’

In the past, promotions have led to increases in pricing, but Matthew O’Connell, CEO of fine wine trading platform LiveTrade at Bordeaux Index said that Figeac’s strong market out-performance last year means that ‘While it is obviously the case that the withdrawal of other top names renders the classification of somewhat diminished relevance going forwards, Bordeaux Index sees Figeac’s promotion as very well-deserved and an endorsement of a quality level which the château has reached and maintained in recent years,’ O’Connell added.

Frédéric Faye in among the vines at Château Figeac, a day prior to the St-Emilion classification announcement (Photo: Panos Kakaviatos)

Some observers had expected Château Canon to be promoted to ‘A’ as well. O’Connell suggested it had perhaps been deemed ‘slightly too early’ for the estate, while Baillarguet suggested that it had only more recently ‘come on strong’ with the arrival of director Nicolas Audebert eight years ago; promotion to ‘A’ status must reflect the last 15 years of quality as assessed by independent tasters.

Reacting to the new ranking, Audebert said: ‘I cannot deny feeling disappointment, as we could have imagined [the promotion], but I commend Figeac… We will continue to work hard, keeping in mind that since the 1950s, we have been a Premier Grand Cru Classé.’

2012 provided a lesson to estates to not sleep on any laurels

Meanwhile, Château Corbin Michotte, which had been demoted in 2012, was re-established as a Grand Cru Classé. ‘We never should have been demoted, but this is excellent news for my family and for St Emilion,’ said co-owner Emmanuel Boidron, who had filed lawsuits against the 2012 classification.

One might think that with no demotions in the 2022 classification, the INAO is playing it safe to avoid future litigation. But Franck Binard, managing director of the St Emilion Wine Council, said that none were required: ‘2012 proved how dynamic St Emilion is – and provided a lesson to estates to not sleep on any laurels. Results this year show that the châteaux are performing better than ever.’

Find the full St-Emilion 2022 classification list at vins-saint-emilion.com