St Emilion’s class struggle

The recent St Émilion reclassification leads Mark Savage MW to question whether terroir is still valued as an indicator of quality.

The revision was bound to raise the odd eyebrow, even among people who are dubious about classifications in general, while recognising an element in the human psyche that enjoys belonging to a club or being part of an establishment hierarchy, writes Mark Savage MW.

St EmilionThose who prefer to be non-conformist in this respect are probably a minority. Certainly when it comes to being in the Syndicat des Grands Crus Classés de St Émilion, there seems to be a strong desire among most château proprietors for the status conferred by membership. Whether the actual consumer knows or cares about this sort of thing is rather more debatable.

Revisions of classifications may cause some of us to stop and ask ourselves what purpose they are intended to serve and what criteria are important for inclusion. As with the appellation system in general, it needs to be considered whether it best serves the interest of the producer or the consumer.

Some may still harbour the notion that the important factor is the actual “terroir” of the vineyard concerned and its supposed superiority, as evidenced by a successful track record over an extended period of time. The logic and advantage of this concept is surely that its roots lie in something permanent, that there is in fact a natural rather than a man-made reason behind it.

It’s fairly well-established that the famous 1855 classification of the Médoc was based on money rather than on specific soils and it seems perfectly acceptable for a first growth to acquire a parcel of vines whose fruit had previously had no loftier destination than the local co-op. By contrast, in the Côte d’Or individual sites are considered to be of primordial significance and each cru produced by a domaine will have a price that corresponds to a status firmly entrenched in the belief that the very specific “terroir” really makes a difference.

Where does the Syndicat de St Émilion stand on this issue today? Is the view that the actual location of the vineyard as the prime criterion is now beginning to look naïve, if not rather quaint? The driving forces behind the latest revision seem to have more to do with money and politics than intrinsic terroir superiority.

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