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Why is Chateau La Gaffelière leaving the Saint-Emilion classification?

Our Bordeaux correspondent Colin Hay pieces together the events leading to Chateau La Gaffelière’s shock withdrawal from the Saint-Emilion classification, announced last week, reflecting on the likely implications and longer-term consequences.

I was hoping that my next piece on the ongoing saga that is the St Emilion classification would be a happier one – the opportunity to congratulate those newly promoted in the 2022 reclassification exercise. Alas, no. That moment will surely come. But not yet – and when it does come the celebration is likely to be more muted than we might have hoped it would be. For there is more bad news first. It comes in the form of a press release, signed by Alexandre de Malet Roquefort and dated the 1 June 2022, announcing Chateau La Gaffelière’s withdrawal from the St Emilion classification. No-one expected this. With the earlier withdrawal of Ausone and Cheval Blanc and subsequently, Angélus it brings the number of former premier grand cru classé estates to have taken this decision to four. It can only further deplete the already somewhat tarnished reputation of the classification itself and, above all, the process generating it.

So what has happened?

The precise sequence of events is not entirely clear (and it is likely to remain so) but the broad process can be pieced together relatively easily. The following reconstruction is based on the contents of the press release itself, interviews given by Alexandre de Malet Rocquefort to the French press (notably Terre de Vins and La Revue du Vin de France), my own ‘off the record’ exchanges with a number of contacts in St Emilion (including those who have submitted dossiers to the reclassification exercise) and a process of deduction and inference on my part. I apologise in advance if any part of what follows is inaccurate in any way. It seems entirely credible to me (depressing though some of it is) and it corresponds directly with what I have been told. But before we get to my reconstruction of the sequence of events, it is important to provide a bit of  context. Most of it will already be familiar to most readers, but it is important nonetheless.

A rising star of the appellation

Chateau La Gaffelière is a relatively large St Emilion estate of around 38 hectares, fabulously well-placed just below Ausone itself and next to Bélair-Monange and Canon La Gaffelière on a combination of plateau, côte (slope) and pied de côte (foot of the slope) clay-limestone terroirs. The property has existed since the 2nd century and takes its name from the medieval leper colony on the same site (la gaffe is the long wooden cane carried by the patient to identify them as a carrier of the disease and to maintain their distance from those they might otherwise infect). In an irony unlikely to be lost either on the de Malet Rocquefort family or indeed the current custodians of the classification, une gaffe is also an error, a blunder or a mistake. But more significantly perhaps, 22 of La Gaffelière’s 38 hectares have been classified premier grand cru classé B since 1955 without interruption. It is from these, and these alone, that the grand vin is sourced. That said, not all of the 22 hectares are in fact in current production, due to the continuation of an extensive replanting cycle which commenced around 2000 and which has already seen around half of the vineyard replanted. Before this project was launched it is fair to suggest that La Gaffelière’s premier grand cru classé B status was starting to be questioned. But the recent progression, especially over the last 5 or so vintages, has been staggering and very widely noted.

The current consensus (in a world in which consensus is relatively, and perhaps increasingly, rare) is that La Gaffelière is one of the stars, and a rising star too, of the appellation. Though few perhaps saw it as a potential contender for promotion to premier grand cru classé A in the 2022 exercise, many saw it as having both the quality of terroir and the upward recent trajectory in the quality of its wine to make that a realistic target for 2032. My own tasting notes and ratings for the most recent vintages can be found below. But the point is perhaps better made by considering the Wine Advocate’s appreciation of La Gaffelière’s evolution (see graph below). The blue represents the ratings for La Gaffelière and the red the average rating for the four premier grand cru classé A wines (Ausone, Angélus, Cheval Blanc and Figeac). As this suggests, the process of catch-up is well underway.

Figure 1: Wine Advocate critical appreciation for Chateau La Gaffelière

Crucially, there is little controversy here, at least amongst the critics. The recent critical acclaim for La Gaffelière is unanimous and unanimously positive. La Gaffelière is a wine of very considerable and steeply rising quality and that quality is in turn founded upon the underlying strength of its exceptional terroir. For it not to retain its premier grand cru classé B status, then, is a major shock – one sufficient in itself to raise serious questions about the quality (and quality control) of the evaluation exercise now reaching its conclusion. So what happened, what can we infer from it and what are its wider implications?

What happened?

We can, I think, infer the following:

  • That all properties who submitted a dossier in the current reclassification exercise have now received (or are in the process of receiving) initial feedback (le premier rapport) from La Commission du Classement (the body overseeing the classification on the INAO’s behalf);
  • That feedback includes (at minimum) a summary of the evaluations of the tasting panel of each of the wines submitted for the panel tasting (and the scores they attained);
  • It also includes, at least for those properties who did not get what they wished for (whether that be classification, re-classification or promotion to a higher level in the classification) an at least partial justification for the decision reached.

If all of that is true, we can also infer:

  • That, for La Gaffelière itself, the proposed decision of La Commission du Classement was for a downgrading (presumably, from premier grand cru classé B to grand cru classé rather than a complete declassification, but that is an inference on my part based solely on my difficulty in imagining that any comparative panel tasting could propose a declassification of La Gallelière);
  • That this, in turn, was based on the tasting panel’s judgement of the relative quality of the wines submitted and that the panel awarded a higher score to the 2013 (rated 84 by the Wine Advocate) than the 2018 and 2019 (rated 97 and 95 respectively);
  • It is also clear that the justification for the proposed demotion offered in the communication was couched ‘explicity’ (the word used by Alexandre de Malet Rocquefort in the press release and subsequent interviews) in terms of the (relative) lack of quality of La Gaffelière’s terroir as well as the average score from the panel tasting.

In this situation, La Gaffelière’s options were essentially four-fold: (i) to accept the decision; (ii) to appeal the decision prior to the classification becoming official (as the rules allow); (iii) not to take up the option of an internal appeal but to consider a legal challenge once the classification were officialised (or after any internal appeal had been rejected or dismissed); or (iv) to leave the classification altogether. It appears they chose the final option. Alexandre de Malet Rocquefort explained that decision to Terre de Vins in the following terms: “Quite sincerely, we didn’t want to leave the classification to which we have been historically attached – don’t forget that my father contributed to its birth over 65 years ago. But we have been attacked. There is in the evaluation of our dossier a quite explicit questioning of the quality of our terroir, which of course has hardly changed over 1000s of years and whose configuration is practically the same … as for the 2012 classification! Then we come to the tasting, which is full of errors. We have been judged by amateurs recruited by a un-transparent process, who rated more highly a vintage like 2013 than 2018 and 2019. It’s too much!” (my translation). What is also interesting here is the public position taken by at least one other key figure in the appellation, Nicolas Thienpont (of former premiers grands crus classés B peers Larcis Ducasse and Pavie-Maquin). In an interview with La Revue du Vin de France he states, in no uncertain terms: “The Commission has revealed itself to be distant and out of touch (‘hors sol’) in failing to see the clear progress of La Gaffelière which has, over these last vintages, rediscovered the beauty of its terroir. The commission brings itself into disrepute in such an inept act. If a property had to be downgraded, it certainly wasn’t this one” (my translation). These are strong words. Crucially, though, they both give voice to and echo loudly the private consensus amongst those I have spoken to in both St Emilion and la place de Bordeaux.

What do we learn from this?

There are many potential lessons to be drawn from this sad episode. Let me confine myself for now to three. First, it shows the Commission and the tasting panel’s willingness to take difficult and consequential decisions. That it not a bad thing in itself, but it is risky, above all in the current climate surrounding the classification. Second, it raises serious concerns and questions, not for the first time, about the quality of the panel tasting process, the mechanism through which tasters are selected and, ultimately, the calibre and fitness to conduct the task of those chosen. Panel blind tasting of this kind is fraught with difficulty and it is not at all surprising that any process reliant on a mechanism of this kind will generate some mistakes (gaffes!). At present it is difficult to gauge whether The Commission’s gaffe de La Gaffelière (if we can call it that) is an unfortunate one-off accident (a genuine ‘gaffe’) in a far from scientific process or the tip of the proverbial iceberg. At present we know nothing of its other decisions. Here time will tell; but the vultures are already starting to hover overhead. Third, what it certainly does indicate, is that the current process has no adequate internal credibility- or reality-checking mechanism. In a context in which Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Angélus had already left the classification it was naïve in the extreme to imagine that a property like La Gaffelière placed in this position would use the internal appeals procedure rather than simply leaving the classification, as it has done. In the process it may well have opened the flood gates. Again, time will tell.

And what are the likely implications of all of this?

This is difficult territory – not least because at this stage (before the classification results are published) we still lack much of the relevant information (not least about the quality of the work conducted by the Commission’s tasting panel). But there are a number of things that can and perhaps need to be said. First, the stakes of all of this are potentially very high – quite how high will depend on the number of other cases that the reclassification exercise throws up of an equivalent kind. A single mistake is one thing; multiple mistakes start to look like a pattern. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘to lose one premier grand cru classé B of the calibre of La Gaffeliere is unfortunate; to lose two looks like carelessness’. Put bluntly, if all of those properties downgraded from premier grand cru classé B to grand cru classé leave the classification (and there is more than one case), then the process no longer works and would need to be significantly reformed for it to work (and be seen to work) again. Second, if one were to look for a silver lining to this very dark cloud it would surely be the idea that not all disputes arising from the current reclassification exercise are likely to end up in the courts. That sounds like news – and it sounds like good news too. But even here we need to be cautious. A property demoted from premier grand cru classé B to grand cru classé level is, indeed, just as likely to leave the classification today as it is to seek legal redress in the courts tomorrow. But that is not true of a property declassified altogether – in effect, it still has no option other than a legal redress. So this sorry episode can give us no confidence that the 2022 reclassification exercise will not give rise to a new bout of legal cases in the years to come. Indeed, overall, it probably makes that more not less likely. Above all, the credibility of the competitive classification and the reclassification process on which it is necessarily predicated has undoubtedly been further eroded by this episode. The storm clouds and the vultures are both gathering overhead. The next few months could prove very challenging indeed for the appellation and the very future of the classification system with which it is, for now, still intimately associated is at stake. It is likely to make for fascinating if painful viewing.

Tasting notes of recent vintages

  • La Gaffelière 2021 (St Emilion; 42% Cabernet Franc; 58% Merlot; tasted at the property en primeur). A truly fabulous wine and a continuation of the impressive upward trajectory of recent vintages. Interestingly, they finished the harvest here with some of the Merlot. Seductive and with a beautiful sensation of harmony and total integration on the nose. Lots of cedar; lots of graphite; nice walnut notes too. There’s also a telling subtle natural sweetness to the fruit. In the mouth, there’s a lovely grip from the tannins that massages the finely balanced sapidity into the fruit. The salinity from the terroir and the acidity from the vintage work together with the tannins in framing the structure of the wine, which builds graciously in the mouth. Subtle, delicate and very long and racy, with rolling fruit and bright energy from the fresh juiciness. Exquisite and very good in the context of the vintage. This is now providing serious competition to some very famous names. One to watch. 93-95+.
  • La Gaffelière 2020 (St Emilion; 60% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Franc; pH of 3.47; IPT 73; aged for 14-16 months in oak, of which 60% is new; 14.15% alcohol). Tasted immediately after Valandraud en primeur in Paris, this is quite a contrast. It’s not a lot less dark in colour, nor a lot less viscous and it, too, is wonderfully translucent at the core and clearly the product of a very gentle extraction. This has a very focussed, pure and precise nose that is quite distinctive and utterly lovely. Yes, it’s floral, intensely so in fact, but it’s a gentler and milder florality – peonies, perhaps and Damask roses. There’s a distinct note of walnut shells and cedar and a twist or two of black pepper to go with the crunchy red and black cherry fruit. The palate has a shimmering beauty which is very characteristic of the vintage. It seems light and diaphanous because of the freshness and brightness of the fruit and the vivid acidity that it presents. But don’t be mistaken, this is a dense and compact wine, with the power beautifully disguised and delivered in layers rather than in a single punch. The latest in a recent succession of really top wines from La Gaffelière. 95-97.
  • La Gaffelière 2019 (St Emilion; 60% Merlot; 40% Merlot). Tasted at the UGC en primeur tasting in Paris. Impressive. A bit held back and introvert, but one can still sense the class, the poise and the soft and gentle profile on the palate from the nose itself. Fruits of the forest. Very deep. Lovely black cherry fruit delivered in silk gloves on a silver salver – oh, and a hint of lavender too. Rich, opulent and seductive but in a gently understated way. Class and classicism here nicely combined. Continuing on from the 2018, this is so different as to be almost unrecognisable from previous incarnations of this wine – so long a disappointment; not now. Chalky minerality too. Finishes on cracked pepper. Very pure, layered and energetic. Tense and poised. Power nicely disguised.  Excellent. 93-95+.
  • La Gaffelière 2018 (St Emilion; from a selection of 19 hectares of the classified 22 hectares of the 38 hectare vineyard on a combination of plateau, côte and pied de côte argilo-calcaire terroirs; 58% Merlot; 42% Cabernet Franc; pH of 3.64; aged for 14 months in oak, of which 60% is new; 14.5% alcohol). This is the 60th consecutive vintage of produced by Comte Leo de Malet Rocquefort at La Gaffelière and, to celebrate this, the label is a reproduction of that used for the 1959 vintage (and rather beautiful it is too). Very dark hued – with violet and purple highlights in the early spring sunshine – though not especially dense or extracted and more translucent than many at the core. Intensely glass-staining, giving the impression that the colour has really yet to set. A very stylish, sleek, classic and classy plateau St Emilion nose – lots of graphite minerality, and a stony-rocky-earthyness, a dark rich plum and blackberry fruit and a hint of the cedar to come. But there is also the strong sensation that this is not yet showing all that it has to offer. Pure, precise, focussed and nicely layered, this builds slowly and effortlessly on the palate, staying fresh and vibrant as the layers and the archetypally limestone tannins build together. This finishes high on the roof of the mouth, with a little dry tannin in the cheeks. Very elegant, rather accomplished and probably the best La Gaffelière I can recall – though the 2019 is excellent too. 95.

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