Winemakers at the historic vineyards of St. Emilion in the village France it is hoped that the prestigious wine rankings released on Thursday will end more than a decade of lawsuits, legal disputes and disputes.
The tranquil St-Emilion area, with its Romanesque architecture and collection of World Heritage-listed vineyards, has been at the center of a long-running dispute over its famous rankings, which are determined every 10 years.
February competition being part of a select group of elite local wineries has helped make Saint-Émilion one of the most sought-after wines in the world, with some bottles fetching thousands of euros each.
The rating is compared to the influence of the Michelin Guide on the restaurant trade – they can build careers, but they can also the nest. Several historic estates in St. Emilion have been sued over the 2012 ranking and after lengthy litigation they lost their last appeal this year. More recently, some top locks have dropped out of the competition.
The Saint Émilion ranking system, which began in the 1950s, is considered much more democratic than most wine classifications because it is revised every decade. But it is also considered one of France’s most demanding and complex ranking systems, using criteria such as taste, terroirwinemaking and brand awareness.
Ahead of this year’s long-awaited ranking, three of the current top four estates – Angélus, Ausone and Cheval Blanc – surprised observers by dropping out. Pierre Lurton of Chateau Cheval Blanc, which is partly owned by businessman Bernard Arnault, said Le Monde that he “tipped off without demeaning the efforts of other vineyards in the competition.”
The message was clear: there was little at stake for the most prestigious and well-established wineries to no longer participate in the enormous competitive effort, including expensive entry fees and long track records.
But more than 100 other local winemakers are awaiting word on Thursday. The prize can double the value of a vineyard overnight. Being selected for the ranking provides reputation and allows for premium prices, but more important is the increase in land value in what has become one of the most desirable wine regions in the world.
“It is very unfortunate that some properties are leaving the ranking, because this classification system is clearly a collective effort for our wine region,” said Franck Binard, CEO of the Saint-Emilion Wine Council. “However, everyone is free to stand out or not, it is not an obligation. I like to use the analogy of the Michelin Guide: it’s been around for decades, there are some huge three-star restaurants that have decided not to participate anymore, and yet the Michelin Guide still exists and is incredibly popular, its publication is expected every year.”
Binard added: “The peculiarity of the Saint-Emilion rankings is that they are reviewed every 10 years – it is one of the few rankings that is questioned. It’s an indicator of quality for consumers.”
It’s unclear whether more legal disputes could follow Thursday’s announcement.
Jane Anson, wine expert and book author Inside Bordeaux, said: “Despite the lawsuits and all the controversy, I know there have been more entries in the rankings this year than ever before. So, certainly, people in St. Emilion still see a lot of value in it, even though it’s become quite difficult to follow on the outside because it’s constantly generating all these controversies.”
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