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Performance Trumps Place
By Robert Whitley
Sep 4, 2012
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Creators Syndicate

In the event you missed it, there was big news out of Bordeaux last week. Two estates in Saint-Emilion, one of the most important wine districts in the Bordeaux region, were elevated to the lofty status of Premier Grand Cru Classe A within the district’s official classification.

Chateau Pavie and Chateau Angelus joined Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone at the pinnacle of the hierarchy in Saint-Emilion. Thus Pavie and Angelus became the first chateaux to overcome the stranglehold on the top classification that Cheval Blanc and Ausone have enjoyed since the ranking was established in 1955.

While this is a huge development in Bordeaux circles, the casual wine enthusiast, unversed in the byzantine structure of French wine appellations, probably has good cause to wonder why this is such a big deal. After all, we’ve been schooled by the French in the importance of terroir, or place. That’s why wines are identified throughout France, and indeed much of Europe, by place names rather than grape names.

The best example of that is in Burgundy. To be labeled Burgundy a wine must be made from grapes grown in one of the classified zones of the Burgundy region. The qualitative ranking of each wine within that classification is based upon the location of the vineyard. Grand cru sits atop the rankings heap. A grand cru wine must be made from grapes grown in a grand cru vineyard.

Premier cru is the next level down, followed by AOC Villages and then the most generic of all Burgundy appellations, AOC Bourgogne. In theory, and generally in practice, grand cru wines are better and more expensive than premier cru wines, and so on down the line.

Bordeaux, on the other hand, takes an entirely different tack with its classifications, which are based upon performance rather than terroir.

The infamous classification of 1855, which remains in place, only ranked the chateaux on the left bank of the Gironde river, which took in all of the Medoc and Graves districts. The rankings at that time were based upon the prestige of each chateau and the price it could fetch for its wine. The only significant change in the ranking since its inception was the elevation of Chateau Mouton to First Growth status in 1973.

It is worth noting that Chateau Mouton didn’t move to a new location to achieve that success. It merely made the strong case that its wines were every bit as good and just as prized as those of Chateau Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion.

And so it was with Chateau Pavie and Chateau Angelus. An independent commission established by the Institut National des Appellations, which oversees French wine appellations, was charged with reviewing the rankings of the right-bank commune of Saint-Emilion. The INAO seven-member panel determined that over the past 10 vintages (the Saint-Emilion classification is reviewed and adjusted every ten years) Pavie and Angelus have been performing at the same level as the storied chateaux of Cheval Blanc and Ausone.

I applaud the new INAO evaluation, but more than that I applaud the courage on display. It is no small thing for the French to go against tradition when it comes to wine. Until now, no one in the more than a half-century since the ranking was established has dared to suggest that Cheval Blanc and Ausone have an equal in Saint-Emilion, let alone two.

With all due respect to those passionate adherents of terroir, I have to say I love it any time performance trumps place.

Email comments to whitleyonwine@yahoo.com and follow Robert Whitley on Twitter @wineguru.