Are you confused about the Saint-Émilion wine classification? Or, did you not even know one existed? Have you been totally confused at your wine shop when you’re trying to figure out the difference between a label (in French, of course) listing a Saint-Émilion wine as a “Grand Cru Classé” or a “Premier Grand Cru Classé?” Don’t feel bad, it confuses us as well. Heck, it confuses most people who live in Bordeaux. In fact, while tasting in Bordeaux at a “Premier Grand Crus Classé A,” a few years ago, our pourer confided in us that even her friends don’t understand the classification system. So, we’re going to explain it with an analogy that most Americans can understand (and are quite passionate about) – March Madness.
Background on the Saint-Émilion Classification
Let’s start off with a little background on the Saint-Émilion Classification. Unlike the comparatively simple 1855 Wine Classification of the Bordeaux Left Bank wines – where “First Growths” are classified higher than “Second Growths,” which are classified higher than “Third Growths” (that I can understand!) – the Saint Emillion classification uses confusing French terms, which are even more confusing when said with a French accent. (Unless you are fluent, try to hear the difference between “classé” and “classé a,” from a Frenchman speaking fast – we sure can’t hear it.) Anyhow, here’s the system. Don’t worry if you’re initially confused, the table below will help.
Every ten years (supposedly), the top quarter to third of wines of Saint-Émilion are classified based upon their wines and facilities into four levels. The most recent revision was in 2012, and the breakdown went a little like this:
- 1,000 – There are roughly 1,000 wineries in Saint-Émilion
- 250 – ~ 250 wineries are classified as the “Grand Crus” wineries
- 65 – Next you have 65 wineries which are the “Grand Crus Classé”
- 14 – 14 wineries make up the “Premier Grand Crus Classé”
- 4 – The top of the top: Called the “Premier Grand Crus Classé A”, four wineries (Château Cheval Blanc, Château Ausone, Château Pavie, and Château Angelus) have the right to call themselves the top of the top of this Saint-Émilion classification.
Background on March Madness
And now for a little background on March Madness –
- 1,000 – There are roughly a thousand men’s college basketball teams (this gets murky, but so does the number of wineries in Saint-Émilion).
- 350 – Of those, 350 or so are “NCAA Division One”
- 64 – From that group of 350, 64 teams make it into “The Big Dance”
- 16 – After a couple of rounds of single elimination play, of those 64, one quarter make it to the “Sweet Sixteen,” and of those, 8 teams make up the “Elite 8”
- 4 – Then one half become the lucky “Final Four.”
Putting the Two Together
Now, of course, the Saint-Émilion system is not a contest. There’s no winner or loser in wine. And, as it is not a contest, we do not have to worry about the fact that certain amazing wineries are not ranked where one would logically think – especially since some of the great wineries simply chose not to ‘play’. After all, no one would ever say that the amazing Tertre-Roteboeuf would not make it to the Tournament, let alone the “Sweet Sixteen”. It’s only classified as a “Grand Crus (part of the Division I Men’s College Basketball) because it’s chosen not to enter the classification game.
And, there are always questions of legitimacy of the Saint-Émilion classification. Although one would assume that it makes logical sense for the classification to be based upon blind tastings – but, one would be wrong. Tasting is only one of many criteria, some of the other smaller criteria being as ridiculous as the size of the parking lot of the Château. The 2006 round of the classification was fought in court for five years by the various wineries that were classified and declassified, with the 2006 classification ultimately being thrown out. The 2012 classification was likewise heavily challenged in French court. The elevation, in 2012, of Château Angelus and Château Pavie to Premier Grand Crus Classe A (i.e., the Final Four) was so controversial in Bordeaux as to make much of American politics seem mild in comparison. Indeed, Château Angelus used to be called Chateau L’Angelus, but it dropped the “L’” at the beginning of its name so it would appear in alphabetical order before the other final four wines. But let’s face it, minus the lawsuits, is there any less controversy in the selection process or ranking for the teams playing in March Madness?
In the end, which of these questions is easier to understand: (1) “Should we have a Big Dance wine tonight, or should we really splurge and have a sweet sixteen wine tonight?” or (2) “Should we have a Grand Crus Classé tonight, or should we really splurge and have a Premier Grand Crus Classé?” We think the first question makes more sense, and that’s now how we describe Saint-Émilion wines in our house.
Special thanks to wine lover and basketball expert Matt Krier for reviewing the blog before it was published 🙂