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05.20.2009

All That Grand Cru Wine is not Worthless After All

In the real olden days, grape farmers had to deal with plagues of locusts, rampaging armies, and all manner of biblical-scale disasters. When things settled down in the 16th and 17th centuries, most of the European folks making wine got pretty complacent, until a little bug came along and wiped 98% of their vineyards off the face of the planet.

Eventually everyone got over Phylloxera, and the wine world settled back into its groove, and for a while it seemed that the scourges of old might not continue into the modern era.

Safe from locusts, boll weevils, and all manner of biological plagues, everyone forgot the looming threat of a debacle worse than them all: the perfect storm of petty politics wrapped in European Union Bureaucracy.

I'm speaking, of course, about St. Emilio-Gate, the multi-year saga that threatened to rival Jarndyce and Jarndyce in its convoluted twists and turns of legal wrangling.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, here's the digest version:

Every ten years, a cabal of wine officials gets together to decide who is good, who is better, and who is best in a little town on the North side of the Dordogne River in the Bordeaux region of France. The "Right Bank" as it is affectionately known, is home to the town and appellation of Saint Emilion.

Way back in the 19th century, a slightly crustier and even more secretive cabal of wine industry mavens got together and created the famous Classification of 1855 which defined for the world which were the top producers of the "Left Bank" of Bordeaux. At the time Saint Emilion was left out completely.

It took them 100 years or so, but eventually the winemakers and wine brokers of Saint Emilion created their own classification, and sensibly, they've been periodically updating it ever since at roughly ten-year intervals.

The last attempt was in 2006, except instead of landing with the dull, predictable thud that usually accompanies the upholding of the status quo, a lot of producers got re-ranked. And thus began the protracted set of legal battles whose outcomes read more like an episode guide to a new soap opera than a set of news headlines.

Here's how Decanter Magazine reported on it over the last 30 months:

St-Emilion classification: the bloodletting begins

St Emilion chateaux take classification to court
St-Emilion classification suspended
St Emilion classification suspended indefinitely
St Emilion back on track after classification ban lifted
St Emilion classification finally ruled invalid
St Emilion classification reinstated - again
Demoted St-Emilion chateaux return to 2006 classification
French government dismisses St-Emilion reclassification proposal
Saint-Emilion classification ditched


And then finally, on Monday, a law was passed that effectively re-instated the 2006 classification and made it inviolable.

That is, until 2011, when the law expires, and presumably, the saga can begin again. A lot sooner than the next plague of locusts was due to arrive.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.