It's increasingly lonely at the pinnacle of the St.-Emilion classification, with Château Pavie the only remaining Premier Grand Cru Classé A. Just six months after Cheval-Blanc and Ausone announced they would leave the Right Bank ranking system, Château Angelus' co-owner and general manager Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal announced that the estate had withdrawn its application for the 2022 classification as well. And the rankings face plenty of other hurdles.
"Once a source of progress, the St.-Emilion classification has become a vehicle for antagonism and instability," de Boüard-Rivoal said in a statement. "The stakes within the classification have brought about numerous criticisms and has made it the target of a system of denigration leading to numerous cases of legal recourse. This happened of course in 2006 and then again in 2012."
Contacted by Wine Spectator, de Boüard-Rivoal explained that she was concerned that "legal issues will still be raised and will take a long time to be processed. The legal issues on the 2012 classifications are not yet over, almost 10 years after."
One of those legal issues involves de Boüard-Rivoal's father, Hubert de Boüard, formerly at the helm of Angélus and instrumental in the formulation of the 2012 classification. A court recently found him guilty of misusing his influence during the 2012 ranking and fined him.
Lawsuits and acrimony have plagued the St.-Emilion ranking, which has been reviewed roughly every 10 years since it was established in the 1950s. After lawsuits entangled the 2006 rankings, the parties overseeing the classification made major changes to the criteria and judging process for the 2012 classification. But allegations of conflicts of interest and controversy over the new criteria, which included châteaus' efforts in marketing and hospitality, led to multiple court cases, distracting from the good-faith efforts of many châteaus which have undertaken costly improvements to join the ranks or improve their standing.
Angélus and Château Pavie were promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé A in 2012, joining châteaus Ausone and Cheval-Blanc, two legendary Right Bank estates. The guilty verdict for Hubert de Boüard left many questioning how this might impact the estate's future ranking. And the 2012 ranking still faces legal challenges from estates that were demoted.
Then there was the defection by Cheval-Blanc and Ausone. In June 2021, the two estates shocked the wine world by exiting the classification. Both had been Premier Grand Cru Classé A since the first classification. Cheval-Blanc's staff had expressed dismay that the rankings had moved away from notions of terroir, in their opinion.
And this past month, two châteaus—Château Croix de Labrie and Château Tour St.-Christophe—filed an emergency legal action against the INAO, the government agency that oversees appellations, regarding the 2022 ranking.
"The dossiers of the two châteaus concerned had been deemed inadmissible by the INAO for reasons related to the land base," Franck Binard, director of the Association of Grands Crus Classés of St.-Emilion (AGCCSE), explained to Wine Spectator. "They weren't trying to annul the classification but rather to be considered candidates, and thus be part of it."
The classification has complex rules related to the vineyard land that can be included. The châteaus concerned are both noted St.-Emilion Grand Cru estates. Tour St.-Christophe's owner, Peter Kwok, who also owns several châteaus including Château Bellefont-Belcier, has made significant investments in Tour St.-Christophe, overseeing the creation of terraced vineyards that cascade over the slopes, taking advantage of the soil, elevation and exposition. Croix de Labrie, owned by the Courdurié family, has also expanded with additional vines. But the INAO would not consider those new vines as part of the properties eligible for the classification.
The court decided in the wineries' favor with a temporary judgment, so they are both back in the game. Neither would comment on the matter. Jean-Christophe Meyrou, general manager of Kwok's vineyards, promised clarification in the coming days when it's legally possible. Croix de Labrie owner Pierre Courdurié declined to comment.
The decision comes just as the key stages in the ranking, which will be announced before the 2022 harvest, gain pace. "The tastings are underway and the visits and audits of the estates have also begun," said Binard.
The impact on Angélus remains to be seen. Since taking the reins in 2012, Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal has revealed an ambitious vision for the company. After six years as a London banker, she bought all but a sliver of her father's 50 percent share, making her the largest single shareholder. She has steadily expanded the business.
In 2019, she unveiled a new, ultramodern cellar for everything but the Angélus grand vin. Despite resistance from other shareholders, she successfully expanded into hospitality, acquiring two hotels (26 rooms) and three restaurants.
She recently bid and lost on the acquisition of Château Beauséjour Héritiers Duffau-Lagarrosse, but doesn't rule out other acquisitions. "This was a personal project with my husband which was not linked to Angélus in any way," said de Boüard-Rivoal. "As for investing in other estates we'd definitely consider any interesting opportunity if we think we can achieve great results, and yes it could be pretty much anywhere as long as we can produce truly great wines."
Angélus' future is now separate from the classification, and perhaps, given the polarizing figure of Hubert de Boüard, that will calm the melodrama in this wine village with a surfeit of strong personalities and high-stakes investments. Because while the ranking may not mean much for global names like Cheval-Blanc and Angélus or to consumers, it does carry weight for many of the estates that remain in the classification, as they use their ranking to help grab attention and determine pricing.
New Owner for Château Le Boscq
On the Left Bank, St.-Estèphe's Château Le Boscq has a new owner, but it's a familiar one. The négociant Maison Dourthe, which has managed the winery since 1995, has now acquired full ownership.
Le Boscq is a cru bourgeois estate with 45 acres on the banks of the Gironde. Dourthe president Patrick Jestin says the acquisition is part of the négociant's move toward premium wines. He adds that the company plans to construct a visitor facility in the château's main residence.