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Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé: Delicious Wines, Relative Values

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view of Saint-Émilion (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Saint-Émilion is both the most charming town in all of Bordeaux and a red wine appellation surrounding that town on the right bank of the Gironde River. It is an area that has been growing grapes since Roman times and the source of some of the world's greatest Merlot and Cabernet Franc based wines.

Cabernet Sauvignon, which is more heavily planted on the warmer Left Bank, rarely ripens in most areas of Saint-Émilion. Being largely Merlot based then, Saint-Émilion wines tend to be plush and rich, with sweet black fruit. They are accessible much sooner than the Left Bank's more structured, Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. With a few exceptions, however, they do not make for wines that age as long as the greatest wines from the Left Bank.

Top Saint-Émilion producers whose wines are among the most magnificent I've ever tasted are Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Troplong Mondot. These are famous names, with huge reputations. As a result, a bottle of the current vintage of Ausone--2010--goes for an average of nearly $2,000 in the U.S.; Cheval Blanc is a relative bargain at $1500.

There are, however, delicious wines available from this region for a tiny fraction of the price of the top names. I had a chance recently to taste through wines from a representative sampling of these middle range Saint-Émilion producers, from both the 2010 and 2009 vintages. Both were strong vintages there, and virtually all are delicious, crowd pleasing wines. Lovers of Napa Cabs and Merlots will find themselves very much at home with these wines. And some of the best of this group are available for only $35 to $45 a bottle.

Before we get to specific recommendations, it is important to understand the unusual hierarchy of classifications in Saint-Émilion.

Even though wine growing in the area around this medieval town long predates the planting of vineyards on the former marshlands of the Left Bank, Right Bank wines were left out of the famous 1855 classification created in response to Napoleon III's call for a ranking of Bordeaux wines for that year's Universal Exhibition of Paris. Those rankings were made based on château reputation and wine trading price, and have proven remarkably resilient. Saint-Émilion finally got around to classifying its producers a century later, in 1955.

Saint-Émilion ended up with four confusingly titled classifications. The lowest level is those wines entitled to be designated as Saint-Émilion. The next level up are more than 200 wines classified as Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. Higher still is the group called Grand Cru Classé. The final group at the apex--which includes Ausone and Cheval Blanc, and which is further subdivided into two subgroups, "A" and "B"--are the wines designated Premier Grand Cru Classé.

Ausone and Cheval Blanc

What makes the Saint-Émilion classification unique not just in Bordeaux but all of France is that it is designed to be updated on a regular basis, based primarily on panel tastings. The basic Saint-Émilion classification is on an annual basis only, so wines allowed to put Saint-Émilion AC on their label must be so approved each year. The higher level classifications are updated roughly every 10 years, and are based not only on panel tastings but also on château reputation and soil analysis.

This rigorous, merit-based system should, and does, encourage producers to meet and exceed minimum standards, and to make constant improvements in both the vineyards and cellars. Nonetheless, because these classifications have such a huge impact on how much a producer can charge for their wines, the classification process has gotten increasingly political and litigious.

The 2006 classification was ultimately thrown out after legal challenges and a series of government actions. Even the 2012 classification that ultimately took its place, and which outsourced the tastings and château inspections to wine professionals from outside Bordeaux to avoid the allegations of favoritism that brought down the 2006 classification, has been subject to appeals.

Based on the latest classification, 18 producers make up the very top, Premier Grand Cru Classé category. Four of those are classed as "A" at that level, with Angelus and Pavie having joined Ausone and Cheval Blanc in that rarefied ranking as of 2012. The next level down, Grand Cru Classé, consists of 64 producers. I got to taste the wines of nearly half of these producers at the recent trade event in San Francisco organized by the Association of Grands Crus Classés of Saint-Émilion.

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This was a rare opportunity to sample comparable wines from producers classed at this level, many of whom currently lack distribution in the U.S.

My conclusion from the tasting in terms of vintages was that I generally preferred the 2010 wines from most of these producers. I find 2010 a more classic, complex and structured Bordeaux vintage than the 2009s that resulted from a warmer year with a shorter growing season. Both vintages are, however, quite enjoyable.

My lowest ranked wines at the tasting, at 89 points, were delicious wines. Of the 62 wines poured, I ranked a total of 15 at 92 points or higher.

The producers of my top wines were Chauvin, Clos de Sarpe, Corbin, Faurie de Souchard, de Ferrand, Laroze, Le Prieure, Moulin du Cadet and de Pressac. Some of the 2010s from these producers--like my top ranked Le Prieure and Moulin du Cadet at 93 points--are not yet available in the U.S. The 2010 Corbin and de Ferrand are, however, widely available.

The best value of all among currently available wines is the 2010 de Ferrand, which I rated 92+ points. It averages $35. This chateau was built in 1702 and has been in the hands of only two families over a period of more than 300 years. The 103-acre vineyard here is planted mainly to Merlot, with a smaller amount of Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon.

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The 2010 Corbin and 2010 Laroze, which I also rated 92+ points, are $40 and $45 respectively. Corbin is another one of Saint-Émilion's oldest producers.

For my complete tasting notes and scores on all 62 wine tasted at the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé event, see the complete report on my blog here.