Hubert de Boüard, owner of Château Angélus, and Philippe Castéja, owner of Château Trotte Vieille, are currently standing trial for allegedly rigging entry to the Saint Emilion classification system and their rankings within it. The two Bordeaux winemakers are facing up to five years in prison. Manipulating the system would have allowed the defendants to unfairly inflate the price of their wines, which are classed as Grand Cru Classé A and B status respectively.
Three separate Chateaus brought the case against the owners and are said to have been outraged that their vintages had failed to make the cut, or to acquire the system’s coveted Grand Cru Classé status. Entry into the classification comes with global prestige and is also said to boost wine prices by around 30%.
The legal battle has been ongoing since INAO, France’s wine governing body, published its new classification for St Emilion in 2012, a list which is reassessed every 10 years. The defendants appeared in court this week to answer the charges.
Facing allegations of an “illegal taking of interest” by acting as both judge and jury in drawing up the region’s rankings list, the alleged crime has been described by the prosecution as being as though: “someone passed the baccalaureate (A level) exam after writing the subjects himself.”
The prosecution argues that as influential members of INAO the men were unfairly able to ensure that their own domains, as well as others that they were paid as consultants to advise, maintained their ranking or joined the classification.
If found guilty, Boüard and Castéja could each face jail time, plus a fine of up to €500,000.
It’s a landmark trial that could have major implications for the entire wine region. As reported by The Telegraph, Eric Morain, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the entire St Emilion ranking system was on trial.
“We are going to talk about a system that doesn’t tell the consumer that the tasting note only counts for 30% in the ranking,” he said, explaining that the rest is based on the fame and notoriety of the château, among other criteria. Morain added that it’s “a system that sells brands and no longer grapes”.
Boüard told the court on Monday: “In no way did I take part.” Adding, “Within the framework of INAO, I respected the rules from start to finish.” He also stated that all decisions were “unanimous” among dozens of winemakers.
In July, Cheval Blanc and Ausone withdrew from the official St Emilion classification system. The two Bordeaux châteaux chose to renounce the system because it has come to be based more on the estates’ social media presence than on the quality of the wines.