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Sour grapes in French wine feud

30 October 08 13:57 GMT

By David Chazan
BBC News, Saint Emilion

Young grape-pickers carefully snip glistening red bunches of Merlot in the autumn sunshine.

The grapes taste sweet - but the winegrowers of Saint Emilion in south-western France are locked in a bitter feud.

The row in the idyllic home of some of the world's most highly-rated vintages is over the classification of wines.

It is threatening the reputation of Saint Emilion's famed chateaux, and casting doubt over which wines deserve to be at the top of a prestigious league table, where they fetch premium prices.

Some have been downgraded - and relegation is as bad for a wine as it is for a football team.

"Relegation can be a financial disaster for the estates which are declassified, because there is such an amount of money at stake," says Jean-Francois Quenin, chairman of the Saint Emilion wine council.

"That is why the debate is so intense."

Gentle slopes

Saint Emilion's ancient vineyards lie on gentle slopes around a lovingly preserved old town with cobbled streets and Romanesque churches.

The area adjoins Pomerol, which produces Chateau Petrus, one of the world's most expensive wines.

But only a few dozen of Saint-Emilion's 800 or so vineyards are considered good enough make "le classement".

The value of their wine shoots up by anything from 10% to 50%.

The classification is decided by a panel of experts who test the wines, working under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture. The table was created in 1955 and it is revised about every 10 years.

When the latest table was drawn up in 2006, some long-established winegrowers lost their places at the top to relative newcomers, like Dominique de Coster of Chateau Fleur Cardinale.

He says he deserved the honour.

"When I bought the estate in 2001, we decided to change everything because we wanted to compete for the new classification," he said.

"We invested quite a lot of money, we changed all the way of working and we built everything new."

Judging 'unfair'

But Mr de Coster's taste of success soon turned sour.

His was one of eight estates promoted in 2006. But 11 others lost their "grand cru classe" status - and seven of them went to court.

They argued that they had been judged unfairly because the panel had failed to taste all the wines under the same conditions.

This summer the 2006 league table was cancelled and the classement of 1996 was re-instated.

The eight estates which had been promoted were automatically relegated - and the 11 which had been relegated regained their "grand cru classe" status.

Their owners were delighted but Mr de Coster and others are now backing a counter-appeal, trying to get the 2006 classification re-instated.

"Now we are nothing," he says.

"This decision was unfair, it's bad for Saint Emilion and we need the classification."

But the bickering and legal battles have poisoned relations between some of the wine-growers.

"The competition between people is important and also they are friends, neighbours," says Mr Quenin.

"When you are relegated it isn't very pleasant and some people are very hurt, so in this period life is maybe difficult for certain people."

And wine merchants like Jean-Baptiste Favia say the unresolved dispute could undermine international buyers' confidence in the classifications shown on the labels.

"To cancel the classification was very bad for the image of Saint Emilion," says Mr Favia.

"When you are in the world and you want to buy a good wine from Saint Emilion, if you can just read on the label grand cru classe and you can be sure that it's an exceptional wine, that's the best advert for Saint Emilion."

And it may be one the region cannot afford to go without.

Most of the best wines from Saint Emilion are exported and, directly or indirectly, almost everyone's livelihood depends on wine.

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