Henry Samuel – Telegraph UK
2 OCTOBER 2018
The co-owner of one of the world’s most prestigious wine chateaus in Bordeaux has been charged with seeking to unfairly influence the outcome of the coveted Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé rankings in his favour.
A promotion in the 82-chateau wine league can double the price of vintages, some of which reach stratospheric levels, and can boost property prices.
In what amounts to an earthquake in the discreet cobbled streets of St Emilion, Hubert de Boüard, 62, co-owner of the famed Chateau Angélus, has been placed under “official investigation” – a French legal term akin to being charged – for “taking illegal interest”.
Another top Bordeaux merchant and owner, Philippe Castéja, 69, has also been charged.
Both deny any wrongdoing.
Legal proceedings against the pair followed a criminal complaint by three disgruntled chateau owners who lost out in the last 2012 rankings and argued that the men had acted as both judge and jury in drawing up the coveted list.
As influential members of the INAO wine governing body, investigating magistrates say there is reason to believe that they were unfairly able to ensure that their own domains, as well as others that they are paid to advise, maintained their ranking or joined the select club.
Both men are “suspected of being judge and interested party in this decision, which has considerable economic consequences (on the price of wines),” a source close to the investigation told AFP.
The charges carry a maximum five-year prison term and ?75,000 (£67,000) fine. French law forbids private business owners and employees who have taken on public roles from taking any financial, political or moral gain from their public work.
In the 2012 classification, Château Angélus was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé A at the top of the wine league table, while the seven estates he is paid to advise were either promoted or kept their ranking. The chateau Trottevieille, which Mr Castéja owns, retained its Premier Grand Cru Classé B status despite having merged with a lesser-graded chateau.
Founded in 1954, the ranking, which applies only to the St Emilion region and is reassessed every 10 years, consists of three classifications – Premier Grand Cru classé A, Premier Grand cru classé B and Grand Cru Classé.
Workers harvest grapes in the vineyard of the Chateau Angelus “Premier Grand Cru Classe” in Saint-Emilion, southwestern France, on September 27, 2018.
Chateau Angélus was promoted to the top St Emilion rank of Premier Grand Cru Classé A in 2012 CREDIT: GEORGES GOBET/AFP
The system was first thrown into crisis in 2009, when a court cancelled the 2006 classification after five demoted chateaus said the grading process was unfairly weighted towards those already in the top category.
To avoid any more such feuding, seven wine experts from outside Bordeaux were added to the classification commission and independent bodies employed to grade the wines based on taste, fame, “terroir” – local soil – and a visit to the domains.
But the 2012 ranking was also contested. In 2015, an administrative court threw out claims the vote was rigged but the ruling is subject to appeal. This time, the charges are criminal.
“Until now, it has been a bitter and unfair fight, but the case is at last moving forward,” said Éric Morain, lawyer for the three disgruntled chateaus, Croque-Michotte, Corbin Michotte and La Tour-du-Pin Figeac.
Mr Castéja said he was “relaxed about the case”.
“I have never been involved in the St Emilion ranking,” he said.
Jean-François Dacharry, lawyer for Mr Boüard, told Sud Ouest newspaper that his client “played no part in drawing up (the ranking) and didn’t take part in the vote. During the session, as we have proved, he wasn’t in the room but in a plane.”
He has filed for the charges to be annulled.
But Pierre Carle, who manages Chateau Croque-Michotte, said: “We’re going all the way. The laws of the French Republic must apply so that the big and the small stand the same chances. This ranking must go back to being serious and impartial.”