Written by Carl Robinson
The story of the 1936 classification of Burgundy’s terroirs is steeped in history, economics and politics. The classification of vineyards into Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru on the Cote d’Or took place as part of the introduction of the AC (Appellation Controlee) system. Vineyard owners made applications to the then governing body, the INAO, to have their plots formally ranked from Village level through to Premier and Grand Cru.
Burgundy is perhaps the most terroir-conscious of the French wine regions, and the practice of ranking vineyards by their terroir goes back to Medieval times and has long been reflected in the higher prices that wines from certain sites demand - vineyards like Chambertin, Musigny and Corton Charlemagne. It is no coincidence that the villages of the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune changed their names in 1847 to include their most revered terroirs. The village of Gevrey became Gevrey-CHAMBERTIN, Vosne became Vosne-ROMANEE, Chambolle became Chambolle-MUSIGNY and so on. (Interestingly, the denizens of Volnay, Meursault and Pommard were not permitted to append a vineyard name to their communities - King Louie Phillipe forbade it, siting the absence of Grand Cru vineyards within the villages’ boundaries).
However, there is an anomaly in this Grand Cru naming system - the village of Nuits and its its most highly regarded Premier Cru vineyard, Les-St-Georges.
This vineyard was considered a Grand Cru until the 1936 classification, but then economic and political factors changed everything.
In 1929, Burgundy had experienced a great economic depression that saw growers struggling to make ends meet for years to come. Thibault Liger Belair, whose domaine is located in Nuit-St-Georges, reports “Les-Saint-Georges could have been classified as Grand Cru, but its candidacy was not submitted because the then owners, ‘in a time of economic crisis’, wanted to avoid paying the higher taxes that Grand Cru vineyards were liable to. At the time, all wines were sold through negociants. They also pressured the growers of Nuits to keep the classification low in order to save money. ‘We’d like to use some of your wine in our blends, but we don’t want to pay you Grand Cru prices.’ They said. This was the reason they didn’t reclassify Les-Saint-Georges as Grand Cru at the 1936 classification”.
The fate of the vineyard was sealed. However, today a new generation of owners is advocating to restore the classification of Les-Saint-Georges to Grand Cru. It is a procedure that has precedence. Some vineyards have been successfully re-classified in recent years - Clos de Lambrays was upgraded from Premier Cru to Grand Cru in 1981, for example. It may be some time before the outcome of the application is known, but in the meantime wines from Les-St-Georges offer Grand Cru quality at Premier Cru prices.
Domaine Thibault Liger Belair holds the largest plot of Les-St-Georges, with 2.1Ha of vines that were planted in the 1940s. This site yields sublime, age-worthy wines.
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