An annually updated overview and evaluation of as many relevant wines of a country as possible: That is the promise of a classic national wine guide. A remarkable number of them have survived the challenges of the digital age and the pandemic. Currently, perhaps the most prominent loss: the “WeinGuide Deutschland” of the Gault Millau. In France, the “Bettane + Desseauve” has been hit hard in the meantime, the 2023 edition has just been published. How does it perform against the leading player from the Revue du Vin de France?
A look back: on the history of wine guides
Contemporary Wine guides are children of the eighties and nineties. Apart from the historical forerunner, the “Catalogo Bolaffi dei vini d’Italia”, which pioneer Luigi Veronelli created 1969 for the Turin auction house Bolaffi. At that time still without quality ratings, rather with stars for “Prestigio” and “Popolarità”. In 1980, Patrick Dussert-Gerber started in France with a focus on the price-performance ratio, and in 1984, the first book edition “Vins de France” of the Gault Millau was published (also without ratings). This, however – after the 1986 to 1991 vintages were only presented in special issues in Gault Millau magazine – was not continued again as a yearbook until 1992 (until it was discontinued in 2011). In 1985, the “Guide Hachette” followed for the first time. In 1987, the first “Gambero Rosso” and Veronelli’s “Le Cantine” appeared in Italy. Germany, finally, followed by Gault Millau’s “WeinGuide Deutschland” in 1994.
France has been a particular focus of wine criticism. Not only because of its remarkable wine culture, but also because of the position of its top wines for collectors and investors. Traditionally, Anglo-Saxon writers on fine wine, especially Bordeaux, had enjoyed a greater reputation than their French counterparts since the end of the 19th century. Accordingly, British wine literature also flourished – but not in the form of up-to-date wine guides. The U.S. American Robert Parker stepped into this gap in the mid-1980s. In addition to the ratings in his magazine Wine Advocate, he published the guide “Bordeaux” starting in 1985. “Rhone and Provence” followed in 1987, and “Burgundy” in 1990. Finally, in 1994, he took a look at all of France, in French. With the 100-point system, he revolutionized wine criticism.
A response to Robert Parker
France’s most influential wine publication, La Revue du Vin de France, has been around since 1927. It was probably this apparent loss of relevance that in 1995 it inspired the publishers to publish its own annual wine guide for France: “Vins et domaines. Le classement de 1996”. Longtime publisher and editor-in-chief Thierry Desseauve and his colleague Michel Bettane were responsible for it. This was a coup in three respects. Firstly, Bettane was also internationally considered to be the most important French wine critic. Secondly, the selection was quite radical and self-confident. With an estate grading between zero and three stars, Château Mouton-Rothschild or Pétrus, for example, were rated with two stars, Le Pin even with only one star.
In 1996, Bettane + Desseauve reached a level of wine criticism never again achieved in the journalistic evaluation of wineries.
Visionary, but never taken up again by any guide, was finally the extremely complex judgment. Thus, there were – in addition to that of the estate (0 to 3 stars) and concrete bottlings (1 to 5 glasses) – ratings on a scale of 1 to 3 with regard to the respective goodness of the terroir (T), the regularity of quality (R) and longevity (V), as well as with regard to the stylistics of a winery. Once in terms of finesse (F) and secondly in terms of power (P for “puissance”). In respect of differentiation, this was a level of journalistic wine criticism never achieved again. And of course a targeted blow in the direction of simplification, whether from the USA or elsewhere.
The schism of French wine criticism
In 2004, however, there was the great schism in French wine journalism. After Marie-Claire and the Lagardère media group (which also owns market leader Cuisine et Vins de France) bought Revue du Vin de France, Bettane and Desseauve dropped out. Three years later, they published “Le Grand Guide des Vins de France 2008” with the Swiss publisher Minerva. With “nouvelle formule,” as they say in France, that is, newly conceptualized. But, unfortunately, according to the standard scheme of all other wine guides. This meant estate classification, brief presentation and point rating of the individual wines (now according to the 20-point system). Nevertheless, “Bettane & Desseauve” was considered by many to be the leading French wine guide, despite several changes of publisher and format in the years that followed.
Corona, however, hit the editors with all its might. In 2020, the guide for 2021 appeared only as a special issue of the newly founded magazine “En Magnum”: an obvious fix. Then “Les meilleurs Vins. Le Nouveau Bettane & Desseauve 2022” was launched. In large format and again completely redesigned. If you want to look at it positively, the guide now appeared more “magazine-like”. If you look at it negatively: simply unfinished. On Champagne, for example, a long interview was followed by a list of the best vintageless Bruts. Then came a list of scores on various vintages, a portrait of Vitalie Taittinger, some price-performance champions, and finally a summary list of the most important estates, complete with ratings, but without any concrete consideration of production. In any case, the book could not fulfill the central promise of an annual guide. To present and evaluate all relevant wines of all regions.
The wine guides compared
No wonder that many turned back to the competitor: the “Guide des meilleurs vins de France” of the Revue du Vin de France (hereinafter RVF). In the meantime, it had risen to become the number one French wine guide and was convincing year after year with consistent, plausible results. When this fall, after the RVF 2023, also the “Bettane + Desseauve” (= B+D) appeared again in the core in the classic structure, an ideal moment had come to compare both guides with each other. Thus, since 2021, both guides work with the 100-point scheme. And since RVF introduced a new 4-star category this year, both publications now have a five-level estate rating: 0 to 4 stars for RVF and 1 to 5 stars for B+D. Both guides claim to profile about 1,200 estates.
Apart from that, interviews and portraits still take up a lot of space at B+D. Accordingly, the guide is colorful and features many illustrations. This is at the expense of the estate portraits and the sheer volume of wines presented in the book. In fact, B+D refers to its app “Le Grand Tasting.” Here, further ratings (points as well as concrete tasting notes), contact details as well as the archive of the wine guide can be found. This possibility is missing RVF. In it, the tasting notes for the respective year are incorporated into the second part of an estate portrait. The amount of information is difficult to compare despite strong differences in volume (RVF: 800 pages; B+D 360 pages) because of the considerably different format. B+D is significantly cheaper at €19.90 compared to €29.95 for RVF.
Two ideas about excellence
Let’s get to the core, namely the respective different estimation of excellence in French viticulture. Both guides portray all French regions. However, it is noticeable that B+D focuses more on some large regions. For example, B+D presents only 9 wineries from the small Savoy region, while RVF presents 27 in the main section. On the other hand, RVF mentions 80 and B+D 118 addresses from the large Champagne appellation.
The decisive difference between the two guides is the distribution of the wineries in quality classes. RVF has been very restrictive with its new category of 4 stars and has awarded them to just 22 wineries. In concrete terms, this means that no winery from the south is counted here among the French top. No winery from the Loire and also not from Chablis (so for example neither Château Rayas, nor Clos Rougeard or Raveneau). Conversely, B+D counts 88 wineries in the highest category, four times the amount of the competitor!
Looking at the regions, this result becomes more vivid. Both guides weight the Côte d’Or somewhat equally, with just over 60 wineries each in both the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune. The difference in weighting is clear. RVF sees 4 wineries of the highest class and 9 wineries of the second class in the north, while B+D sees 8 and 22, respectively. In the south, the numbers are 1 and 9 (RVF) versus 4 and 19 (B+D), respectively. It is noticeable that at B+D, the classic négociants such as Bichot, Bouchard, Chanson, Jadot, Latour and Drouhin are all in the second class (4 stars). In RVF, only one of them (Drouhin) is in the third class. The others (Chanson, Jadot, Bichot) are listed even lower (Bouchard and Latour are not included).
In Champagne, the differences are perhaps most evident. A statistical distribution of the Champagne houses, cooperatives, and winemakers among the different quality classes of the respective guides makes the different evaluation policy clear, as it were: With RVF, the sharp pyramid-shaped selection, which is trained on comparable classification institutions such as the Guide Michelin and relies on classic hierarchy. At B+D, a much broader selection at the top. Here, too, it is noticeable that B+D ranks large houses highly. Let’s look at the five main brands of the three largest producers: Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot (MHCS Moët Hennessy), Pommery and Vranken (Vranken-Pommery Monopole), and Nicolas Feuillatte (Centre Vinicole Champagne). B+D ranks these in classes 4|5|3|2|3, the RVF only in 1|2|0|0|0. (In the order of the producers named; where 5 corresponds to the highest class, 0 = no inclusion in the guide).
Orientation towards the reader or the producer?
As a result, it can be stated that RVF and B+D differ greatly in their understanding of the supreme excellence. Both guides are of the opinion that the number of the best French wine producers is around 1,200. However, they have different opinions about their top. At the same time, there is a certain consistency in RVF. In the 1999 guide, 27 producers formed the absolute top, now there are 22. Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve now land at 88. These are the same authors who were responsible for the RVF guide of 1996 and in 2004 had justified their departure from the Revue du Vin de France with the fact that they feared a too strong popularization (see here). This dramatic expansion can also be observed in many guides from other countries. In many cases, it corresponds to an inflation in the scores of individual wines.
Authors and editors justify this with the better qualification of winemakers and advances in viticulture and cellar technology. It is obvious that this practice also serves the market positioning in times of a dramatic situation on the book market. More prime ratings, more up-and-comers, more top scorings promise higher media attention. There is also no denying that the claim of an ever-increasing expansion of the top quality ratings is primarily producer-friendly. A restrained rating policy, on the other hand, has the interests of consumers more in mind. The fact that RVF is more committed to the latter and B+D to the former policy is also supported by the finding that in B+D, producers with large market shares tend to receive more positive ratings than in RVF. Everyone may decide for themselves about the preference of one way or the other.
The author Stefan Pegatzky has repeatedly dealt with the subject of wine criticism and ratings (unfortunately so far only in German). First published in four episodes “Wine and Criticism” in FINE – Das Weinmagazin between 2/2014 and 1/2015. In 2021, the article “The history of wine evaluation – and a new charter for scoring in FINE” appeared in the January issue of FINE, as well as the article “Wine & Criticism: Bottled Poetry and many points” in: Frenzels Weinschule 3. Wiesbaden: Tre Torri 2021, pp. 13-35. In addition, Stefan Pegatzky deals with this topic, among others, in the podcast “Doppelkopf” of HR2.
© of the images: Book cover as well as app “Grand Tasting”: Public Domain; excerpt “Pétrus” in “Le Classement 1999”: Archive Stefan Pegatzky; photos Lafleur, Drouhin and Krug as well as graphic “Classification Classes”: Stefan Pegatzky/Time Tunnel Images