There are four key differences between the production restrictions for Saint-Emilion wines, and those for Saint-Emilion Grand Cru wines. First, the vineyard yield is restricted to 8,000kg per hectare rather than 9,000 (which translates to 55 hL per hectare rather than 65). Second, the grapes (with the significant exception of Merlot) must be harvested with a must weight of at least 189 grams of sugar per liter rather than 180. Third, the finished wine must reach a minimum alcohol level of 11.5% ABV rather than 11%. Fourth, and finally the wine must be stored by the producer for an extra 14 months before being released for sale.
Since the introduction of the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru appellation in 1954, many have suggested that these conditions are too relaxed to warrant the term Grand Cru. The yield restriction is the same as that in force in Bordeaux’s other red-wine appellations (e.g. Pauillac and Graves), and the exception of Merlot from the second condition instantly excludes more than 65% of the total Saint-Emilion vineyard area. Further, the increase of the minimum alcohol level by 0.5% is effectively meaningless, as very few, if any, wines from Saint-Emilion are ever contain less than 12% alcohol. The only condition which escapes this criticism is the extended elevage – the period which the wine spends (in tank, barrel or bottle) before general release.