There are not many places in the world where you can truly bask in the history of wine and feel the romance surrounding everything to do with it that is so often missing in the modern world.
To truly understand where wine has come from – how it is grown, cultivated and harvested, how it is turned from grape into wine and how to appreciate it once poured from the bottle – it helps to immerse yourself in a place that is all-encompassing; a place that has been synonymous with wine and the production of some of the world’s best wines for hundreds of years; a place where the surroundings are built as a testament to wine but that also serve to enhance the value and significance of wine throughout its history, enhancing every sip you take as if it is all rolled up in the glass sitting before you on the table – a liquid history lesson.
They say that Guinness tastes better in Dublin; the same applies to red wine and St.Emilion.
St. Emilion, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is named after a monk, Emilion, who was originally from Brittany but chose to settle in the area in the 8th century. His reputation for being kind and of generous spirit spread far over the Dordogne Valley and many disciples came to what was then known as Ascumbas to be at his side and devote themselves to him. Emilion evangelised the local population and Ascumbas was also a natural way-point for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela, both of which helped turn it into a major monastic centre. Emilion died in 767 and the town of St. Emilion was named after him but is also believed to be built around the cave he used as a hermitage while practising his religious conviction.
Romans had already planted vines in the area since the 2nd century but it was the monks that followed Emilion who truly started the commercial production of wine. Situated on a rocky promontory, St. Emilion and its surrounding vineyards owe their originality to limestone. For 10 centuries blocks of limestone were extracted from the hill to build the town and surrounding chateaux and limestone rich soil is extremely well-suited to growing vines. The town is an open-air museum surrounded by vineyards as a result where the history of what makes St. Emilion special evident from every street, terrace and roof-top. The largest monolithic church in Europe can still be found here at the heart of the town and the medieval defensive walls are still intact for the most part, giving one the impression of going back in time.
St. Emilion has had close ties to England ever since 1199 when King John issued a Royal Charter giving the local merchants special economic, legal and political rights in exchange for first pick of the local wines. Named the Jurade de Saint Emilion, the movement was resurrected in 1948 – after being abolished during the French Revolution – and still continues to this day.
This vinous brotherhood are primarily responsible for spreading the word about the wines of St. Emilion worldwide but also do their utmost to guarantee the quality and authenticity of the wines produced in the appellation and sub-appelations. There are also two festivals per year in Spring and Autumn to celebrate re-growth and harvest respectively that the Jurade organise in which they parade through the town in their traditional crimson robes.
Gastronomically St. Emilion is famous for macaroons – the recipe for which goes back to 1620 when Ursuline sisters established their convent here. Many good restaurants exist too: offering gourmet cuisine and local delicacies from the surrounding area; there is something to suit just about everyone’s taste and budget.
It is for wine that St. Emilion is really famous, however, and it wouldn’t be the place it is without this. The designated vine-growing area covers 5,200 hectares and is spread over nine communes. In addition, four other communes are allowed to add the name to theirs: Lussac, Montagne, Puisseguin and St.Georges.
The types of wine produced vary widely thanks to the varying soils and micro-climates to be found in the area and there are also more than 900 individual producers of St. Emilion, many of which are small, family-run enterprises that have been going for generations. It is also home to Bordeaux’s most important co-operative with more than 200 members. It was originally omitted from the 1855 classification and classified in 1955 for the first time on the basis of soil analysis, reputation of the property and tasting. The list is reviewed every ten years (unlike the Medoc where it is set in stone encouraging complacency among some producers) and currently there are 13 Premiers Grands Crus Classes and 55 Grand Crus Classes. Two of the Premier Grands Crus are listed as A – Chateau Ausone and Cheval Blanc – with the rest listed as B. This can be confusing to wine buyers unfamiliar with the classification system but it has more to do with the geographical location of the respective chateaux than anything else and is not always a reliable indication of quality.
Unike the Medoc where Cabernet Sauvignon performs well and a lot of it is grown, the two grape varieties that suit this area best are temperatures are slightly lower than in the Medoc. Most chateaux blend the two varieties together in more or less equal proportions however some have a much higher percentage of Merlot (Le Tertre Roteboeuf) and others a higher percentage of Cabernet Franc (Cheval Blanc).
A true-to-type St.Emilion generally has a youthful appeal with far less austerity than found in its Medoc cousins. The characteristics of the two grape varieties shine through – the early-maturing Cabernet Franc and soft, plummy Merlot – producing wines that are supple and fruity, backed up by sufficient acidity, tannin and other aromatic components with a fair degree of alcohol. In poor vintages some wines can be light and thin and need to be drunk young but the best wines from the best vintages can last 10-20 years and even more and will soften and round-out nicely with age, producing a velvet and silk-like complexity. Chateaux that are on the west of St. Emilion and are bordering on Pomerol often show many similar characteristics to these wines due to the terroir which is typically more gravelly and generally a higher percentage of Merlot is used in the blend.
I have now been to St. Emilion twice and it really is one of the most beautiful, enchanting and fascinating places I have ever visited. Not only that but it is very approachable, friendly and unassuming, which is great if you want to throw yourself into tasting a lot of wines but are not that confident or sure about what you like. There must be dozens of Caves in St. Emilion where the proprietors are only too pleased to sing the virtues of the local wines and some of them even have sales of second wines, bin-ends and rare editions that go for much less than they would fetch in the UK – or the rest of France for that matter.
If you are like me, and not only enjoy your wine but also enjoy learning about where it comes from, how its made and the centuries of history and tradition that are behind whats in the glass, then your wine education will never be complete without a visit to this Holy Grail of the wine world.