Visiting the wine region of Bordeaux? St Emilion is a must

St Emilion is my very favorite place to visit. It is the only one of Bordeaux’s wine regions to have a worthy heart and is well worth dedicating a day to visit its wine region.

Its not just its wonderful cloisters, its cobbled streets that wind and turn revealing beautiful old buildings, its old falling down monuments as much above as underground in cool limestone tunnels, its views over terracotta rooftops and seas of striped vines, its hidden corners of rows of vines basking in  the sunlight………… is the special feeling this medieval town gives off through every pore of its being. Its history is mixed; a good dose of religion, stone quarrying and of course vine-growing which creates the interesting blend that is St Emilion today.

photo (17)

st emilion streetSaint-Emilion-20120924-02139May June 2013 151Villemaurine_cave_souterraine_17

History: St Emilion is spiritual. It is a sanctuary. And that is exactly what it was to the Benedictine monk, Emilian who came to this limestone plateau to escape from his notoriety in the 8th century. He performed some miracles in Brittany (turning logs into bread, the usual miracle sort of thing) and wanted to escape his renown, find a retreat and get back to basics. He found sanctuary in a cave near a spring on this limestone plateau (which you can visit in an underground tour organised by the Tourist Information every day in English at 2pm cost 7€). Over the years he was joined by other monks who started to dig out a Church from a single piece of limestone. It took close to 300 years to complete and represents today Europe’s largest monolithic churches. The town, known as St Emilion, attracted many different religious orders and over time many monuments were built.

The limestone plateau on which the town was located was excavated for its stone which built all of the region’s stone buildings. Today it leaves 200km of tunnels under the town.

Secret St Emilion, not to be missed;

  • the caves at Château de Ferrande up high at St Etienne de Lisse that are open to the public
  • the remains of the Cloisters de Cordeliers built by the Franciscian monks, to enjoy a glass of bubbly with the town’s famous almond macaron biscuits lieing on the grass
  • the beautiful cloisters behind the tourist office that link with the Collegiate Church that date from 12th century (home to Augustinian canons)
  • the orange and turquoise paintings on the walls in the Collegiate Church
  • walking near the La Tour du Roi (worth climbing for a superb view) and seeing a stunning view of the other side of St Emilion
  • tracing the remparts of the town behind Villemarine for an off the beaten track view of St Emilion, returning through the Brunet gate part of the town’s original remparts
  • visiting Clos Fourtet, opposite the Collegial Church, the highest point on the plateau, a religious experience
  • rambling in a little street that runs behind Château Ausone
  • market time on a Sunday morning in the little open but covered market hall next to the Market Square

The origins of Vine-growing in St Emilion: Vines were first recorded to have been grown in St Emilion in the 1st century documented by the Roman poet Ausonisus (after which the Château Ausone is named being on the grounds of his Roman villa.

Which properties to visit: Once you get to St Emilion (about 40 minutes from Bordeaux centre by car) the vineyards lie around this medieval town which lies at its epicentre. As appellations go in Bordeaux, St Emilion is large, 5400 hectares worth.

As you have probably already remarked when you order a bottle of St Emilion, what you get is very varied. Part of the reason is that there are very different styles of St Emilion, this comes down to its different soils. There are at least six soil types that range from deep sands to gravel and of course the limestone plateau.It is interesting to visit properties located in these different soils. As you get towards the gravel on the borders of Pomerol, you wonder which appellation you are in! Merlot is the queen grape here but some Cabernet Franc creeps in in the finest properties (see below).

It is interesting too to visit smaller properties, not just the classified growths. There are around 1000 châteaux in St Emilion and only 90 or so of them are ‘classified’.


St Emilion Classification:

St Emilion classified its châteaux in 1955 exactly 100 years after the famous classification of the Medoc. It is the only one that is renewed evey 10 years and makes the local lawyers rich with the number of court cases that result from it (the newest judgement since its publication in October 2012 has caused much controversy seemingly being based purely on price rathr than terroir see my blog article . It is broadly speaking a two tier classification with Premier Grand Cru Classé (split into As and Bs) at the top and the Grand Cru Classé (St Emilion Grand Cru is not a classification as such as anyone can add this to their labels, but the wines are generally tasted at bottling to check their superiority).

The two original ‘A team’ represent the diverse range of St Emilion wines.

Château Cheval Blanc: near to Pomerol its gravely soils enable a high degree of Cabernet to be grown, unusual for a St Emilion. 58% Cabernet Franc, 42% Merlot.Total Number Hectares: 37. Bought in 1998 by Bernard Arnault France’s richest man – worth 150 million €.

(Château Figeac its neighbour has even more gravel, its 40 hectares is divided into 35% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot).

Château Ausone: 7 hectares. 55% Cabernet Frace, 45% Merlot.


As it stands today! New additions in bold. For a personal view see

Premiers Grands Crus Classés x 18  (4 x A and 12 x B) increase of 2 A and 4 B

Château Angélus (A), Château Ausone (A) Château Beauséjour (héritiers Duffau-Lagarrosse,) Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Château Bélair-Monange, Château Canon, Château Canon la Gaffelière, Château Cheval Blanc (A), Château Figeac, Clos Fourtet, Château la Gaffelière, Château Larcis Ducasse, La Mondotte, Château Pavie (A), Château Pavie Macquin, Château Troplong Mondot, Château Trottevieille, Château Valandraud

Grands Crus Classés x 68 (increase of 16)

Château l’Arrosée, Château Balestard la Tonnelle, Château Barde-Haut, Château Bellefont-Belcier, Château Bellevue, Château Berliquet, Château Cadet-Bon, Château Capdemourlin, Château le Chatelet, Château Chauvin, Château Clos de Sarpe, Château la Clotte, Château la Commanderie, Château Corbin, Château Côte de Baleau, Château la Couspaude, Château Dassault, Château Destieux, Château la Dominique, Château Faugères, Château Faurie de Souchard, Château de Ferrande,  Château Fleur Cardinale Château La Fleur Morange, Château Fombrauge, Château Fonplégade, Château Fonroque, Château Franc Mayne ,Château Grand Corbin, Château Grand Corbin-Despagne, Château Grand Mayne, Château les Grandes Murailles, Château Grand-Pontet, Château Guadet Château Haut-Sarpe, Clos des Jacobins, Couvent des Jacobins ,Château Jean Faure, Château Laniote, Château Larmande, Château Laroque, Château Laroze, Clos la Madeleine,  Château la Marzelle, Château Monbousquet, Château Moulin du Cadet, Clos de l’Oratoire, Château Pavie Decesse, Château Peby Faugères, Château Petit Faurie de Soutard, Château de Pressac, Château le Prieuré, Château Quinault l’Enclos, Château Ripeau, Château Rochebelle, Château Saint-Georges-Cote-Pavie, Clos Saint-Martin, Château Sansonnet Château la Serre, Château Soutard, Château Tertre Daugay (Quintus), Château la Tour Figeac, Château Villemaurine, Château Yon-Figeac

Sept 2012 pre-harvest 117

The neighbouring appellation of Pomerol is also  well worth visiting. Its soils are quite different with thick clay often with iron deposits. It is one of the smallest appellations in Bordeaux (800 ha and 140 producers, average size of vineyards is very small). It is home to some of the world’s most expensive wines most of them coming from its plateau. It lies on the pilgrim route and is the home to an ancient hospice (site of the Château du Gazin).

Château Petrus: 11.5 ha with predominance of Merlot 95% and 5% Cabernet Franc

Château Le Pin; 2 hectares, the right bank’s most expensive wine 100% Merlot! 2009 is 4000€!!


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