The History of St Emilion

The first vineyards in Saint-Emilion…

Ancient Menhir in the form of a palm stretching to the sky not far from St Emilion
Ancient Menhir in the form of a palm stretching to the sky not far from St Emilion

The Roman Conquest of Aquitaine began in the year 56 BC. The Romans first focused on the towns and villages, before turning their attention to clearing the forest of Cumbis, the local name for what is now Saint-Emilion. The first wine-producing grape vines were then planted in these freshly-conquered soils, grafting Phocaean grape varieties with the “vitis biturica” vines that grew naturally in the region – the ancestor of Cabernet. The area was soon home to many Roman villas, such as the one owned by the poet Ausonius. Recent archaeological work in the area has identified the Palat site as the most likely location for the bard’s estate, and Ausonius’ reputation and renown are still very much alive in the region…

A region marked by the barbarian invasions and the rise of Christianity

In the early fifth century the celebrated Pax Romana began to falter in most parts of Gaul (the Roman name for France), and new conquerors like the Goths and the Alemanni followed the great river routes to settle in Aquitaine. Later, a new civilisation was born under the growing influence of Christianity. The spread of this new faith was the work of evangelist monks who founded a monastery in Lucaniac, near Saint-Emilion. This momentum was abruptly halted by the arrival of the Saracens in 732, who were subsequently defeated by Charles Martel.

The birth of a religious city

St. Emilion himself is not a mythical figure; his cult is well-established in Brittany and, of course, in Saint Emilion. The earliest surviving account of the life of this hermit saint, dating from the 12th century, tells of his plans to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. He apparently spent time in Saujon before settling in “Ascumbas”, the early medieval name for Saint-Emilion, where he carved a place of worship directly into the rocky hillside and established a small religious community. After his death on January 16th 787, his disciples expanded Emilion’s original rock-hewn sanctuary to create the monolithic church which is still in use today. And so the town of Saint-Emilion was born…

New rules for the town and its vineyards

In 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England, and so the region of Aquitaine passed under British rule. Saint-Emilion, by then an important centre of religious life, wished to acquire its own rights. These wishes would not be fulfilled until 1199 when John Lackland, son of Henry II, granted the city administrative, judicial and financial autonomy with the Falaise Charter. The rights established by the Charter allowed the vineyards to flourish under English rule. The creation of the Port of Libourne in 1269 opened up a new route for exporting wine. In 1289, Edouard 1st extended the powers of the Jurade of Saint-Emilion to the neighbouring parishes under its Jurisdiction.

The region during the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion

In the 14th and 15th centuries, power struggles between the French, the Anglo-Aquitaine faction and local lord had catastrophic consequences for the vineyards of Saint Emilion. The Battle of Castillon in 1453 marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War, but in the next century the Wars of Religion between the royal army and rebellious Protestants caused further destruction. The accession of Henry IV to the throne in 1589 brought an end to this dark period in Saint-Emilion’s history, finally allowing the town to concentrate fully on winemaking…

grandes murailles

The Revolution to the modern era

Before the Revolution, the vineyards of Saint-Emilion were significantly influenced by the town’s unique land ownership and socio-economic structures. Unlike other Bordeaux wine regions, the Libourne region was characterised by small land holdings and estates, bucking the trend towards monocultures and the emergence of large estates. This largely explains the great fragmentation of vineyards which largely persists to this day.

From the 17th century onwards more and more vines were planted, with increasing trade links with the rest of Guyenne as well as England and Holland. High demand from the English and Dutch markets led to great expansion of Saint-Emilion’s vineyards, with the planted surface area almost doubling by the mid-18th century.

The heavy frosts of 1740 accelerated this trend. The imbalance between the small harvests that followed and the expanding market had a significant impact on price levels and the rate of planting. The Belleyme maps of this period, first produced around 1762, show that most of the region’s plateaux, hillsides and foothills were already completely planted with vines.

Winemaking estates in the 18th century

The 18th century saw the emergence of several renowned winegrowers who played a pioneering role: Combret de la Nauze, Jacques Kanon, François Boyer, Jean de Seze, the Carles and Canolle families and many others. On their estates they applied new methods and new principles, and also carried out major, and very necessary, drainage works. Naturally-growing vines were dug out in favour of more popular varieties such as Cabernet, Bouchet and Black Pressac. Tending their vines with care, paying meticulous attention to the harvest and vinification processes, the choice of casks and other such details, these forward-thinking winemakers created the concept of the winemaking estate as we understand it today, producing wines with their own unique identities. And so, in the late 18th century, the first generation of true “Châteaux” emerged. Large manor houses, boasting gardens and courtyards, were built. These “Châteaux” housed large fermenting rooms, wine cellars, outbuildings and sheds and opened out onto wide avenues leading to individual plots of vines bordered by low stone walls.

jurade st emilion

The arrival of the Revolution, (in which Saint-Emilion played a significant role with Marguerite-Elie Guadet and her fellow Girondins), did little to change the practical workings of the Jurisdiction, but did see the dissolution of the original Jurade. Saint-Emilion’s wine trade did not suffer greatly during the Napoleonic Wars, but was afflicted later in the century first by a powdery mildew outbreak and later by the phylloxera blight. In 1884, Saint-Emilion saw the creation of France’s first Winemakers’ Association. This association would act as the guardian of the exceptionally high standards which have prevailed in the vineyards ever since.

A pioneering vineyard pushing for ever greater quality

In Saint-Emilion there has always been a very strong desire to guarantee the origin, authenticity and quality of our wines. Until the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, this role had been assigned to the Jurade. A century later, the passing of the Act of 21st March 1884, (which allowed the agricultural world to create their own professional trade unions), gave Saint-Emilion winegrowers new ways in which to promote and protect their wines.

Saint-Emilion created France’s first viticultural trade union in 1884. The idea of the union was to encourage solidarity between winemakers in terms of technical guidance, promotion, image and quality control of the region’s wines. This same spirit saw the creation of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (AOC). A decree in 1936 defined the sphere of production for AOC Saint-Emilion, establishing criteria for yield, planting density, alcohol content etc… The year 1954 saw the creation of a new classification system ranking the region’s wines; Saint-Emilion, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé and Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. These classifications were split into two separate AOC certifications in 1984 – AOC Saint-Emilion and Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. The first classification of Saint Emilion wines was carried out in 1955 and revised in 1969, 1986, 1996, 2006 and 2012. In 2009, the vineyards of Saint-Emilion were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


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