Discovering the Real St Emilion – the Secret ‘in-side’ of a wine village
By Nicolle Croft (first published in the Gilbert & Gaillard International Magazine)
St Emilion is probably one of the most well-known wines in the world. Registered by UNESCO since 1999 as one of the World’s heritage sites, the medieval village which lies at the heart of this wine region, is one of France’s most popular destinations with over one million tourists each year.
Yet there are many things that people do not know about St Emilion that take place behind the scenes. Here is an insider’s view of this famous wine region that is so intertwined with its ancient history.
St Emilion in the Headlines
Being so well-known St Emilion often features in articles on wine, food and ‘people’. It is home to one of the oldest Wine Societies in the world established in 1199, the ‘Jurade of St Emilion’ who each year ‘intronise’ famous international personalities, musicians, sportsmen and women, chefs, actors and actresses. Twice a year in the spring and at harvest time there is a procession through the cobbled streets by the crimson-robed ‘jurade’ and a proclamation from the heights of the ‘Tour du Roy’. There are 3000 famous members around the world.
As well as welcoming a large number of tourists who stay in its luxury hotels, bed and breakfasts and who dine in its many restaurants, this attractive wine destination attracts investors from around the world to buy wine properties, proud to be part of its age old tradition.
St Emilion was home until recently to France’s most mediatized chef, Philippe Etchebest, head chef at the most luxurious hotel that lies in the heart of the medieval village, the ‘Hostellerie de Plaisance’.
St Emilion has seen recently seen a new development on its vineyard landscape. The world’s most sought after architects have been commissioned to design ‘extraordinary’ wineries that cannot be missed; Mario Botta at millionaire’s Silvio Denz’ Château Faugères, Christian de Portzamparc at Château Cheval Blanc, owned by Baron Albert Frère and Bernard Arnault (LVMH), Jean Nouvel at Château La Dominique.
It is the only one of Bordeaux’s wine regions to ‘redo’ its classifications every ten years which causes much contention and creates a media buzz in the region and beyond.
St Emilion is also home to the ‘Garage movement’ a much-publicized fashion of making wine on a very small scale that seems to have seen its day.
It seems that it is always the same ‘charismatic’ producers in St Emilion who have the limelight shining on them and those that succeed increasingly are those who are adept at the marketing rather than the vinous game.
Authentic Family Wine Producers
Behind its glamorous façade there a large number of ‘authentic’ wine producers that make up the fabric of this special wine region whose families over generations have made wine here.
Here is a small selection of representative family producers, who are not so much in the spotlight, how they try to work with incorporating tradition and family heritage and how they are adapting it to be successful in the modern era.
Château Laniote, Grand Cru Classé St Emilion
Every wine property in St Emilion is intertwined with the history of this famous village, never more so than at five hectare Château Laniote, run by Arnaud and Florence de la Filofolie. It has been in the same family for almost two centuries passing from generation to generation via the female line of the family. The next (there are four of them), already in the wings, will represent the eighth. But there is a closer, more local link to the medieval village which lies a stone’s throw from their property that ties them to their heritage.
“Since 1844 we have been owners of three historical monuments in the center of the city of Saint-Emilion: the Hermitage which dates from the 8th century, the original cave dug by the saint himself, the Trinity Church from the 13th century (as seen on their label) and the Catacombs, from the 5th to the 6th century in the depths of the Monolithic Church.” After the Revolution it was quite common for historical monuments to pass into private hands in France.
The tiny property of 5 hectares is typical of the area, and lies to the west of the village on the slope running off the limestone plateau, the ‘pied de côtes’ of clay and limestone. The vineyards are planted with 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Despite being so entrenched in history, does not mean that they forget modern technology. Florence de la Filofolie, a trained oenologist herself, explains, “We have to increase the quality every year, according to the vintage, and do so with the benefit of our experience and of the progress of technology and research.
We can control everything from the vineyard from the bottling, the selling, the promotion and the running of the property. We work for our family and have family relations with the people working for us, the suppliers, the customers…Our aim is to transmit and develop what we have received from our parents to our children.”
Another relatively new development is the importance of wine tourism to the business. Their property is open every day and the visits are done by the owners themselves. “The visitors become ambassadors and do the promotion of our wine when they get back in their country.”
Château Figeac, Premier Grand Cru Classé St Emilion B
Château Figeac is a St Emilion institution; it began with the Roman Figeacus family in the Second century, developed significantly since 1892 by a long line of the same family – the Manoncourts, exceptionally driven by a passionate man and is a good example of a St Emilion property where family and a considerably-sized business work hand in hand.
Yet Château Figeac in St Emilion is unique in many ways. It is one of the largest properties with 47 hectares of vines and seven hectares of parkland. It is the only property in St Emilion with deep gravels that go down over 7 metres below the surface. This means that its mix of grape varieties is more ‘Médocain’ than ‘Libournais’ being a third of each of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the first in the area to start harvesting and the last to finish.
Marie-France Manoncourt today runs the estate with two key dynamic ‘external’ people; Jean-Valmy Nicolas as non-executive Director and Frédéric Faye as Managing Director of the Estate. Her four daughters are involved in the decision-making and it is her fourth daughter Hortense that is the President. They have brought in Michel Rolland an old friend of the family’s as an oenologist consultant, “he understands Figeac.” Rather tellingly Jean Albino, the cellar master since 1982, stays the same.
“I am very proud of my address, where the soil carries the trace of history.” Many of her neighbours have gone, sold up to banks and insurance companies. Not Figeac, largely due to the pioneer work of her husband which was continued by her son-in-law Eric d’Aramon from 2007 to 2012.
It was her scientist husband Thierry Manoncourt, a trained agronomic engineer, that pushed Figeac to its heights as one of the top Premier Grand Cru Classé. Its ‘terroir’ is indisputably some of the best in St Emilion. In fact in 1832 it sold fifteen hectares to their neighbours which became Château Cheval Blanc, Premier Grand Cru Classé A in 1954. Being a scientist he brought a rigor and discipline to wine production; he was one of the first to develop a second wine in 1945, to trial techniques such as temperature control, the use of stainless steel vats, ageing in 100% new oak, biodiversity (there are several kilometres of hedges and a large park at the estate), inducing malolatic fermentation after harvest, identifying the correct soil for the different grape varieties and realizing the importance of travelling the world to promote his wine and to receive visitors to the château at home.
So with this pedigree heritage, why was Château Figeac forgotten in the recent classification, remaining a Premier Grand Cru Classé B and not promoted to an A?
As one of the daughters, Blondine de Brier Manoncourt says “It was important for us to re-evaluate and introducing Jean-Valmy Nicolas and Frédéric Faye, who have always been close to Figeac, means that this is now an ongoing process.”
The efforts to make an outstanding wine were made over the years. The story is there, authentic and real. “The only problem is that we forgot to say it”, Marie-France Manoncourt explains ‘It is not in our temperament.” Some people say we fell asleep a little but things are now in place to put Figeac back at the top, to take its worthy place.”
The team balance has been slightly adjusted, the importance of communicating what they do taken on (with a fulltime marketing and communications person an important part of the new team).
Some things will never change such as the fact that the family children (there are fourteen grandchildren) spend their summer holidays at Figeac each year; the mornings helping to pack bottles in wooden cases and their afternoons in ‘nature’s paradise’ of lakes and forest, a hidden Figeac that lays hidden behind the hedge along the entrance.
Other projects are in the process of developing, “We are now going in the right direction”, says Marie-France Manoncourt. Lets hope it ends at the beginning of the Alphabet.
Château Béard La Chapelle, St Emilion Grand Cru
You will certainly not have heard of Château Béard La Chapelle, a Grand Cru St Emilion despite the fact that it has been in the same family for nine generations passing from father to son over the years and that is located just outside of the world renowned medieval village of St Emilion. Many small châteaux such as Béard La Chapelle have been in the past cocooned, selling soley via Bordeaux’s wine merchants, the “négociants”, which isolated them from the market.
Things are changing in the wine estates across the whole of Bordeaux, no more so than in St Emilion, who have woken up to the reality of today’s competitive world wine markets. A new generation is taking over who are improving their wine and radically changing the way their family wine is sold. Today they have no choice but to try to sell, at least a part of their production, ‘direct’. For some properties it is too late. Securing foreign markets is long term, takes time and requires new skills to vine growing and winemaking; an ease with languages, communication face-to-face and on the net, commercial and marketing expertise.
Thirty-six year old Franck Moureau is the winemaker and runs Château Béard la Chapelle, an 18 hectare property in the small village of St Laurent des Combes just outside of St Emilion. Neighbours include well-known names such as Château Bellefont Belcier, Larcisse Ducasse, Tertre Roteboeuf. Yet at his winery there is not even a sign on the door. Franck took over from his father several years ago. The aim was to make a wine worthy of its prestigious “terroir”. He started a programme of replanting with soil analysis to confirm grape variety and rootstock choice. “It is a slow process” he says, “you have to be patient before seeing the results. I started with working on the soil which I believe is the most important. We stopped using herbicides and use cultivation to control weed growth. We cultivate with hoes and harrows to force the roots to descend deep. I work on finding a balance between the vine and the soil which permits most of the time to control the vigor of the vine to obtain a qualitative yield.”
His 18 hectare property is made up of 30 different ‘terroir’ which are treated individually; clay limestone on the slopes and ‘pied de côtes’, deep sands and ‘crasse de fer’ iron deposits. “I spend a lot of time through the year walking in the different vineyard plots.” His day is divided between the vineyards, the winery and running the business which produces on average 100,000 bottles per year to sell.
He is aided by his sister Laurence, also in her late thirties. She started with reworking the basics; a website, brochures and revamped the packaging with a new smart label and capsule. Her main remit however is to develop the customer base. With little collateral and an empty contact file, the challenge has been a big one for both brother and sister. Franck also helps with the enormous task of selling travelling in Europe and abroad. You can now find their wine in Michelin star restaurants in Paris and it is sold direct as far afield as Mexico, Brazil and China. They remain optimistic. It is the start of a new era at the property. You can spot him at the airport he is the one with the soil on his shoes.
- Visiting the ‘Real’ St Emilion region
Not to be missed in St Emilion:
Visit the hidden underground monuments of St Emilion including the underground Monolithic Church, the largest in Europe
Munch the famous almond macaroons of St Emilion still baked in the old town to a recipe which dates back to 1620 when the Ursaline Sisters established their convent there
Visit Château Beasejour Bécot whose underground tunnels stock over 80,000 bottles under the vineyards
Sample the sparkling wine that is aged in the old quarries in St Emilion at the Cloisters of the Cordeliers (possible to picnic here too)
Visits to the area around St Emilion by Le Petit Train and open-top bus
Not to be missed in the Area:
At St Sulpice de Faleyrans the 5 metre high druid Menhir
Visit the 14th century historical Château de Pressac high up on a hill overlooking the Dordogne Valley at St Etienne de Lisse (Croix du Touran picnic area)
Go down into the Caves and Grotte on the Ferrand Plateau and visit Chateau Ferrande at St Hippolyte
Cycle around the cycle routes in the area’s undulating hills
Visit a vibrant local market in the medieval market town of Libourne (Tuesday, Friday, Sunday)
Learn to cook the regional specialities at Château Ambe Tour Pourret
For more information and to book directly guided tours and over 100 châteaux visits
Mobile application : St-emilion.mobi
Dates for your Diary
15 June: La Jurade’s Spring Festival including procession and intronisations
17 to 20 July: St Emilion Jazz Festival
29 July: Farmers’ Market
5, 12 and 19 August: Farmers’ Market
20 September : Heritage Evening
21 septembre : Harvest Festival by La Jurade including procession and intronisations
27 and 28 September : Art Exhibition “Artisans d’art”
11 and 12 October : Farmers’ Market
17 to 19 October : Hot Air Balloon Display “Montgolfiades” de Saint-Emilion
Septembre and October : UNESCO Exhibition – Bordeaux/Blaye/Saint-Emilion
In the Village of St Emilion :
L’envers du Decors
Les Delices du Roy
Overlooking the Vineyards of St Emilion :
Atelier de Candale
Les Belles Perdrix at Château Troplong Mondot
BÊTALes delices du Roy a été ajouté à vos Favoris
In the Village of St Emilion :
Logis de Remparts
Auberge de la Commanderie
Les Logis du Roy
In the Vineyards around St Emilon:
Chambre d’hôtes of Château Troplong Mondot
La Petite Madeleine
Le Moulin de la Grangère
Slightly further away ;
Cabanes de la Romaningue Tree Huts
Chambre d’hôtes of Château Le Sèpe
St Emilion Basics
St Emilion is a wine region 45 minutes drive to the east of the city of Bordeaux. It has around 5400 hectares located around eight communes all named after ancient Saints such as St Etienne, St Hippolyte, St Laurent des Combes. It is known as ‘the hills of 1000 châteaux’ but there are nearer to 800 different properties. It produces about 250,000 hectolitres which represents 5% of the red wine produced in Bordeaux. Its key export markets are Belgium, UK and China. Its ‘satellites’ lie to its north and northeast and produce a lighter style of wine; Lussac-Saint-Emilion, Montagne-Saint-Emilion, Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion and Saint Georges-Saint-Emilion.
St Emilion’s Varied Terroirs
Due to its predominantly clay soils, St Emilion is mainly planted with the early-fruiting Merlot which thrive in the colder stones of clay and limestone which slows down it down, lengthening its growing season. The vineyards are planted with 65% Merlot, the rest with Cabernet Franc (known locally as Bouchet), with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec (known locally as Black Pressac).It is known for its varied soils which give many different styles of wines.
There is no typical ‘terroir’ of St Emilion, in fact there are four main soil types;
- Asteriated limestone plateau of the village of St Emilion Most properties that have this ‘terroir’ are classified.
- Brown sandy soil on a bed of clay at the foot of the slopes
- Sand and gravel soil found on the border of Pomerol and enable Cabernet Franc to be grown and some Cabernet Sauvignon
- Limestone-clay soil called Fronsac molasses which is found on the slopes
The St Emilion Classification
There are two appellations in St Emilion; generic AOC St Emilion or Grand Cru St Emilion. Two thirds of St Emilion’s properties are Grand Cru and above.
There is the option for superior St Emilions to put Grand Cru on the label. This involves stricter rules of production with new measures being introduced in 2015 with a new Grand Cru Guarantee stamp.
It is this Grand Cru appellation that has been classified since 1954 and every ten years. It is two tier and listed alphabetically into Premier Grand Cru Classé (A originally 2, today 4 and B originally 13 today 14) and Grand Cru Classé (originally 57, today 68).
It is the only classification which is updated every ten years (1954, 1969, 1986, 1996, 2006). There was much controversy in 2006 when the classification was judged invalid following a series of legal battles and it returned to the 1996 classification. In 2012 there was an attempt to update it, which is itself currently in the courts.
It now attributes ‘points’ not only based on the tasting of a property’s last ten vintages but also its more ‘external’ features of reception area, car park and winetasting facilities. There is criticism that this penalizes those that ‘just make their money from wine and that St Emilion is no longer a ‘level playing field’.
In addition to the substantial increase in volumes of classified growths which is swamping the market (said to be a 30% increase), the new classification has been criticized for allowinginferior ‘terroir’ to be merged with better graded properties and be automatically upgraded.
The History of St Emilion
St Emilion is one of Bordeaux’s oldest wine regions and can be traced back to pre-Roman times.
Its oldest landmark, the Menhir of Pierrefitte, is said to date back several thousands of years is found near to the village of St Emilion at St Sulpice de Faleyrans, off the usual tourist route.
The first grapes were planted by a Celtic tribe on the riverside around what is now Bordeaux, to its South and to its East. It was called the “vitis biturica” and said to be the ancestor of the Cabernet. The Romans took these vines and crossed them with their own vines from Phoenicia. They built a number of villas in the area and recognized the potential of the limestone plateau for vine-growing digging out thin limestone trenches and filling them with soil.
St Emilion is characterized as having small land holdings and estates that are largely still family-owned today. The average size of a wine property is only 7 hectares. Many large estates in the Medoc such as (where the average size is more like 40 hectares) have been bought up increasingly by insurance companies and co-operations.
The village of St Emilion itself was founded in the 8th century by an evidently charismatic hermit monk from Britany, Emilian, who, as legend has it stopped in the forests of Cumbis’ on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Liking the place, high up on the hillside, he carved a place of worship in a cave and established a small religious community. On his death in 787, his disciples continued his work and created the monolithic church which is today’s Europe’s largest underground church.
As with the rest of Bordeaux, the region became English territory for over 300 years with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet who became Henry II of England in 1154. In 1199 St Emilion, being an important centre of religious life, was granted its own autonomy by Henry’s son John Lackland in the Falaise Charter (also the creation of ‘La Jurade’). From 1269 the port of Libourne enabled the direct exporting of wine.
Unlike other Bordeaux wine regions, the Libourne region was characterised by small land holdings and estates. This largely explains the great fragmentation of vineyards which largely persists to this day.
From the middle ages up until the end of 18th century thousands of tonnes of limestone blocks were excavated from the plateau of St Emilion and used to build the many grand stone houses in the area. It is said that there are no less than 200 kilometers of tunnels on several levels under the village of St Emilion.