Perhaps the most beautiful, certainly the most important and without doubt the best known wine village in France, indeed, probably the best known in the wine world.
Along with Chablis and Chianti, St.Emilion is one of the oldest and most powerful brands in the wine world.
Like most wine lovers, the first time I visited St.Emilion was just a daze of joyous wonder that this famous wine style, could be a real place, tinged with just a little pinch of, is this a real place. It was so perfect and so unremittingly so beautiful.
St.Emilion is a honey coloured citadel of castles, cathedrals, cloistered monasteries, criss-crossed by a labyrinth of nearly vertical beige cobbled stoned streets and marbled walls.
It sits draped over the edge of a cliff, with the cathedrals, castles and cloistered part of the village on the clifftop, with the golden horse and cart wide alleyways they call streets falling away down the cliff to the red and ochre coloured rooftops of village square and merchants houses below.
It is of course, a UNESCO World Heritage site and even waking up in the morning and thinking about changing a bulb in your village house here, requires planning permission.
On a visit to St.Emilion a couple of years ago, Irishman Paddy O’Flynn, the founder of the Wine Buff chain of shops throughout Ireland, who is a resident of St.Emilion and owner of a chateau in the region, pointed out to me one of the proudest secrets of St.Emilion’s 2200 residents. I had thought it might be the newly discovered burial site of St.Emilion himself, an 8th century hermit, but it turned out to be a resident who had fought the entire French legal system and managed to get a heritage quality double glazed window in his house. A feat that will never be accomplished again as that loophole has now been closed apparently.
It struck me very forcefully that, in addition, to the general and usual troubles of winemakers around the world, from weather to disease, St.Emilion’s growers are battling with the reality of living and working inside a giant, heavily controlled, museum.
In reality while it brilliantly preserves the fragile heritage for humanity, it freezes much of life at the date of the listing in the UN register, fine if you are Newgrange or Stonehenge, less so if you a re a living and breathing business.
St.Emilion has managed to survive and prosper because it was a working village, and over the years has simply made each tiny adjustment carefully and subtly allowing daily life to continue.
The World’s First Tourist Trap
The first thing that actually strikes you when you walk into St.Emilion, cars are of course forbidden, is the smell and the crowded silence. Cars, harbour an unseen blight, not the pollution, but the noise. By keeping cars and large herds of tourist coaches to the edge of the village, you immediately get the hubbub of medieval life, the shuffle of foot on cobble, the sound of chatter.
However this is only a secondary sensation, because the first and most powerful experience is the waft of baking. The warm doughy rush of baking biscuits hits you on all sides. Tiny, wafer thin almond biscuits are the speciality of St.Emilion and they are sold, hot, from a dozen little bakeries.
Every other shop also seems to be a wine shop or an architecturally perfect restaurant.
Any objective viewer of this entire experience while being mildly seduced will of course accept, that what you are sitting in is a tourist trap. Admittedly a fur lined, gold-plated, diamond encrusted, environmentally and historically sympathetic tourist trap.
Then, it strikes you, it has been one of the world’s great tourist traps for over 2000 years.
The Romans conquered this whole region and named it Aquitaine, they defeated the native Celtic tribe, yes, another of our lost homelands, who were called the Burdigalii. The Burdigalii and around a dozen other Celtic tribes occupied sites all along the major rivers of the region, including in the natural caves at the bottom of the cliff edge that has now become St.Emilion.
However these tribes seemed to have cultivated little and certainly not vines.
The Roman’s made swift work of their conquest, fortifying the Burdigalii capital as Budigala, modern Bordeaux. However the wealthier Romans travelled up the Dordogne and established settlements in the plateaus and hills that are the ancient edges of the previously much wider Dordogne River.
The cliffs on which St.Emilion sits is actually part of a complex granite and limestone kerb to the river basin.
This high ridge runs largely east to west, that is, it faces south and southwest, ideal for vineyard location and it seems to have taken the conquering Romans minutes to figure this out.
Ancient vineyards and terrace formations are found across the entire length of this eastern part of Bordeaux, more usually described as the Right Bank. This is where in addition to St.Emilion we find, Pomerol, Montagine-St.Emilion, Fronsac, Libourne, Bergerac and Bourg.
The Bordeaux region really entered the western consciousness when philosopher, teacher, political advisor and crucially, wine estate owner, Decimus Ausonius became confidante to Roman Emperor Valentinian and tutor to his son and next Emperor Flavius Augustus.
We know he must have been a very accomplished politician because he survived decades of intrigue at the heart of the Empire and many shifts in power and finally retired back to his beloved St.Emilion, where he died, peacefully.
During his life however, he promoted, through story and poetry the Eden like glories of his native St.Emilion estates and the wine that came from there. Wines from we call St.Emilion today were apparently a prized export to Rome’s elite thanks to Ausonius’s literary PR.
The Way of St.James, The Camino and The Invention of Wine Tourism
In the period between 740 and 840 AD, the former Roman powerhouse of Bordeaux had become a peripheral, but very active region, a home and political stronghold to Visigoths , whose kingdom ran from northern Spain right the way to Cognac 100km to the north of St.Emilion.
In those violent times, wandering ministers and Christian missionaries peppered Europe. In Aquitaine the most famous was a hermit called Emilion, who eventually installed himself in a natural Grotto, the caves of the former Celtic tribes and began to preach intensely. After his death, a church, monastery and eventually a cathedral in his honour were built on and around his grotto. When he was canonised the entire village and commune took his name, St.Emilion.
We might have heard little more of St.Emilion, and its wines, but for the Islamic invasion of Spain.
Miraculously as the Spanish church and nobles began their fight to reconquer Spain, a great discovery was made in the north west of Spain at a headland called Finisterre, the End of The World. It was the tomb of one of Jesus’s disciples, St.James.
His body had been transported to northern Spain after his execution in Jerusalem not many years after Jesus’s own death.
Happily for wine lovers soon after the discovery the church established a Pilgrimage from every corner of Europe to northern Spain, called The Way of St.James, or today the Camino.
Routes from every point north and east converged in Northern Spain and snaked across to Santiago do Compostelo, but before that most of the northern routes converged in France, with the most popular beginning in Paris and Tours. The English and indeed Irish Pilgrimage route usually took this Way.
St.James Gate in Dublin is the start point for the Irish Pilgrimage, the subsequent arrival of the brewery cements the liquid elements of the very long journey.
So it was that the monastery of St.Emilion, like many on the route, began to offer hospitality and the wines served to Pilgrims began to be spoken of widely and with considerable praise.
Over time wealthier Pilgrims would arrange for wines from their favourite stops to be transported home and along with a few rumours of miraculous health giving benefits this cemented the reputation of St.Emilion.
As the clergy and lay wine merchants in St.Emilion became wealthy on the profits of the wine they began to become protective of their reputation and in 1189 they obtained a royal charter from King John, England ruled the region until 1453. This charter set up standards for wine production, and granted exclusive powers of control and even taxation to what was called the Jurade de St.Emilion.
Today, almost 1000 years later the Jurade retains some powers, even though it is largely a ceremonial society now. The most important of which is the annual parade, in full robes to the top of the old Cathedral to read out the date of the bans, the date after which you may harvest.
This was, and is, a huge power. It means that there should be no one picking to early and producing light watery unripe wines that would damage St.Emilion’s 2000 year old reputation.
Today this is done in conjunction with the INAO, the French state organisation and with the advice of laboratories checking biochemical ripeness.
Regulation, Regulation, Regulation
To have kept their reputation for so long, despite being flooded with tourists for well over 1000 years and put under severe commercial pressure by every wine importer, wine shop and restaurant in the world looking to have a St.Emilion on their list is nor easy or uncontroversial feat.
Ruthless regulation and meticulous governance has been the open secret.
Essentially placing the word St.Emilion on your bottle is a licence to print money. Buying land or and estate in AC St.Emilion is a licence to print money, so regulating just what is AC St.Emilion and what is the best of St.Emilion has been of primary importance for centuries.
Today the landscape is governed by statute, with a legal St.Emilion Classification being established in 1954.
This Classification is re-run every 10 years and every single classified estate is put back into the pot and rejudged. So that theoretically the top estates could end up declassified or relegated to a lower level of classification. Equally some newcomer could burst onto the scene and become the new king of the appellation.
In reality since land is unbelievably expensive, and kept within large family dynasties for centuries the best plots, owned by the richest and most well capitalised people, usually make the best wines. So the reclassification is usually a shuffling of a well used set of cards, with few surprises.
The classification is quite neat, unusually for France, but contains one big potential tripping point for wine lovers.
The commune of St.Emilion is divided up into AC St.Emilion and AC St.Emilion Grand Cru. If your vineyard is in either of these locations you can cal it after the appellation, so every single winery in AC St.Emilion Grand Cru is entitled to put Grand Cru on its label regardless of the quality of the wine.
The Classification is of the wineries who enter the competition so to speak, and put their St.Emilion Grand Cru up for consideration.
The best St.Emilion Grand Cru will be awarded St.Emilion Grand Cru Classe status. So that is what we might want to look out for the world, classe, if we want the legally judged better wines.
The St.Emilion Grand Cru Classe, are dived into two categories, AC St.Emilion Grand Cru Classe and the upper tier, AC St.Emilion Premiere Grand Cru Classe. This later class is divied into category A and B. There are 4 Chateaux in Category A, 14 Chateau in category B and 63 chateaux in the lower Grand Cru Classe.
The four top Class A Chateaux are, Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc who have been there on their own for decades and since the 2012 reclassification they have been joined by Chateau Angelus and Chateau Pavie, tow of the longstanding equally high priced and highly regarded St.Emilion wines.
To say that there is war each time there is a reclassification is a mild understatement. French lawyers’ fortunes have been made at almost every reclassification event. The 2012 reclassification has 3 loosing chateaux Châteaus Corbin Michotte, La Tour du Pin Figeac and Croque-Michotte en route for the French supreme court, in their attempt to get the classification overturned. Also this time, criminal charges of rigging have been made out by the three chateau which has turned the whole affair very sour indeed.
For the moment, and probably for the next four or five years the current classification stands and visitors who sip the wine and admire the scenery would not even perceive a flicker of sweat in the magnificent façade and global reputation of St.Emilion and its wines.
For wine lovers, this constant regulation and reclassification means you can explore the lower regions and newer wineries with hopes of finding the next super star, a real joy and an unexpected pleasurable result of meticulous regulation as even these newcomers are watched like hawks to make sure they do not dent the reputation. It is not a guarantee of brilliance every time but it provides a base line that means the word St.Emilion more than most wine names, does give that rarity in wine, a real hope of brilliance with a core baseline of competence and ambition.
The Wines of St.Emilion and its Satellite Appellations
Chateau de St.Georges, AC St.Georges St. Emilion 2010, €20 (91)
Clos Saint Jacques St Emilion, AC St.Georges St. Emilion 2010, €20.49 (90)
Vieux Chateau Des Combes, AC St. Emilion Grand Cru 2011, €21.49 (90)
Chateau Pipeau, AC St. Emilion Grand Cru 2008, €48 (92)
Chateau Haut-Plantey, AC St Emilion Grand Cru 2010, at €40 (92)
Chateau La Commanderie, AC St. Emilion Grand Cru 2007, €39.30 (91)
La Fauconnerie, AC Montagne St. Emilion 2008, €19.99 (91)
Chateau Petit Corbin Despagne, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2008, €26.99 (90)