Ironically, given that St. Emilion can trace its wine-producing heritage all the way back to the Romans and the second century A.D., this village is also on the cutting edge of the push for a more modern style of Bordeaux wine, and the appellation is home to some of the most technically inspired wines in all of Bordeaux.
These unabashedly “modern-styled” wines of St. Emilion, which tend to be characterized by very ripe, opulent personalities and plenty of new oak often sit side by side with some of the most staunchly traditionalist estates in Bordeaux, so that in surveying the vinous landscape of the village today one is given a wonderful opportunity to witness the great clash of winemaking philosophies that defines current day Bordeaux.
Interestingly, St. Emilion, like its other well-known Right Bank neighbor, Pomerol, does not allow the Cabernet Sauvignon grape to play king, with the grapes of Cabernet Franc and Merlot much more important in the blends of most of the top wines in the commune, and with Cabernet Sauvignon relegated to playing a supporting role to the two leading grapes of the village. As is the case in the other famous communes in Bordeaux, each estate has its own blend of different grapes that reflects both the aesthetic sensibilities of the property’s owners and the historical suitability of each grape variety to the vineyard parcels themselves of each château.
So, for example, one can find Château Cheval Blanc producing a wine that is comprised of two-thirds Cabernet Franc and most of the balance Merlot, whereas a wine such as Château Magdelaine is fully ninety percent Merlot and only ten percent Cabernet Franc. Of all the top estates in St. Emilion, only Château Figeac contains a significant percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, with more than a third of the cépage at Figeac made up of this grape. With these variations in grape varieties in the blend are coupled with the quite disparate variations in terroir between different sections of the village’s vineyard land, the wines of St. Emilion can vary quite widely in style.
While the village of St. Emilion itself is small, the amount of acreage under vines is the largest of any single commune in Bordeaux, with 12,800 acres of vines planted. The appellation is split up into a few geographically distinct sections, with the vineyards closest to the village nestled on the same chalky hillsides that house the town and which are known as the St. Emilion “Côtes”. These vineyards historically tended to produce the most racy and ethereal wines of the appellation, as the deep bed of limestone here gives the wines an elegance at maturity that cannot be matched anywhere else in the region. However, these same chalky soils naturally also provide a structural backbone that traditionally has taken a bit longer to soften than St. Emilions from other areas of the appellation, and which has prompted a few of the leading estates in this section to alter their fermentation and aging strategies in order to make wines in a more modern and dramatic style that affords easier appreciation in their youth.
Château Ausone and Château Pavie are two of the most famous “Côtes” producers who have moved their winemaking style in this direction in the last decade or so, seeking to make more powerful wines that impress early on- though perhaps at the cost of losing their ability to age long and gracefully, which was once what was most prized about the wines from the châteaux of the St. Emilion Côtes. For wine lovers looking to capture the magical elegance and long evolutionary potential traditionally found in the Côtes section of the appellation, one need look no further than Châteaux Magdelaine, Canon and Belair, who continue to produce breathtakingly brilliant and long-lived wines cut from the stylistic cloth of tradition.
Another of the major subsections of terroir in St. Emilion lies to the northwest of the town center, on the Pomerol border, where the soils are dramatically more gravelly and clay-based than the deep chalks of the hillsides that surround the town itself. Here one finds two of the most famous estates in all of St. Emilion, Châteaux Cheval Blanc and Figeac, as well several other truly outstanding producers. Many of the vineyards in this “gravelly terrace” section of St. Emilion run right up to the Pomerol border, with nearby neighbors in that commune, such as Châteaux La Conseillante and l’Evangile often sharing quite a bit in common stylistically with the St. Emilion estates on these gravelly terraces. There are also several producers whose vineyards lie between the two major subsections, in soils that are generally a bit deeper and richer than those found in either the gravelly section on the Pomerol border and the chalky hillsides next to town, but which are also outstanding producers in their own right- albeit, a bit less refined aromatically and a bit more powerfully-built than was the tradition in St. Emilion a generation ago.
As alluded to above, the wines of St. Emilion make a wonderful case study in the changes that are afoot in Bordeaux in general, as this commune is home to a great many of the most strident proponents of the modern school of more powerful and new oaky winemaking. The list of St. Emilion’s “modernists” is long and includes many of the more famous names of recent time in Bordeaux, with estates such as l’Angélus, Tertre Roteboeuf, Pavie-Macquin, Valandraud and Ausone amongst the most opulent and voluptuous wines made today in all of Bordeaux. Most of these wines will be characterized by very full-bodied personalities awash in thick layers of plummy and black cherry fruit, chocolaty tones and extremely generous coatings of expensive new oak.
While many wines from this school can seem impressive early on in their evolutionary cycles, the jury is still out as to whether or not this style of winemaking can producer wines that are as long-lived and, most importantly, which dramatically improve with bottle age. For there is no question that the wines from the more traditionally minded estates of St. Emilion have a long history of aging beautifully in the bottle. On the other side of the ledger in this village are some of the most traditional and classically refined wines to be found in all of Bordeaux, with Châteaux such as Magdelaine, Figeac, Belair and Canon continuing to make some of the most refined and youthfully reserved wines in all of Bordeaux- wines that demand patience and bottle age before unfolding their wings and reaching for the stars.
Commentators on today’s Bordeaux differ quite widely as to their preferences for the modern style or the traditional style of wines in St. Emilion. To my palate, there is simply no contest, as the wines of the traditional camp are for me infinitely more interesting wines to cellar and drink in their primes. Of course, my paradigm for Bordeaux is a wine that is long-lived and slow to unfold in the cellar, with all of the magical layers of aromatic and flavor complexity only revealing themselves with the passing of time. Clearly there is another camp of Bordeaux lovers who do not wish to defer their gratification any longer than is absolutely necessary, and for them, the crisp structural integrity of a wine such as a young bottle of Magdelaine is simply an impediment to their immediate enjoyment of the wine, and for these folks, the more opulent and obvious styles of wines such as l’Angélus or Pavie is much more appealing. To me, such wines are really quite boring to drink, as they are ultimately fairly simple and lacking in complexity, with their more obvious opulence and simple, new oaky personalities a poor trade for the ethereal beauty and harmonic complexity of a traditional bottle of St. Emilion at its apogee at age twenty or thirty. But to each his own, and the important thing to remember for those setting a course for the vinous wilds of St. Emilion is to remember that this commune is home to both winemaking camps, and to make sure that you are getting a wine from the modern or traditional school, depending on what style of wine you are looking for.
Don't miss part two of John Gilman's series on Bordeaux, The Grapes of St. Emilion.