Discover St. Emilion

A microcosm of present day Bordeaux

 


The beautiful, ancient walled town of Saint-Emilion is one of Bordeaux’s most cherished historical treasures, and home to some of its greatest estates. The village and its cobblestone streets sit perched atop several hills, with vineyards pushing right up to the town’s walls and several of its most famous châteaux nestled right near the town’s outlying buildings.

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.
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For example, such “modernists” as Château Ausone and Château Pavie sit within a stone’s throw of some of the most classically styled wines in all of Bordeaux, such as Châteaux Canon or Magdelaine, and tasting wines from each of these estates is a beautiful way to understand the very real differences of vision for the future held amongst the various camps in Bordeaux in the early decades of the twenty-first century.

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.

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Comments

  • A very informative article!! Thank you, your love for Bordeaux wines and your knowledge about the area, the description of styles, names of producers etc. prompts me to go get a couple of bottles... I must tell you that I am not a Bordeaux lover but after reading your article I feel I owe it to you to taste and experience the "new" Bordeaux.

    Aug 16, 2010 at 2:20 PM


  • Snooth User: cosmoscaf
    256062 54

    It is good to read a defense of tradition as a guide to Bordeaux. It has been disappointing to spend a good deal on a bottle - from Bordeaux or Napa - only to find a fruit bomb incapable of lasting well to the second glass. More information on the different styles would be welcome.

    Aug 16, 2010 at 2:39 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,441

    And tell us a bit about yourself, too, View from the Cellar! ;-)

    Aug 16, 2010 at 3:02 PM


  • Snooth User: Jekabs
    543836 10

    Thanks for this informative article. Two years ago, we planned to go there & then my daughter wanted to get married. Now we're planning to go there May 2011. Can't wait.

    Aug 16, 2010 at 3:08 PM


  • Many thanks to everyone for the kind comments about the article. We will run two more on St. Emilion in the coming weeks, discussing the style of the wines made from the two dominant grapes in the commune, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, as well as a feature on one of Bordeaux's best-kept secrets, Chateau Magdelaine. I should note that while the general article on the commune cited many of the most famous (and often more expensive) producers in the region, St. Emilion is alive with some of the greatest values to be found in contemporary Bordeaux as well. One of my absolute favorite traditional producers in all of Bordeaux today can be found in the St. Emilion "graves" section along the Pomerol border- Chateau Corbin- who is making absolutely stellar wines that sell for a fraction of the price of wines such as Figeac, Cheval Blanc and Ausone. Top recent vintages of Chateau Corbin routinely sell here in the US for between $25 and $35 a bottle, making them absolute steals in today's Bordeaux market. The current renaissance at Chateau Corbin can only be traced back a decade or so, dating to the arrival here of current winemaker and proprietor, Annabelle Cruse Bardinet in 1999. The wines at Corbin were good, solid wines prior to Madame Cruse Bardinet's arrival at the estate, but they have jumped up a quantum level or two in quality since she really made her mark on Corbin with the 2001 vintage. The best recent vintages of Chateau Corbin that I would look for would be the 2001 for current drinking, or the 2005, 2006 or 2008 for the cellar. Their absolutely superb 2009 will clearly be one of the great bargains to be had from this inconsistent, but often stellar vintage. St. Emilion is certainly one of the most exciting communes in all of Bordeaux today, and to my palate, its more traditional producers are currently crafting some of the most beautiful wines in Bordeaux's recent history.

    John Gilman
    View From the Cellar

    Aug 16, 2010 at 5:41 PM


  • Snooth User: 1Finecab
    257366 41

    Definitely on the bucket list - thanks!
    1Finecab

    Aug 16, 2010 at 6:58 PM


  • John, you are doing a wonderful job describing Bordeux wines as well as many of the les "discovered" wine rgions in Europe. I am always fascinated by the complexity and excitement that some of these great wines evoke. At one point you may want to visit Chrisalis Vineyard and get introduced to the Norton wine styles....the real American grape.

    In Vino Veritas Ed :)

    Aug 16, 2010 at 7:07 PM


  • John, you are doing a wonderful job describing Bordeux wines as well as many of the les "discovered" wine rgions in Europe. I am always fascinated by the complexity and excitement that some of these great wines evoke. At one point you may want to visit Chrisalis Vineyard and get introduced to the Norton wine styles....the real American grape.

    In Vino Veritas Ed :)

    Aug 16, 2010 at 7:07 PM


  • I was lucky enough to be part of a tour of Bordeaux in 2007 that was endorsed by a local DC wine shop. With their entre, we were able to tour several of the top chateaux, including Ausone and Valandraud, accompanied by Jean Luc Thunevin and Alan Gauthier. It was a magical experience, drinking barrel samples of 2005 wines I will never be able to afford. The day was topped off by a luncheon hosted by Thunevin and his wife Murielle - and several wines from both Ausone and Valandraud. Needless to say, St Emilion is my favorite Bordeaux region, and I have since become a fan of many of Thunevin's less well known wines. Thanks for the opportunity to revisit a lovely memory.

    Aug 16, 2010 at 7:19 PM


  • Snooth User: marcusG
    373242 1

    I was in London last week and tried the 2001 Chateau Corbin on the advice of the wine store salesman and agree completely. It was a wonderful bottle that I was totally unaware of. Great article, thanks.

    Aug 16, 2010 at 7:22 PM


  • Snooth User: rbhaaland
    370671 3

    Thank you for an excellent article! I look forward to the upcoming ones on this beautiful area of France.

    We spent 21 days touring all of France last year in October and had the opportunity and joy to visit St. Emilion. Only 2 days though and it just wasn't long enough. As I am writing this, I am looking at our wine crate board from Couvent des Jacobins....a chateau we were able to tour, winery and cellar! We came home with several bottles from there, along with bottles from several of the chateau's you mentioned.

    Your article makes me want to return to that beautiful little village!

    Aug 16, 2010 at 7:41 PM


  • Snooth User: behappp
    72001 7

    Timing was perfect as I had a 1982 btl of La Lagune (a haut-medoc) with my 28 year old daughter tonight and it was wonderful with fully developed tannins lots of yummy fruit and, of course, beautiful bottle bouquet. Long Live good cellars and wines that are able to age gracefully in them!

    Aug 16, 2010 at 11:46 PM


  • Very useful article. Many thanks. I am biased in favour of your article because like you I believe the more traditional style aiming for complexity and with some elegance along with structural power is better than the 'modern' target of, apparently, up-front dominant power relying purely on heavy fruit and lashings of oak to give an apparent backbone. But nevertheless I thought your article was well balanced and certainly very informative. Variety is the spice of life, they say. Although I know what I will pay for and drink!

    Aug 17, 2010 at 4:44 AM


  • Snooth User: tonystro
    554776 26

    Just read your article and am also more favorably impressed with the more traditional St. Emilions. Several bottles of Ch. Figeac from different vintages in my cellar will attest to that. Curiously enough I had a 2001 Ch. Ripeau with dinner last night. For lovers of classic St. Emilion this modestly priced beauty is not to be overlooked.

    Aug 17, 2010 at 11:41 AM


  • A really interesting and informative article! Many thanks, and I shall be putting your wise counsel to the test shortly as I'm due a visit to the region in the next couple of weeks. It will be fascinating to compare trad and new approach formats side by side. Tony W, Putney SW15

    Aug 17, 2010 at 2:50 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 214,196

    John will have the second part of this series coming up next week. he is a real authority on the fine wines of the world and if you haven't already, you should check out his site http://www.viewfromthecellar.com/

    If you are interesting in learning more about his work ask him for a complimentary issue and tell him that Snooth sent you!

    Aug 18, 2010 at 10:27 AM


  • Snooth User: bibuloso
    372893 6

    A fine exposition ! I love the ancient town of St Emilion, nestling on its hive of limestone tunnels and runnels and caves, surely a natural formation which has its effect on the wines, accounting for differences in the product of the cotes and of the surrounding flatlands.
    I look forward avidly to the next part of Mr Gilman's article.

    Aug 18, 2010 at 11:26 AM


  • Snooth User: 58jaz
    355213 24

    A very well written article. I'm a big fan of Cabernet Franc. I have enjoyed a few from France and there are a number of good ones from the Niagara region in Ontario. St. Emilion sounds like a town of ancient beauty and history. I look forward to visiting it soon.

    Cheers,

    Aug 19, 2010 at 10:28 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,441

    My very first encounters with St. Emilion were with Canon, followed by Trottevielle, Pavie-Decesse, Bellevue and Clos des Jacobins--a mixed bag for sure, but all of them opened my palate and eyes to various aspects of wine and winemaking, and provided plenty of enjoyment all the while. This was in the very early '80s, when I was still discovering the differences between there and the more obviously seductive Pomerol, as well as the left bank. After meandering about (in a lot of Bordeaux, Burgundy and California), I came back with a vengeance to Pavie, Magdelaine and Canon at the end of the decade, leveraged by a job I did helping a Japanese firm acquire a French boutique retail operation, where I took my pay in bottles rather than cash. The '90s saw a lot more attention to Italy and California (and still a lot of left bank) than the right bank, so when I came back to Pavie et al. this past decade I was frankly shocked by the change that had occurred--to the pricing, but especially to the wines.

    You can count me in the traditionalist camp as I love nothing better than the ethereal glory of a well-aged bottle that has matured to its full potential, whether that takes a dozen or three dozen years. It's a shame to see that the major changes on the right bank of the past decade or so are now spreading to the left bank, as well. No way can any fruit-forward, early-drinking Parker-bomb approach what you can get from a glass of a well-structured, well-aged wine that has matured to the kind of perfection that has kept the upper end of the industry, wine critics, and I suppose wine snobbery as well, in business for centuries now.

    I'll be looking forward to your next couple of articles, hopefully with more tips such as regarding the current Magdelaine--and maybe even some tasting notes as well?

    Aug 21, 2010 at 4:23 AM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,441

    Forgot to mention Figeac in my St. Emilion 'with a vengeance' phase of the late '80s, since I did dive into many bottles of it then, and in rereading your article, good to see you also think it's hanging tough, along with Canon and Magdelaine. Pavie, which I drank cases of at the time, still bothers me with its shift to the darkside, the Ausone less so since its price has always made it more difficult to drink as often or as much of (though I do remember plenty of ethereal in the few bottles I had from '55,'76, '78, '82, and '83, long before the Michel Rolland era).

    Aug 21, 2010 at 6:17 AM


  • Snooth User: elwha
    542241 3

    We happen to be going to the Bordeaux area and staying in St. Emilion in a couple weeks! I'm making a copy of your suggestions to take along. Thank you...Minnesotan Turning Fifty in France

    Aug 25, 2010 at 7:14 PM


  • Snooth User: tonystro
    554776 26

    Thanks for the informative article. I'm very fortunate to have several bottles of both the 1998 Ch. Figeac and 2000 Ch. Canon. These are both very impressive but distinctly different wines. Your article sheds a lot of light on the reasons why. Thanks again.

    Sep 16, 2010 at 2:45 PM


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