Situated on the right bank of the Dordogne, a few kilometres to the east of Libourne, is the medieval town of St-Emilion, which gives its name to the red wines produced in the region – rich, accessible and proportionately high in plump, sweet Merlot. Visitors flock to St-Emilion and its surrounding vineyards, where a palpable sense of a community steeped in the world of wine prevails. Built on a semi-circle of hills, the town contains a myriad of churches, cloisters and convents clustered on the top, within and below a plateau which is responsible for some of St-Emilion’s finest wines.The vines are planted, in the main, on and around this plateau, on soils of weathered, starfish limestone, calcaire à astéries , mixed with varying amounts of clay, sand and silt – Merlot terroir.
Many people who have had the good fortune to visit St-Emilion get rather lost in the reveries of their memories, treating the St-Emilion label as if it were a brand with an absolute guarantee of quality. As with every appellation, this is a dangerous tactic as there is a huge variety between properties – not least in soil, altitude and aspect – before even thinking of viticulture or vinification.
St-Emilion is one of Bordeaux' favoured appellations and viticulture dates back to the Roman times but, despite this, the region was ignored by the 1855 Classification prepared by the Chamber of Commerce. It was not until 1954 that a system of classification was devised for St-Emilion.
It is perhaps no great surprise that the wines of St-Emilion were historically ignored by the great Bordeaux merchants. In the first instance there was a certain degree of physical difficulty in accessing the region as, without bridges, it would have taken three ferry crossings. In addition, the Bordelais, rather protectionist by nature and already producing a number of internationally recognised wines, may have treated these young pretenders with some disdain. They may of course been ignorant of them or, being less charitable, have had a vested interest in prolonging their anonymity.
Since that time St-Emilion wanted some form of classification of its own, though it took almost one hundred years before a decree allowed for a legal classification and a further four years before the classification was undertaken.
Unlike the Médoc 1855 Classification, which is essentially set in stone, the St-Emilion system is revised every ten years and is therefore, arguably, a more reliable guide. The top wines are classified as premiers grands crus classés (A and B grades), grands crus classés and grands crus. Aside from this system, there have always been some mavericks who went their own sweet way, gaining cult status with or without classification. Perhaps the first of these was our own François Mitjavile of Tertre Rôteboeuf. François pioneered a new generation of wines which, through meticulous, neo-fanatical attention to detail, created new standards of quality with the resulting demand having no need for any official rank.
There is a cluster of St-Emilion premiers grands crus classés sited partially atop the plateau, partly on the clay slopes. These include Châteaux Ausone, Beauséjour Duffau Lagarosse, Belair, Magdelaine, Canon, Pavie and Angélus. Cheval Blanc, interestingly, sits on the border of the Pomerol plateau. Tertre Rôteboeuf is situated in the commune of Saint-Laurent-des Combes along with Châteaux Pavie and Larcis Ducasse.
In addition to the main St-Emilion appellation, there are a number of satellites which used to be sold simply as St-Emilion but which were awarded an appellation in their own right, in part to protect the reputation of the greatest of the great. In deference to their historical link with the principal appellation, they are allowed to attach St-Emilion to their names. With some fall out over the years these are now Saint-Georges St-Emilion, Puisseguin St-Emilion, Lussac St-Emilion and the largest of the satellites Montagne St-Emilion. Montagne St-Emilion is dominant as it was created in 1972 to include vineyards of what had been Parsac St-Emilion (now disbanded) and Saint-Georges-St-Emilion. However, stalwart devotees of the Saint-Georges St-Emilion name have secured its future thus far as an individual appellation.
Montagne St-Emilion lies at the very centre of the St-Emilion region. It is steeped in history and the vineyards are dotted with centuries-old windmills and houses. There are also rewards of magnificent views for visitors walking through the vines. Historic buildings and fine vistas not withstanding, this is a region steeped in the tradition of winemaking, fiercely proud of its terroir and history tradition.
The soils of Montagne St-Emilion are really very similar to those of St-Emilion, themselves rather variable across the piece. In the main, the slopes are clay and clay-limestone lying over calcaire à astéries – starfish fossil-rich limestone. There are also parcels of silty-clay and alluvium. In common with St-Emilion itself, there is variety amongst the styles produced but the wines of Montagne St-Emilion tend generally to share the early-drinking supple character afforded by the dominant, accessible, plumply-fruited Merlot grape.
Town of St-Emilion Credit: CIVB/Haut-Relief
Vineyards at Tertre Rôteboeuf, St-Emilion
Vineyards at Château Bélair-Monange, Premier Grand Cru Classé, St-Emilion