West of Pomerol on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, just north of the Dordogne River, lies a very treasured spot that is thought to be slightly magical: Saint-Émilion. Historically, the town can trace its roots to the days of the Romans, and its charm, antiquity and beauty are a testament to that. In fact, Saint-Émilion is almost as renowned for its architecture and overall visual appeal as it is for its fine wines.
But the charming little town also has grit: in response to being overlooked for inclusion in the famous 1855 Classification, Saint-Émilion took things into its own hands and designed a counter-classification of its own, basing it on soil quality, wine analysis and property reputation. In many ways, its system is more organic and discriminating; because it is revised periodically (most recently in 2012), it compels properties to maintain their production quality and prove deserving of inclusion. No “sitting on
Like its neighbor, Pomerol, Saint-Émilion’s wines are Merlot-dominant. The sub-region’s topography, which includes limestone plateaus that reach well above the banks of the Dordogne, supply a comfortable home for the vines. The soils are perfectly balanced among chalk, clay and sand, and reticent drainage is optimal for encouraging strong, steady growth that yields full-flavored, opulent fruit. The Cabernet Franc that also grows on the property is cultivated and then blended with care, lending a pleasing spice note to the wines that brings them an exquisite, near-savory quality. Cabernet Sauvignon, however, finds the cooler, damper climate of Saint-Émilion less friendly, and as a result, is grown and used much more sparingly, if at all. Only Château Figeac has convinced Cabernet Sauvignon to remain a part of the landscape by providing it with a more significant spread of land. This has given Figeac its reputation for being more full-bodied than other Saint-Émilion wines.
The Saint-Émilion appellation is one of Bordeaux’s most abundant: many of the world’s finest and most sought-after prestige wines hail from Saint-Émilion châteaux, including Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Angélus, Figeac and Pavie. (The only bit of restriction is that only red wine is eligible for appellation inclusion.) Production is equally prolific, often reaching 250,000 hectoliters of wine per vintage. In addition to this appellation, Saint-Emilion also has a Grand Cru appellation. It has been criticized in the past for its more fluid production standards, and has been accused of placing production over Grand Cru quality. There may be something to the argument, as twice as much Saint-Émilion Grand Cru is made annually than regular Saint-Émilion.
Because of the higher percentages wine Merlot, Saint-Émilion wines are soft and comfortable to the palate. Less acidic and tannic than Left Bank wines, they provide a smooth yet delectable wine experience, and have become particularly popular in the American marketplace.
Last, Saint-Émilion has four satellite areas that have been given permission to append the Saint-Émilion name to their communes: Lussac, Puissequin, Montagne and Saint-Georges. The wines from these pockets are exceptional, as they share many of the terroir attributes of Saint-Émilion proper, and carry much more approachable prices. With these extensions, there is a Saint-Émilion experience for everyone.