Review: Vineyards in St Emilion

PUBLISHED: 10:10 30 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

St Emilion

St Emilion

Shortly after Christmas I went on my first winter visit to St Emilion, and it felt magical. The air was cold and crisp yet hazy sunshine bathed everywhere in a warm soft light. I'd come to revisit vineyards.

This small, fortified, hilltop town and World Heritage Site, takes its name from Emilian, a Breton monk who settled here in the 8th century, to live life devoted to God. A victim of a great injustice, he was always kind and over time became leader of a group of other Benedictines. Such was his influence on the town that it took his name. The monks created an entire church from a single piece of limestone. Beginning in the 9th century, they took 300 years to complete it and today it remains the greatest monolithic church in Europe. St Emilion became the centre of religious life in the area and one of the most important towns in SW France on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. Some people say you will never be alone in St Emilion 'you will be accompanied everywhere by the spirit of the stones, and the memory of its father, St Emilion.'

Situated 35 km north-east of Bordeaux the little medieval town of St Emilion has to be the most attractive wine village in the region. It's the perfect place for wine lovers to explore. Walking around is an absolute delight and it has everything one could wish for: picturesque views over a vine dominated landscape, exceptional historic monuments, which include the monolithic church, underground galleries and cloisters, and quaint cobbled streets with scores of specialist wine shops, artisan bakeries, bars and cafs. The vineyards reach right up to the 13th century town walls where the surrounding moat has been dug out of the warm, honey-coloured rock. Everyone who enjoys art, history and wine will feel at home here. And if your walk has given you an appetite, now is the time to sample the local fare and wines...

There is nothing complicated about enjoying St Emilion wine - just fill the glass about a third full, take a look at the brilliance of colour, purple with tinges of violet, then smell the wine as it sits in the glass, swirl it around to release the rich bouquet of blackcurrant, cherry, vanilla, chocolate and perhaps freshly roasted coffee if it has been barrel-aged. Follow this with the ultimate pleasure of tasting the wine, appraising its personality and above all its finesse.

It's the merlot grape variety that reigns supreme here on 'the right bank' of the Gironde, producing delicious, deeply coloured, full flavoured wines, less tannic than those of the Medoc where cabernet sauvignon dominates. This area also has its own classification system which, unlike Bordeaux, is revised every ten years. The top tier, Ch. Ausone and Ch. Cheval Blanc are the only two wines classed as premiers grands crus classs A. Next come the 13 premiers grands crus classs B and finally the grands crus classs. There are literally hundreds of wine chteaux with grand cru alone on their label - these are, generally speaking, value for money, everyday drinking wines.

However, back to my visit - and as the chill factor began to have an effect it was time to head indoors. Only the locals were socialising in the cafs that day, so one was quickly served. Entering a stylish wine shop/bar I was offered samples of 'garage wines'. These have nothing to do with forecourts but are so called because the originator, Jean-Luc Thunevin, made his first wines in his garage in the back streets of St Emilion. They became the epitome of avant-garde, commanding very high prices. Jean Luc makes extremely concentrated wines, aged in new oak, from grapes harvested from small parcels of land 'tended to as precisely as orchid gardens', and then given the same meticulous attention in the wine cellar. Garage wines may just be a fad, with the demand for classicism in the current wine market, but for me trying Jean Luc's Ch.Valandraud was just a start, and a must for future wine tours.

For an extremely enjoyable St Emilion: Ch. Grand Pey Lescours. Grand cru 1999 - Smiths, Ashbourne.
Ch. La Grave Figeac. Grand cru 2001 - Majestic Wines, Derby

For further details of Rosie Bainbridge's wine tours to Bordeaux and St Emilion, contact or tel. 07891 823560

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