Escape to St Emilion
Touring Bordeaux’s Right Bank – St Emilion.
Susan Gough Henly
Susan Gough Henly
13 July, 2018
With origins in the Roman era, the UNESCO Heritage-listed St Emilion is the epicentre of Bordeaux’s Right Bank wine region. This blond-stone, red-tile-roofed village feels a little like an Italian hill town but it is unmistakably rooted in Bordeaux’s long winemaking tradition. St Emilion also gives its name to Bordeaux’s biggest big-name wine appellation and the clay soils here and in tiny neighbouring Pomerol are ideal for growing merlot, which distinguishes the Right Bank red wine blends. Much of St Emilion’s limestone was gouged out to build the city of Bordeaux but the resulting underground caves created ideal wine cellars.
Many of the St Emilion chateaux remain family owned and, while grand, are not nearly as imposing as their Medoc neighbours. Their classification system is also updated roughly every 10 years. There are 81 classified red wine growths divided into Premiers Grand Crus Classes (A and B), Grands Cru Classes and Grands Crus.
A great base is actually in Pessac Leognan, just south of Bordeaux, where the region’s best five-star country retreat, Les Sources de Caudalie, is located. Together with the dynamic Grand Cru Classe Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte right across the road, they are owned by former French ski champions Daniel and Florence Cathiard. Indulge in a signature vinotherapy spa treatment, relax by the indoor and outdoor pools, and choose between three delightful restaurants including the Two-Michelin-starred La Grand’Vigne. Make time for a tasting tour of the ivy-covered Chateau including the hidden James Bond-style cellar and admire its contemporary sculpture collection amidst the vines.
With origins in the Roman era, the UNESCO Heritage-listed St Emilion is the epicentre of Bordeaux’s Right Bank wine region
...the town got its name from Saint Emilion, who in the 8th century carved out a cave here to live as a hermit...
Heading east, drive half an hour through the pretty rolling countryside of the Entre Deux Mers region, which literally means ‘between the waters’ of those same two rivers, the Dordogne and Garonne. This is white wine country, and Bordeaux’s Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blends go down a treat with oysters from nearby Bassin d’Arcachon. Chateau de Reignac is perhaps Bordeaux’s most famous unclassified growth, located near where the two rivers meet. Owned by inventor Yves Vatelot, the chateau and greenhouse were designed by Gustav Eiffel. You can book online for a tour and tasting, which takes place in a beautiful pigeon tower overlooking the vines.
It’s just another 25 minutes’ drive to St Emilion, where you should park the car on the outskirts and follow cobbled marble laneways and steep staircases to explore its medieval monastic ruins and neoclassical limestone townhouses. Above you rise ancient towers, under your feet is a labyrinth of caves and all around you the ruined town walls reveal layers of history. And from the ramparts you can marvel at sublime vistas over the rooftops to some of the richest vineyard land on Earth.
The story goes that vines were first planted here 2000 years ago in the Gallo Roman times. But the town got its name from Saint Emilion, who in the 8th century carved out a cave here to live as a hermit. However, his miracles drew many disciples and when he died they dug an underground church, which today is the largest monolithic church in Europe. Over the centuries Benedictine, Franciscan, and Dominican monasteries clustered in the town and their ruins offer evocative reminders of a pious past. You can sip sparkling Cremant de Bordeaux in the cloister of The Cordeliers, a 13th century Franciscan monastery, above the cellars where it is made.
St Emilion is well organised for visitors, so well organised it can be overcrowded with tour buses during the day. Stay through dusk, when the crowds disappear, to enjoy the sun setting over the blond stone buildings. The Tourist Office offers a range of guided tours in town, lists different chateaux open each day and even rents bikes to tootle around the vineyards. The Maison du Vin, beside a 14th century cloister, features daily wine tastings and sells wines at chateau prices. There are excellent restaurants including the formal Hostellerie de Plaisance, which commands a stellar position beside the ramparts, l’Envers du Décor whose wine-box tables are cosy beside the fire on a cold winter’s night, and L’Huitrier Pie with its pretty garden.
Many chateaux are easily accessible. The delightful family-owned Chateau Guadet is actually in town on Rue Guadet and its underground cellars weave all the way to the vineyards just outside. For something more interactive, take a beginner’s winemaking program or cooking class followed by lunch with matched wines at nearby Chateau Soutard. You can easily walk to others such as Premiers Grand Crus Classes Chateaux Canon, Clos Fourtet and Beau Sejour Becot, which are set on the plateau. Chateau Beau Sejour Becot offers sommelier-led tours of the vineyards and its underground grottos extend into St Emilion.
Along the hillside you’ll find the crème de la crème of Saint Emilion…Chateaux Ausone, Pavie, and Angelus. On a nearby hilltop is another sublime First Growth, Chateau Troplong Mondot whose farm-to-table restaurant overlooks the vines. Heading north, you’ll discover more stellar chateaux such as Cheval Blanc and Figeac as well as the striking Jean-Nouvel-designed red stainless steel winery at Chateau La Dominique. Have lunch at its La Terrasse Rouge bistro offering panoramas across a red-glass-bauble terrace to the plains of Pomerol where Chateaux Petrus, Le Pin and Vieux Chateau Certan have huge reputations and prices to match, but are actually tiny vineyard patches, like emeralds on a golf course.
For something more interactive, take a beginner’s winemaking program or cooking class followed by lunch with matched wines at nearby Chateau Soutard
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