The ancient and beautiful region of St-Emilion has beguiled the palates of wine lovers for centuries. Indeed, for those who claim that the Medoc wines require too much time and effort, we give you the rich, approachable, and moreish wines of St-Emilion. Vineyards spread out in all directions from the little, but the much-visited gem of the Bordeaux region – the town of St-Emilion is situated in the corner of an escarpment above the Dordogne. Behind it, on the sand and gravel plateau, vines flow steadily into Pomerol. They swoop down steep limestone slopes (the Cotes) into the plain.
In the vineyards, the plump Merlot and Cabernet Franc dominate; Cabernet Sauvignon can have problems ripening in this climate, less tempered by the ocean, especially in its damper, cooler soils. Overall, the wines here take less time to reach perfection than Medoc wines, which only adds to their appeal. The quintessential St-Emilion has ripe tannins, a solid tastiness, and bags of sweet and savory fruit. They are utterly irresistible wines, only enhanced by a suitably decadent food pairing – St-Emilion and game is an assured match made in heaven. However, white wines are unheard of in the appellation, unlike the Medoc.
Today there are over 5300 hectares under vine, spread out over the 8 towns that fall under the Jurisdiction of St-Emilion, and a part of Libourne. Over 800 wineries produce wine that runs the gamut from luxurious and highly sought-after to affordable labels, which are hardly ever seen outside France. On average, 2.4 million wine cases are made every year, depending on the vintage, of course.
As you would expect, the terroir of St-Emilion is as varied as its wines. There are two distinct sub-regions of St-Emilion, each producing quite different styles of wine in broad terms. One group of the finest chateaux lies on the border of Pomerol, on the western edge of the appellation’s sandy and gravelly plateau. This terroir’s best wines are utterly splendid, beautifully balanced, and last almost as long as the First Growths of Pauillac.
The other key vine-growing area is known as the Cotes St-Emilion, which occupies the escarpment around and to the east of the town. This calcareous soil is perfect for growing Merlot to perfection, although the wines are not so fruity as the plateau’s wines. Yet, at their best, they are some of the most perfumed and generous wines of Bordeaux. They are typically more alcoholic than the Medoc wines, but the differences don’t end there. Unlike the ‘set in stone’ 1855 classification of the Medoc’s finest estates, St-Emilion prefers a more democratic approach. Every 10 years or fewer (most recently in 2012) it revises its candidates for Premiers Grand Cru Classes and Grand Cru Classes – even famous estates can be demoted or equally promoted, as Chateau Angelus was in 2012 to Premier Grand Cru Classe A. There are currently four estates belonging to this exclusive club – Angelus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone, and Pavie.
Nevertheless, despite the renown of the most famous chateaux, the comfort of St-Emilion to the wine lover is the number of fairly-priced wines that deliver consistently high standards and pleasure in generous abundance.