Saint Emilion is a picturesque town, UNESCO World Heritage Site and wine appellation in the southwest of France. Part of the Bordeaux region, Saint Emilion is known for its robust wines, which are produced along the Dordogne River.
Saint Emilion has a long and rich history, with wine production dating back to at least 56 AD, when the Romans produced wine amphorae there. It is around this time that the first vines were planted in the region and wine production began in full force.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, wine production was furthered by Christian monks. According to local legend, a Breton named Emilion came to the area in the 700s, settled in a cave and devoted the rest of his life to prayer and meditation. After Emilion’s death, his followers built a church dedicated to him and the town retains his name to this day. During this time period, wine was produced by monks who would make use of it in church services. Drawn in by the legend of Emilion, the town soon became home to a large array of religious orders, including Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians, all of who had a hand in wine production in the area.
In 1199, when Aquitaine, the region of which Saint Emilion is a part, was under English rule, the Saint Emilion Jurade was formed, which guaranteed the city administrative, financial and legal autonomyclaimed due to the fact that it was an important spiritual centre. The Jurade, which still exists today, plays an important role in wine within Saint Emilion, supervising production, announcing the grape harvest, ensuring quality and protecting against fraud. The Jurade was dissolved during the French Revolution, but reformed in 1948, and to this day works for the advancement of Saint Emilion wines.
In the second half of the 1800s, Saint Emilion was hit by the phylloxera crisis, as was much of France. However, the city managed to overcome the ordeal and, in 1884, formed the first winemakers’ union in France. In 1931, the winemakers’ union became Bordeaux’ first wine cooperative and, in 1955, Saint Emilion received its AOC classification, which consists of three levels: Premier grand cru classe A, Premier grand cru classe B, and Grand cru classe.
In 1999, Saint Emilion became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which helps to protect both the town and its wines for future generations to enjoy.
Saint Emilion, being located in the Dordogne valley, has a temperate, Mediterranean climate. During the growing season, Saint Emilion enjoys about 1,400 hours of sunlight and about 900mm of rain a year, which is essential for the complete ripening of the grapes.
The soil in Saint Emilion is a mix of limestone, gravel and clay-limestone, with much of the area located on a limestone plateau.
Saint Emilion has around 5,500 hectares under vine and produces about 36 million bottles of wine annually, with output made up of only red wines.
Wines from Saint Emilion are typically a blend of grape varieties, usually 60% Merlot, 30% of Cabernet Franc and around 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon.
These three red wine grapes, when blended together, are called the “Bordeaux blend,” and make up about 94% of Saint Emilion’s wine output. Another 5% is a Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend, while 1% is purely Merlot.
Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, all red wine grapes, are the dominant vines in Saint Emilion.
Due to the fact that it ripens earlier than other grapes, Merlot is a popular blending grape for Cabernet Sauvignon, which is higher in tannins than Merlot.
Merlot grapes are the most widely planted in the Bordeaux region.
The three classifications of Saint Emilion wines distinguish how long the wine has been aged. The Saint Emilion AOC has been aged for 3 to 8 years, the Saint Emilion Grand Cru has been aged for 5 to 12 years and the Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe for 15 to upwards of 25 years.
The restrictions relating to the Saint Emilion Grand Cru has come under fire for being too loose to be considered a Grand Cru, especially as twice as much Grand Cru is produced every year than Saint Emilion wine. However, the appellation is notable for being updated every ten years.
Wines from Saint Emilion are renowned for being full-bodied, with aromas of toasted bread, truffles and cooked red fruits. The Bordeaux Blend also has flavours of black currant, plum, graphite and violet.
There are four estates, or châteaux, which have received the highest level of Saint Emilion wine classification. They are: Chateau Angelus, Chateau Ausone, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Pavie.
Clos de l’Oratoire is an estate located on the slopes of Saint Emilion. The domaine is one of the most prized properties of the German wine entrepreneur Stephan von Neipperg, who acquired full ownership and control in the early 1990s.