The Wine Palate
If you were to close your eyes and conjure up a picture of old France, it would look very much like St. Emilion.
One of the great walled cities of the world, St. Emilion is almost perfectly preserved from the Middle Ages. It is marked notably by the Eglise Monolithe, the largest underground church in all of Europe, recognized by its magnificent clock tower.
Built by monks between the eighth and 12th centuries, it plays a somewhat integral part of St. Emilion viniculture to this very day. To the east of the Gironde estuary and extending north from the Dordogne River, the St. Emilion appellation is comparatively very small when juxtaposed against the Medoc.
What it lacks in geographic size, though it certainly makes up for in quality and variation. With over 1,000 independent Chatueax to choose from, St. Emilion is a region to peruse.
When thinking of the wine regions of Bordeaux, they are usually categorized in two major factions: the right bank and the left bank. Wines from the left bank are usually Cabernet Sauvignon-focused and are known to be some of the biggest and most elegant wines of the world. The wines of the right bank are more focused on the Merlot and Cabernet Franc grape and tend to be softer and more opulent.
The two great regions of the right bank are St. Emilion and Pomerol. The difference between the wines of these two regions is often described as the difference between silk and velvet, respectively. St. Emilion’s aspect, unlike that of the left bank, is steep and rocky.
Also unlike the left bank, the vineyards tend to be very small and tightly packed next to one another. The average premier grand cru classes in St. Emilion cover only 20 hectares, while the even smallest first growth of the Medoc, Chateau Latour, covers 60. This fact may contribute to why many of the great wines of St. Emilion will often cost as much or more than those of the left bank.
Like most regions of France, St. Emilion is today defined by a classification system was put into place relatively recently. While the left bank began its classification system in 1855, the St. Emilion system was not started until 1958 and is revised every 10 years. The Chateaux were divided into four basic categories.
First is the highest and most respected, the Premier Grand Cru Classe, Class A. Only two Chateaux now carry that esteemed title, Chateau Aussone and Chateau Cheval Blanc.
There are then 11 Premier Grand Cru Classe, Class B wines. After that follows 64 Grand Cru Classe wines, and finally the other 900 or so Chateau that didn’t quite make the cut. You must be somewhat careful in this region buying by class though, as there is a significant difference between Grand Cru Classe wines and Grand Cru wines. A St. Emilion wine can carry the Grand Cru label by doing nothing more than keeping the alcohol level high enough.
There are of course many great wines to try from this region. Chateau Magdelaine and Chateau Pavie are two of my very favorite wines worth looking out for. 2000, ’03, ’98, ’96, and ’95 have all been really great vintages recently. Good luck and remember, drink better, drink less (or more if you can afford it).
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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