St Emilion: Liquid Luxury

St Emilion, in a nutshell: first published in Living France magazine, but this is longer.

For many, the word ‘Bordeaux’ conjures the image of the classic fairytale château in beautiful gardens. But the majority of these are only found in one half of the Bordeaux region: the Left Bank, aka the Médoc. The Right Bank, however, with St Emilion at its heart, has a very different aesthetic.

Here the winemakers steer clear of Gucci suits in favour of jumpers and casual jackets (still by Gucci though: this is Bordeaux after all). Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of choice on the Left Bank, as it loves its well-drained gravely soils. On the Right Bank they grow more Merlot, as Merlot loves mud; clay to be precise. Wellies are called for in the rolling fields of the Right Bank, which has a more ‘country’ feel.

Merlot grapes produce less tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, and they make for a soft, lush, fruity wine that is ready to drink a little earlier than its neighbours on the Left Bank. Here, they blend the Merlot with Cabernet Franc, which provides some extra tannin, freshness and fragrance.

The typical flavours you might find in your glass from a traditional St Emilion are plum, blackberry, blackcurrant and a hint of smoke. Modern houses show a richer style, with more cola, vanilla and stewed black fruits. As they mature, they start taking on aromas of autumn leaves, chestnut, game and cigar tobacco; few wines become so complex or compelling.

The town of St Emilion itself is beautiful; grey stone buildings perched on a hilltop overlooking the manicured countryside. The little streets are a pleasure to explore – but walk on past the bottles. Unusually for France, reasonably-priced wine shops are rare here – wait until you’re out of town or at home, they might well be cheaper.

When I say cheaper, I don’t mean cheap. You’ll be hard pushed to find many St Emilions that are worth buying for less than £15 per bottle. If you’re hunting for a bargain, travel a little further out, to the neighbouring sub-regions such as Lussac-St-Emilion, Lalande de Pomerol, Côtes de Castillon and Fronsac. But next time you deserve a treat, the best wines of St Emilion are sumptuous, opulent, and unforgettable.


Some reliable producers:


Château Puy-Blanquet

Just at ‘Grand Cru’ level but usually a reliable buy at the cheaper end (though avoid the 2007).


Château de Fonbel

This estate belongs to Alain Vauthier, who owns Château Ausone, one of the top two estates of the region. Much cheaper than the celebrated Ausone, and often good value.


Clos Fourtet

Understated, subtle and refined, Clos Fourtet is one of the best estates in St Emilion. It crafts stunning wines that are well worth seeking out.