Saint-Émilion is a key wine town in the Libournais district of Bordeaux, important in terms of both quality and quantity. It lies just a few miles north of the Dordogne, in the final stages of the river's journey from the hills of the Massif Central to the Gironde estuary. The town is renowned as much for its beautiful buildings and scenery as for its wine. Its steep, narrow, cobbled streets, overlooked by its Romanesque church and the iconic 13th-century Tour du Roy tower are a reminder of the town's long history.
There have vineyards around Saint-Émilion since Roman times, and today the Saint-Émilion wine appellation is one of the most prolific in the Bordeaux region, generating more than 250,000hL of wine each vintage. It is also responsible for some of the most prestigious, long-lived and expensive wines in the world – châteaux Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Angélus, Figeac and Pavie, whose wines sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle, are all situated in and around Saint-Émilion. (© Wine-Searcher)
Saint-Emilion's distinctive Tour du Roy tower
Unlike the wines of the Médoc (which focus heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon), Saint-Émilion wines are predominantly made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The other traditional Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Petit Verdot and Malbec) are permitted for use here, but are rarely used to any significant extent. This is not so much a question of taste and style as one of terroir; the clay- and chalk-rich soils around Saint-Émilion are generally cooler than those on the Médoc peninsula, and are less capable of ripening Cabernet Sauvignon reliably. Merlot makes up around two thirds of vines planted around Saint-Émilion, and continues to increase in popularity because of the softer, more approachable wine styles it produces. There are two notable exceptions to this: Château Cheval Blanc, where Cabernet Franc occupies 58 percent of the vineyard area, and Château Figeac, where Merlot, Cabernet Franc and (more unusually) Cabernet Sauvignon enjoy equal representation in both vineyard and wine.
On the whole, the prevalence of Merlot in Saint-Émilion means that its wines are approachable at an earlier age than their more astringent, tannin-rich cousins from the Médoc. This is a key factor in their appeal and popularity in markets all around the world, and particularly in the United States.
Geologically speaking, Saint-Émilion can be divided into three main areas. The most significant is the limestone plateau on which Saint-Émilion town is located, and the slopes around it. Most of the very top vineyards and châteaux are located here, within a mile of the town (Cheval Blanc and Figeac again provide two notable exceptions to the rule).
Immediately south of the limestone plateau is the alluvial, sandy plain which slopes gently down to the banks of the Dordogne. Few wines of any note are produced here, and none of the Grand Cru Classe properties are located here.
In the northwestern corner of the Saint-Émilion area is an ancient alluvial terrace, formed by glacial activity at the very beginning of the Quaternary period roughly 2 million years ago. This boasts the same free-draining 'gunzian' gravels as are found in the best properties of the Graves and Médoc, which explains why the two most famous châteaux here (Cheval Blanc and Figeac) are able to grow and ripen both Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. This terrace – known as the Graves de Saint-Émilion – continues westwards into neighboring Pomerol, and underpins the vineyards of such revered estates as Le Pin and Petrus.
Saint-Émilion has four satellite areas: Lussac-Saint-Émilion, Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion, Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion and Montagne-Saint-Émilion. These cover distinct, slightly smaller areas immediately northeast of Saint-Émilion proper, and each has its own independent appellation title.
Saint-Émilion also has a Grand Cru appellation (Saint-Émilion Grand Cru), which imposes slightly tighter production restrictions. This has been the subject of much criticism since its introduction in 1954, as the restrictions are widely viewed as being too loose to warrant the use of the Grand Cru title. Unusually, twice as much Saint-Émilion Grand Cru wine is made each year than regular Saint-Émilion.
Fortunately, the Saint-Émilion Wine Classification system performs the task of marking out the area's top-tier wines. This works in much the same as the classifications of the Médoc, Graves and Sauternes, but with one significant difference: it is periodically reviewed to keep it up-to-date and relevant. It was first drawn up in 1955, and (after a controversial review in 2006) was most recently updated in 2012. For more information see: Saint-Émilion Wine Classification.