A trip to Bordeaux wouldn’t feel right without a visit to the Right Bank, and its ancient city of St-Emilion. KATHLEEN BUCKLEY pops across the Dordogne to stock up on wine, food and history.
There’s nothing Mickey MOUSE about St-Emilion as a tourist destination. With its ochre-coloured, solid stone walls, vineyards with Roman pedigrees and 70 hectares of limestone caves, this is the real thing. And as a wine destination too, the medieval village of St-Emilion, a UNESCO World Heritage site, outshines the Médoc, Burgundy and Champagne for sheer beauty and accessibility to excellent wines.
I’ve never met a wine lover arriving in Bordeaux for the first – or the 50th – time who doesn’t include St-Emilion in the itinerary. This museum of a city, on slopes that rise from the banks of the Dordogne River and the surrounding luxurious rolling vineyard landscape of the Right Bank, makes a perfect weekend visit, or a base for a week-long foray into the world’s greatest concentration of appellation wines. And unlike many wine regions, if you travel with a partner who isn’t a wine fanatic there’s enough history here for everyone to go home happy.
For a wine lover – or amateur de vin – St-Emilion is textbook perfect. The town itself is beautiful (notice that there are no overhead wires or TV satellites) and when it opens itself up for the summer and harvest visitor, few towns in France are more delightful. It is a place where time ticks according to the vintage. From the opening ceremony proclaiming the budding of the vines in June to the dramatic announcement in September to ‘let the harvest begin’ the hum, the scent and whispers are wine.
So to begin the journey, regardless of your knowledge, make your first stop the tasting initiation at l’Ecole du Vin situated next to the Paris-inspired Vignobles & Châteaux wine shop (ask Nicolas Blaiset to recommend his favourites) and only metres from the excellent tourist office. The appellation of St-Emilion presents Merlot at its finest, with a good dose of dramatic, perfumed Cabernet Franc and a tiny sprinkling of the Médoc bully, Cabernet Sauvignon.
A tutored tasting at L’Ecole du Vin of wines from St-Emilion and its satellites will help determine where to go for château visits, easily arranged by the tourist office, direct with the châteaux or through any of the St-Emilion satellite wine syndicat offices lying to the north and east of the city.
The châteaux that are not to be missed include Angélus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and a bevy of garagistes under the tutelage of Château Valandrud’s Jean-Luc Thunevin.
St-Emilion has leapt forward in its winemaking and risk-taking in a way the Médoc could never envision. The wines made today benefit from every winemaking advance known, from harvest tables that shimmy, to giant oak fermentation tanks, used by the best châteaux. Englishman Jonathan Maltus is a leading light with his Le Dôme vineyards tucked next to Angélus on the signature St-Emilion slopes, and at Château Teyssier, where he makes tiny quantities of excellent and expensive wine.
Then there are the cellars. The beautiful cellars. Carved into the limestone cliffs which nurture the vines and which also provided the yellow stone for building – the perfect colour for a sunset photograph – these are a must-see. Try Château Belair for a fine cellars tour at a family-run château.
While the town on the hillside is small, its accommodation matches the wines: excellent. Hostellerie du Plaisance, owned by Gérard Perse of Château Pavie fame, has only 18 rooms but these are definitely worth their high prices. Ask about the suite with its own garden, big enough for croquet. And book in advance for Philippe Echebest’s dégustation dinner.
The competitor is Hôtel Grand Barrail, amid vineyards just a few kilometres outside the town. The service is first rate, and a small and very professional spa makes it even more worthwhile – end a tiring day of wine tripping with a relaxing massage. There are several smaller hotels in the town centre and scores of private gîtes or b&bs within 5–15 minutes of the incredible monolithic church in the city centre. At Château Franc Mayne, sleep with a grand cru classé in lovely B&B accommodations. Château de Roques to the east is also lovely in a relaxed, French way. A bit farther away in Lalande de Pomerol (north of Pomerol) Château de Viaud is a good value B&B with beautiful décor and a friendly American host.
Take your time, consult with the tourist office, contact the owners of your potential getaway and ask their advice on where to visit, where to eat and what to see.
Wine bars have begun springing up, following the lead of L’Envers du Décor, the first in the Bordeaux wine country to offer wines by the glass. A recent arrival is wine bar Lard & Bouchon (it also serves dinner) or stop by for a tasting, a sandwich and an email check at the new St-Emilion Web Bar owned by Priscilla and Emmanuel Gimeno. They fled New York (he’s a fashion photographer) for Gimeno’s native country. If the idea of owning a wine bar catches your fancy, there is a spot on the square across from Amelia Canta – the best place to sip on a sunny afternoon – for sale.
With so much in St-Emilion that is new and exciting, only the food seems to continue to live in the traditional French, last-century manner. Yes, Hostellerie du Plaisance and Grand Barrail are excellent (and expensive, but good value at lunch). But for a casual afternoon lunch or nice mid-price dinner, only the traditional Logis de Cadène measures up. So where does one go to rub shoulders with the makers and owners of the stunning wines? You didn’t get this from me, but get to l’Atmosphère in time for lunch and you will find out. It’s good, inexpensive food and winemakers are at every table. It’s 15 minutes from St-Emilion but for true rustic wine flavour in every sense of the word, it’s the place to go.
If you have time
Groups are catered for by a special service which can organise a day’s work in a vineyard or cellar, dinners and themed evenings. Service Réceptif, tel +33 5 57 55 28 28, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit St-Emilion’s market, held every Sunday morning in the Place Bouqueyre, and, if you have children, jump on the tourist train which chugs around the streets of St-Emilion and nearby vineyards during the summer. t5 for you, t4 for kids.
On the third Sunday of June and the third Sunday of September, the Jurade of St-Emilion parades through the town in full purple regalia. The first occasion is to confirm
the quality of the last vintage, the second is to announce the start of the harvest. The processions end at the Collegial church next to the Maison du Vin for a service, and the event finishes, inevitably, with a big lunch. The Saturday evening before the September procession the town holds a Heritage Night, with illuminations.
ST-EMILION IN FIVE DAYS
n Day 1 The city itself. Climb the monolithic church tower in the Place du Clocher to view the Place du Marché below. Tour around the walls. The Porte Brunet is a quiet place to pause to view the city and the vines. Visit Château Franc Mayne for its caves and tour or Château Belair for a family-friendly tour. L’Angélus gives a professional view of wine, Château Figeac, with its elegant house, demonstrates the grander side of St-Emilion, while Château Pavie has super-sophistication. Lunch and spend the night in St-Emilion.
n Day 2 East of St-Emilion is St-Christophe-des-Bardes with a beautiful Romanesque church. Visit Château Fombrauge and the grand building of Château Haut-Sarpe. Then on to St-Etienne-de-Lisse, a pretty village surrounded by lovely countryside and backed by steep cliffs. Two châteaux worth visiting in the area are Haut Rocher and Puy Blanquet. At St-Colombe, tucked halfway up the valley, stop by Château Faugères which has a vineyard split in two – half St-Emilion and half Côtes de Castillon (both excellent but amazingly different). Return to St-Emilion via Vignonet, a Dordogne riverfront village. Visit Château Teyssier before returning to St-Emilion and the wine bar, Lard et Bouchon.
n Day 3 Go north to St-Georges, visit Château St-Georges built in the style of Louis XVI. Next door is Montagne St-Emilion and its Eco-Musée showing the life and working conditions of vignerons, Château Maison Blanche owned by the Despagne family which produces the best wine in the region and Château Faizeau. Continue northeast to Lussac St-Emilion with its friendly Maison du Vin – don’t miss the international barrel rolling contest in September. Visit the cave cooperative, one of the best in the region. This rustic countryside tour ends in Puisseguin St-Emilion and Château Branda, one of the earliest garage wineries.
Day 4 Leave St-Emilion through the western vineyards passing Cheval Blanc and La Tour Figeac. Drive by Pétrus (no visits) on the way to the Maison du Vin (look for the tall church spire) in the centre of Pomerol. Wines are available for sale there as most Pomerol châteaux are closed to visits. Either return via Grand Barrail for an end-of-the-day spa session or continue on to Libourne with its 15th-century town hall and a street plan reputed to be the model for Manhattan. L’Atmosphère, St-Germain-de-Puch for lunch.
Day 5 Entre-deux-Mers. Start the tour with the Wednesday morning market in the bastide town of Créon. On the eastern edge of the town is Château Bauduc, owned by Gavin Quinney who supplies the house wines for London’s Gordon Ramsay restaurant. Continue east along the ridge, where some of Bordeaux’s best white wines are made, to Château Thieuley. The Abbey of La Sauve is a good place to picnic before continuing to Château Bonnet, the largest single vineyard in Bordeaux (122ha). Return to Branne and follow the river on the south side past Castillon to Pujols and dine at La Poudette, a modern menu in a friendly atmosphere, a local favourite.
ALL WINED & DINED OUT?
Take a cycle ride along the cycle route between
Bordeaux and Sauveterre-la-Guyenne in Entre-deux-Mers. The route avoids roads, following the track of a former railway line. Tel: +33 5 57 55 28 28 (St-Emilion Office
de Tourisme) for bicycle hire.
Go canoeing or kayaking on the Dordogne (available at Ste-Terre and also further up-river at Pessac-sur-Dordogne. No bookings necessary.
If you are in the region at the end of July, or early August, go to the Bataille de Castillon, a spectacular re-enactment of the last battle of the Hundred Years’
War. Tel: +33 5 57 40 14 53 for tickets
Kathleen Buckley is a freelance wine, food and travel write based in southwest France.
Written by Kathleen Buckley