From modern-day cult wineries to 12th-century churches, KATHLEEN BUCKLEY takes a tour around the many towns and châteaux of Saint-Emilion

From modern-day cult wineries to 12th-century churches, KATHLEEN BUCKLEY takes a tour around the many towns and châteaux of Saint-Emilion

For years, the best place to buy magnums of wine in Saint-Emilion was the city’s Maison du Vin. There were the good, and sometimes the great, of vintages past and they were cheap, as though inflation passed by the clerk who marked the bottles. But those days are over – you just missed them. Somebody wised up and the prices, while still reasonable, are no longer a bargain. Which is just as well. It is difficult lugging around magnums in a weekend bag. Bringing back wine, though, remains a good reason for stopping in Saint-Emilion on the way to a summer holiday in the Dordogne. Not only is it convenient – the route D936 from Bordeaux passes right by the picturesque hilltop town – but Saint-Emilion is entertaining. So much so, that if halfway through the summer the thought of smiling through one more weekend of company at a holiday home is just too much, make your excuses and head off to the area for the weekend.

The city is hoisted on a slope and is so intent on preserving its image of medieval beauty that the local council forbids satellite dishes and exterior DIY on the ochre-coloured stones and Roman tile roofs. ‘From every vantage point, the harmony of Saint-Emilion is impressive,’ says the tourist office brochure, so much so that UNESCO anointed this vineyard region with the status of World Heritage Site. The Maison du Vin is a good place to begin a tour. There, and at the tourist office around the corner, pick up English language maps and books laying out the appellation’s wine history. (Or if you have one, bring Hugh Johnson’s Atlas of Wine: all the châteaux are well marked on the map, if not on road signs). The thing to remember for finding your way is that Saint-Emilion sits on the edge of a plateau that extends towards Libourne. The slopes drape themselves like a skirt with vineyards in the ripples, ridges and folds, east towards Castillon-la-Bataille, south precipitously into the flatlands towards the Dordogne and west in velvet folds of vines toward Libourne. One edge of the appellation is no more than 15 minutes from the other, and wherever you end up there’s a château.

Day one

Day one is easy. Start at the road parallel to the upper town wall and go downhill towards route D936. When the road forks, go left towards Château Ausone. Archaeologists believe the Roman consul and poet Ausonius had one of his three villas and vines here. Sadly, this stunning premier grand cru classé A is rarely open for tours or tastings so continue down the road to Château Belair, a premier grand cru classé B.The monolithic quarried caves here, with vine roots protruding from the ceiling, are believed to have been dug first by the Romans, and again centuries later to build Bordeaux. From Belair continue down the hill and turn left, ending up at a three-way intersection. Turn left, back up the hill towards the city for lunch; the châteaux are shut from noon to between 2 and 3pm. Be prepared for a tortuous drive back up the hill once the road turns to granite paving stone (a legacy of the British and French wine trade of the 12th century). The stones are from Cornwall and Brittany, carried as ship’s ballast to be replaced by wine returned for the King of England. Just be patient and eventually the chessboard moves will return you to the top where there are several paying car parks. Wander into the Place du Marché for lunch, and make sure you wear flat shoes with a good grip, as the stone paths leading down to the square are amazingly slippery. Arrange a 2pm appointment and there will be time to squeeze in two visits after lunch. So head back down the cobblestone hill and, just as you cross the railway tracks towards the D936, on your right is Château Canon-La-Gaffelière and its cult wine, La Mondotte. This is more of a family home and winery than a grand château of Médoc style. The tasting room, a large hall with a wonderful rustic fireplace, is flanked by barrels of first-label wines. This is one of four von Neipperg family labels. The young count, Stephan von Neipperg, arrived in 1985 and has since then helped the property grow in prestige and in public acclaim. Speaking of cult wines, there really aren’t any other than those in the famous cellar Valandraud at Jean-Luc Thunevin’s house tucked into the centre of Saint-Emilion (a number of cult wines are available at the wine shop across from La Poste, Maison des Vins du Libornais).

These cult Bordeaux wines are sometimes made in smart chais, and at other times the wines are tucked into an old outbuilding, like the barrels at biodynamic Château Jacques Blanc, an aspiring grand cru located on the D936 about half a mile from the main road to Saint-Emilion. The key to cult wines is in the vineyard parcel (quality), the production (small) and the price (high or hopeful). From Canon-La-Gaffelière, continue south across the D936 in the direction of Vignonet, a commune in the Saint-Emilion appellation on the flat plain. End the day here with native English speakers, Jonathan and Lyn Maltus. Their Château Teyssier has been fully restored and the cellars are new and spotless. Maltus makes a cult-type wine called Le Dôme from a small parcel just west of Château Angélus, as well as two other labels, Château La Forge and Château Teyssier. If you haven’t booked dinner, ask for their recommendation. They may suggest Le Logis de la Cadène or, for a more casual meal, L’Envers du Décor. This is a wine bar with a wide range of wines by the glass and a basic but good menu. Both are favourites of many proprietors. Book early: all of the restaurants are small and demand is high, even in winter.

Day two

Let’s assume day two is not a weekend. It makes the tastings slightly more convenient as most prestigious châteaux are not open for visits on Saturdays, even fewer on Sundays. The exceptions are special public wine weekends in the spring and autumn. Head west from the Maison du Vin on route D243 to route D245 towards the Saint-Emilion/Pomerol border and Figeac country. Château Figeac, owned by the Manoncourt family, is the legacy of a property that once included the vineyards of Cheval Blanc. The Figeac vineyards are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, the largest amount in the appellation. Tasting here helps to sharpen the mind’s eye for how the usual balance of Merlot and Cabernet Franc in a Saint-Emilion wine can be altered with the backbone of the rarer Cabernet Sauvignon. Edging closer to Pomerol is Château la Tour-Figeac, owned by Otto Rettenmaier. These grand cru classé wines show the family’s focus on improving the quality of the wines, and the tour and tasting explore their philosophy. Swing by Cheval Blanc, the hugely prestigious property (no visits) on the D245 before lunch at Château Grand Barrail. The hotel is set in the vineyards and the menu is exquisite, and expensive. Lunch here is the best option, not only for price but because the views are beautiful and restful. Book only one appointment this afternoon. Your appointment should be at Château Angélus, the most recently elevated premier grand cru classé B; it is worth skipping a nap for. From Grand Barrail, turn right in the direction of Saint-Emilion, take the first major right turn, then the first left turn to Angélus. If you are too tired even for that, take a rest and then wander around Saint-Emilion until the sun sets. The tourist maps are well marked with notes of the city’s many historic buildings. For the perfect end to the day, dinner at the small Francis Goullée is a gourmet must, and so are reservations.A brief aside: the shopping here is good, much better than in the Médoc, Graves or Sauternes. With a thriving tourist trade (Sundays in the summer are impossible), besides the t-shirts and postcards there are shops selling excellent art, clothing, leather and ceramics. Even the ones with postcard racks outside often have good-value treasures tucked inside. Don’t hesitate to peek around a corner or go up a staircase if it looks like a shop is there. English is widely spoken.

If the visit is a weekend, on Sunday make a visit to the 12th-century Collegiate Church and a café in the Place des Creneaux next to the bell tower of the monolithic church. The tower looks out beyond the Place du Marché and is a good stage for 360-degree digital pictures (ask for the key at the Maison du Vin – there is a small fee). There are a few châteaux open on Sundays, particularly on the appellation fringes (see list). Make an appointment and do remember to buy wine if you show up. The best way to see the underground Monolithic Church, built between the ninth and 12th centuries (now on the list of the world’s 100 most endangered sites), is during a concert. Last year I listened to flamenco masters with an audience of no more than 100 people. The dramatic lighting, the acoustics and the plaintive songs combined to make an incredible evening. Similarly, the city’s feasts are well staged. On the third Sunday in June the quality of the previous vintage’s wine is confirmed, and on the third Sunday in September the signal is given for the start of the harvest. These

ceremonies are carried out with cheerful pageantry as the jurade (a jury dating back to the 12th century, and now a fraternal group) marches through the city in flowing red gowns and hats, preceded by trumpeters, to climb the Tour du Roy (King’s Tower) and

proclaim the wine or launch the harvest. Saint-Emilion is not a backwater wine town and, excluding the 15 minutes the gaggle of robes are atop the tower, it doesn’t shout about its wines. It is sophisticated and sure of itself. Just like the wines.

Saint-Emilion Touring

Châteaux

Château Belair

Tel: +33 5 57 24 70 94

English language tours with advance reservations, tastings, wines for purchase.

Château Jacques Blanc

Tel: +33 5 57 40 18 01

Tour and tasting, in English

with advance reservation.

Château Teyssier

Tel: +33 5 57 84 64 22

Château Figeac

Tel: +33 5 57 24 72 26, Morning appointments only, tours by reservation.

Château la Tour-Figeac

Tel: +33 5 57 51 77 62

Advance reservations, tours in English or German.

Château Angélus

Tel: +33 5 57 24 71 39

Tasting, tours and sales.

HOTEL AND RESTAURANT

SUGGESTIONS

Le Logis de la Cadène

3, place du Marche au Bois,

Tel +33 5 57 24 71 40

L’Envers du Décor

Rue du Clocher,

Tel +33 5 57 74 48 31

Francis Goullée

27, rue Guadet,

Tel +33 5 57 24 70 49,

Closed Sun evening and Mon.

Hotel Château Grand Barrail

Lamarzelle Figeac

Route de Liborne

33330 Saint-Emilion

Tel: +33 5 57 55 37 00

Fax: +33 5 57 55 37 49

www.grand-barrail.com

Rooms from £85 a night; five suites from £240. Excellent restaurant with splendid views of the vineyards.

Hostellerie de Plaisance

5 Place Clocher

Saint-Emilion

Tel: +33 5 57 55 07 55

Fax: +33 5 57 74 41 11

Set in the heart of Saint-Emilion. Rrooms from £65 a night; £190 for a deluxe room or suite. 16,000 bottle cellar.

Château Franc Mayne

33330 Saint-Emilion

Tel: +33 5 57 24 62 61

Fax: +33 5 57 24 68 25

On the western slopes of

Saint-Emilion, five elegant

suites in the 17th century château from £90 to £130.

Resources

Office de Tourisme de

Saint-Emilion

Place des Crèneaux

33330 Saint-Emilion

Tel: +33 5 57 55 28 28

Fax: +33 5 57 55 28 29

st-emilion.tourisme@wanadoo.fr

www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com

Written by KATHLEEN BUCKLEY