At their best, these wines can rival those from their more famous neighbour, but the prices are markedly more attractive. Roger Voss pays a visit to the Saint-Emilion satellites.
There’s no doubt about it. Saint-Emilion has become expensive, but if the style of Saint-Emilion is what you want – that magical blend of the fleshy ripeness of Merlot and the perfumes of Cabernet Franc – what can you do? Fortunately, the answer is not far away. In fact, if you stand by the ruined walls at the top of the slope on which Saint-Emilion the town is built and look north, you can see the answer. The vineyards slope gently down from Saint-Emilion and then rise steeply across the Barbanne river – the vines on the opposite slope come under the the wing of the Saint-Emilion satellite appellation, rather than Saint-Emilion itself. Four small villages take the Saint-Emilion suffix and make up the satellites – Saint-Georges, Lussac, Puisseguin and Montagne. At first sight, it looks as if they are just basking in the sun of Saint-Emilion, but in fact the links go back over 900 years. That was when the English King John, who was then Duke of Aquitaine, granted the charter of the Jurade of Saint-Emilion. This ancient order of Saint-Emilion citizens administered all the land both in what is now Saint-Emilion and also in the satellite villages. In those days, the satellites were part of greater Saint-Emilion and for centuries their wine was part of Saint-Emilion. Only in 1935 when the appellations were created was a division made between Saint-Emilion and the satellites. All this history was explained to me by Nicolas Despagne. His family has property in both Montagne-Saint-Emilion and in Saint-Emilion proper, and he is emphatic that the wines of the satellites can be as good as many Saint-Emilions.
’In fact, they are much better than the Saint-Emilion wine that comes from the flat river valley vineyards in Vignonet… The Saint-Emilionais made a mistake when they confused the quality of the wine with administrative boundaries.’ This may be an exaggeration, but Despagne does have a point. Much of the best vineyard land in the satellites has similar clay and limestone soil to the best land in Saint-Emilion. Lesser wines tend to come from the sandier soils in the north-east of the satellites region. Château Maison Blanche is the Despagne family’s estate in Montagne (its Saint-Emilion property is Château Corbin-Despagne). The house itself stands amid 32ha (hectares) of vines in one plot. This is a rare luxury in Bordeaux but shows how ancient the estates are in this region. The Despagne techniques – a traditional cellar with a mix of stainless steel and cement tanks, and ageing mainly in second or third year barrels – are typical of the area, where prices can never reach the levels of Saint-Emilion.
However, the Despagnes have copied one Saint-Emilion fashion: the cult wine. From a selection of the best parcels, they make a top cuvée called Château Louis Rapin. Aged entirely in new wood, it is modern in style, even if it is not as extracted as some of the more outrageous offerings from Saint-Emilion. Modern wines do make a brief appearance in the satellites. Jean-Luc Thunevin of Château de Valandraud is responsible for a pair of wines here: Château Branda in Puisseguin and Griffe de Cap d’Or in Saint-Georges. They sell at well under half the price of similar Saint-Emilion cult wines, yet have many of the same flavour characteristics.
Elsewhere, a mix of traditional and modern is more the norm. At Château Durand-Laplagne, Bertrand Bessou uses temperature-controlled cement tanks for vinification, but has a selection table of the sort that might be found in a classed growth estate in Saint-Emilion. His wines are classic in that they have structure and the ability to age, yet the fruit makes them accessible when young. He reckons that, price-wise, his Château Durand-Laplagne wines are on a level with basic Saint-Emilion. ‘But our quality is so much better because our vineyards are in the right position,’ he says.
Strong sense of place
Position, as Jean-Noel Roi of Château Bel-Air explains, is vital to a producer in Lussac. ‘There is a real mix of soil here, with a lot of sandy soil that doesn’t make great wines. Luckily we have gravel soil, which is ideal.’ He, like other producers, believes that, tasted blind, it would be difficult to tell between a Saint-Emilion and a good satellite wine. ‘It depends more on the producer than the appellation.’ Certainly his top cuvée, Jean-Gabriel, with its sweet, black fruit and solid, dense flavours, is every bit as good as many wines from the more illustrious neighbour down the road. It is the belief among the better producers in the satellites that their wines are every bit as good as Saint-Emilion that is driving the regeneration of an area that was once a backwater. If the low points are lower in the satellites, the high points are exciting, well-priced wines which, only by dint of an administrative anomaly, don’t bear the name of Saint-Emilion itself.
Written by ROGER VOSS