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St-Emilion value: Making the Right choice

Lovers of Right Bank wines can find the choice among St-Emilion’s most famous names almost bewildering. James Lawther MW reveals where to find the best value in the region.

There is a bit of a paradox about St-Emilion. It is probably – along with Margaux – the most celebrated name in Bordeaux and, for that matter, one of the most notable in the wine world, but dealing with it on a micro-scale of buying from individual châteaux can be the source of some confusion. The offer is large, names of châteaux may be less familiar and quantities from each can be limited. Add to this the variation in style and terroir and the problem of purchase becomes Burgundian in proportion.

Currently, there are around 1,400 hectares (ha) of AC St-Emilion and 4,000ha of superior AC St-Emilion Grand Cru, divided among 640 growers. This translates into an average holding of 8ha (small compared with the 17ha or 18ha in the Médoc) and limited visibility and distribution on a global scale. Quality and style are dictated by soil (the limestone plateau and alluvial Dordogne plain form part of a complicated mosaic) and winemaking techniques, which include both modern and traditional approaches.

So where and what should consumers be looking for? Merlot is the dominant grape variety (more than 60% of plantings), with Cabernet Franc and sometimes Cabernet Sauvignon making up the blend, so no problem there. The sandy, silty soils of the Dordogne plain provide a lighter-framed, more fruit-driven St-Emilion, of which there are plenty of examples. Châteaux de Fonbel and Teyssier are probably the most consistent and given that they are larger, they can be widely distributed with an annual production of 110,000 and 180,000 bottles respectively.

But for something with greater complexity and a clear stamp of St-Emilion terroir it is best to look to the higher ground, where clay and limestone prevail.

This means heading principally for the limestone plateau and surrounding côtes. The wines have more density, a mellow fruit character, as well as freshness, structure and the potential to age.

Decanter asked me to select my top 10 names in St-Emilion for value. They allowed a generous budget of £500 per 12-bottle case, or £41.67 a bottle, which (apart from the premiers grands crus classés) leaves the field fairly open, even with in bond prices. The ‘garage’ era is over and those that remain are now established names with hefty price tags, witness Valandraud, Péby-Faugères and Gracia. There are still gems in this price range, but quantities and visibility are usually the problem. Clos des Baies and Clos Romanile are lovely wines made respectively by the cellar masters of Château Ausone and Valandraud. But with an annual production of 1,500 and 1,000 bottles these can be difficult to source.

There are really no shortcuts, but as a means of simplifying selection I would point the consumer towards the grands crus classés (GCCs), which represent just over 20% of the surface area of AC St-Emilion Grand Cru. By no means perfect, the St-Emilion classification does provide motivation for quality, includes a large number of châteaux with excellent terroir and is a reasonable guide for consumers. There is little speculation on most of these wines, thus less price fluctuation, although expect a premium for vintages such as 2009/2010.

Whether or not to buy en primeur is an open question. ‘Yes’ would be the answer if it means guaranteeing limited stock of a particular wine. However, given that the market is deflated at the moment, it’s prudent to hunt around for bottled wines. 2009 and 2010 are rich and dense (the latter repaying cellaring), but they sell at a higher price. Older vintages may be harder to come by, but there are some 2008s on the market that represent reasonable value. Otherwise, wait for the 2012s, which have fruit, charm and a drinking span of eight to 10 years. They weren’t worth buying en primeur, but in bottle are worth a punt.

The following châteaux have all shown progression in recent years and remain attractively priced. They have a certain classicism, but with a modern edge of purity and fruit. The potential for ageing 10 to 15 years is guaranteed.

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