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St-Émilion


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Cheval Blanc

Château Cheval Blanc is one of the two leading estates in St-Émilion. Photo by Benjamin Zingg. License: Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic.

Maison du vins in St-Emilion

A house of wines in St-Émilion. Photo by Fabien1309 on Wikipedia.
License: Creative Commons SA 2.0 France.

Ever since its inception, St-Émilion has been producing wines of an unusual stamp. While arguably not as famous, and definitely not as expensive, as those of fellow Right Bank appellation Pomerol, the wines of St-Émilion bear a distinctive softness and approachability found in no other appellation for red Bordeaux. Calling red wines approachable and easy to drink would be an insult on the Left Bank, but in St-Émilion the softness and light sweetness of Cabernet Franc and Merlot bear a distinctive magic all their own. With time, the best wines mature to a silky complexity.

St-Émilion's classification system is complex and inaccurate enough to be a poor compass in buying St-Émilion wine. While the preponderance of the great wines simply label themselves as St-Émilion (adding Grand Cru, Premier Grand Cru Classé A, or Premier Grand Cru Classé B), four adjacent communes, known as satellites, exist that are also important. Everything you could wish to learn about St-Émilion is below.

History

History has generally indicated that what would be modern-day St-Émilion was involved in the very first plantings of Bordeaux wine grapes. In fact, the Romans planted vines in the 2nd century and the wine attracted praise as early as the 300s. The Right Bank was originally very popular, with the town of Libourne among the most famous wine appellations in the world for several decades before the Hundred Years' War. This war, however, ended Libourne wine, which was later reborn as St-Émilion. However, the main appellations for Bordeaux wine would be first Graves and then Médoc, with the Right Bank wines only coming into popularity in the last century or so.

St-Emilion 2

Roses and grapes in St-Émilion. Photo by Cornischong on Lebanese Wikipedia.
License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.

Climate and Viticulture

While the maritime climate of Bordeaux is shared between St-Émilion and the communes of the Médoc and Pessac-Léognan, there are a few key differences. The river that St-Émilion borders is the Dordogne, different than the Left Bank's Garonne. It is also significantly further from the ocean, meaning that the maritime influence is felt much less.

The truly crucial difference in St-Émilion is the soil. While gravel banks are outstandingly prevalent in the Médoc and in the appropriately named Graves, St-Émilion is an altogether different story. Instead, the area is known for its clay and limestone, which facilitate the growth of Merlot and Cab Franc.

Grape Varieties

The Cabernet Sauvignon grape is altogether unremarkable in St-Émilion, and in fact in the entire Right Bank usually makes undistinguished wines from this grape, if producers choose to use it. In fact, in terms of grape varieties, St-Émilion is significantly less diverse than the Left Bank areas, with only two grapes commonly used.

Major Producers

The classification singles out two houses, Ausone and Cheval Blanc, as the "Premiers grands crus classé A" (how's that for easy to remember?) in the St-Émilion classification, and therefore they are almost without fail the most expensive wines of the appellation, and also usually the best. The "Premiers grands crus classé B" include 11 runner-up estates, including Pavie. Then there are the Grands Crus Classés, which are less expensive but can often compete with the big boys in good vintages. Unclassified Grands Crus also exist. Bargain prices can be found in unclassified St-Émilion. In general, practically any St-Émilion wine is guaranteed to have good quality, and any classified wines come with a guarantee of excellent quality and good ageability.

The controversial classification has demoted various châteaux, which have become angry with the results and taken legal action. Appeals courts have had their various rulings, but the actual outcome is still not entirely clear. Until the classification is sorted out, the consumer might consider purchasing wine based on its reputation, rather than on a set standard. As a result, the following list is our own and is only based on the actual classification. The houses which are clearly considered to be leading (in this case our list agrees with the classification) are in the first category below.

Here is a list of houses that are considered close runner-ups to Ausone and Cheval Blanc.

Angelus 1990

A 1990 Château Angélus.
Photo by BerndB on Wikipedia.
License info: click here.

Houses of a slightly lower reputation also offer good St-Émilion.

St-Émilion is such an expensive appellation (even more so than Médoc, in which 3er, 4er, or 5er crus might be available at somewhat affordable, if not bargain, prices) that even those wines which might be on a qualitative and pointwise par with Médoc third growths, are much too expensive for the budgets of normal people. As a result, we have compiled a list of well pedigreed, uncompromising St-Émilions that are reasonably priced.

A number of "cult wines" also exist. Some of these, like Bellevue and La Mondotte, are listed above since they have moved into the top ranks. Others are simply expensive, well-produced garage wines made from tiny vineyard stakes with low yields. Wealthy collectors are often the only people who purchase these wines, but their existence should be noted by those who want to learn about this phenomenon. Although standard in places like Burgundy, the cult wine movement is almost entirely confined to St-Émilion among Bordeaux regions.

Subregions

Lussac-St-Emilion

Château de Lussac in Lussac-St-Émilion.
Photo by Relaisfrancmayne on Wikipedia. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.

While the majority of the leading St-Émilion wines will be labeled under St-Émilion, followed by some kind of Grand Cru designation, four other AOCs also use St-Émilion in their name. Most of the wines made in these places are under $25, and can provide good quality for even as low as $10. They were all given classification in 1936, and they are:

A vineyard in St-Émilion

Vineyards in St-Émilion. Photo by Bahulaga on Flickr. License: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.