Not Your Average Perspective of Saint-Emilion

In my past job as a wine broker, I was often in the Saint-Emilion area looking for Merlot wines. Contrary to what I often hear or read online, Merlot (and not Cabernet-Sauvignon) is the major grape variety in Bordeaux. It is the “king” of the right bank (Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac…) and represents more than 60% of the total Bordeaux vine population. There are two main reasons for that: as a precocious varietal, it can be harvested early and before it starts raining too much. Its volume of production is also very interesting for vine-growers. A large amount of this production is used in generic Bordeaux wines sold to supermarkets or exported at low prices. Those wines are generally mediocre and raw.

On the other hand, when cultivated properly, something many vineyards do, its expression is remarkable.

If you appreciate Merlot, NEVER will you find elsewhere finer wines. Unlike Cabernet-Sauvignon which makes quality wines in different regions of the world, Merlot produced in Saint-Emilion (and on the right bank in general) is unique and at its best level. It thrives on these cold soils and sub-soils. Much like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Merlot is a complicated and delicate grape variety that should be harvested at the PERFECT maturity level. Maturing grapes is the biggest challenge in the Bordeaux area but when it does happen, these grapes produce wine combining fineness and aging potential, something that rarely happens in warmer regions.

Over the years, I have become a big fan of Saint-Emilion wines, and of Saint-Emilion in general which is such a beautiful village. However, as a merchant but also as an enthusiast, it is such a shame that those wines have become so expensive. The mention Saint-Emilion on the label makes poor quality bottles barely affordable.

Home of the Latin poet Ausonius in the 4th century, this town will please any monument lover. Also one of the oldest vineyards in the world, its history is amazing.

The wine appellation regroups 8 villages around Saint-Emilion. We call “satellites” three other appellations that “gravitate” around the main one : Lussac-Saint-Emilion, Montagne-Saint-Emilion and Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion. Do not confuse those with the main one as the quality is generally lesser (even though some very nice wines are made here and there). It is always mentioned on the label anyway.

The average size of wine estates in Saint-Emilion is much smaller than in Médoc. It’s probably the biggest difference between the two. Only a few Châteaux (Figeac, Cheval Blanc, Pavie…) have more than 85 acres of property. The two main grape varieties used here are Merlot and Cabernet Franc (locally called Bouschet). Cabernet Sauvignon is also used but in fewer proportions and mainly during great years with appropriate climate conditions. Malbec (locally called Pressac) was traditionally cultivated as well, but tends to disappear now.

In order to have a better understanding of Saint-Emilion wines, it’s necessary to distinguish three different zones : the limestone plateau, the gravels and the plain.

On the first one, the dark grey soils consist of limestone rocks, angular or polished. It’s on that plateau that most of the famous first growths are located such as Ausone, Canon, Clos Fourtet, Trottevieille, Beauséjour… On that base, the Merlot offers intense fruitiness and gets a slender and very elegant shape in the mouth. Also, when aging, these wines will offer unique aromas.

To the west and on the way to Pomerol, ancient alluviums from a river remain and make up for an excellent base (very permeable) for vine-growing : this is the gravels zone. Famous wineries such as Château Figeac and Château Cheval Blanc are located there. There is a much bigger proportion of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in that area which are better suited for such a terroir.

Finally, the plain mainly consisting of sand and grit produces wine of lesser quality, especially when vines are planted under 35 feet of altitude.

There is a classification of Saint-Emilion wines since 1959 which may be updated every ten years. However, there has been so much controversy about it that I’d rather taste every single wine myself over and over again to get a personal opinion.

Some of my Recent Tastings : 

– 2013 vintage review :

– Château Angélus, Premier Grand Cru Classé A (First Growth A) :

– Wonderful tasting of three big names of the appellation on great vintages (please contact me for more information) :