Promises of medieval quaintness and beauty led me to Saint-Émilion the first time. The small family-run vineyards that surround the town will keep me coming back.
About a 40-minute drive east of Bordeaux lies the town of St. Émilion, covered in cobblestones and surrounded by miles of vineyards. The city of Bordeaux is perfect to make a home base for its central location and for more happenings going on, but it is essential to make a trip east to its little sister, the small town of Saint-Émilion.
Legend has it that a Benedictine monk fled to this village when it was nothing but wilderness. He took refuge in a cave surrounded by forest.He had been taking some of his master's bread and giving it to the poor. When his master caught him and asked him to show what was under his cloak, the bread turned into wood and he was spared - but he split from his home in Brittany, France - fast. Despite his attempt to keep low-profile, his reputation flourished. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you do things like perform miracles, I guess. After his death, his followers settled here and a town was born. That’s how the town got its name, but its list of inhabitants goes back to the Romans who came by as early as the 2nd century, and took advantage of the conditions to plant vineyards.
Fast forward to today, where St. Émilion is certainly well-known and has the daily influx of tourists to show for it. Its main tourist attraction is meandering around the town and soaking in its beauty. For those who want to "do" something, there are activities surrounding the Monolithic Church (one of the largest in Europe).
The first time I visited St. Émilion with my husband and friends, we decided to climb up the bell tower of the Monolithic Church. We went to the tourist office to pay entry to the tower, and in turn were handed a skeleton key to let ourselves in and close the door behind us. It may be a popular destination but it still manages to retain the small-town charm!
Another interesting option is to go the opposite direction and explore the underground wonders of St. Émilion. Visitors can go inside the Monolithic Church as part of a guided tour provided by the TI office (otherwise it is not open to just wander in). As its name indicates, this church as carved out of one huge piece of stone. Limestone to be exact.
My fun fact takeaway - the famous stained glass windows of the Chartres Cathedral in France were hidden away in this Monolithic Church during World War II. No one wanted to destroy perfectly good vineyards and the windows survived untouched.
The main highlight of a trip to St. Émilion is just walking through the town itself. This should happen optimally before you start trying the wine - some of the roads are quite steep and the cobblestone is an added challenge!
But let’s get to the wine. If you’re going to Bordeaux, it is of course a worthwhile experience to visit the vineyards in that area. Then leave those prestigious and slightly pretentious châteaux behind to visit some family-run vineyards outside of St. Émilion. Don’t just listen to my opinion - everyone who has done the Bordeaux/St.Émilion loop with me appreciates seeing the vineyards of Bordeaux but ultimately prefers the intimate look at the industry that smaller operations provide in St. Émilion.
Château Beaurang is a perfect example of just that. Delphine greeted my friends and me on my first visit there and took us on a free, private tour of her family’s vineyard. Her grandparents came from Spain and were the first of the family to work the land here. We met her father in the garage who tends the vineyards with Delphine and one other hired hand. Most important is always the mother. Delphine's mom is the backbone of the operation, cooking to provide the necessary sustenance of labor intensive jobs.
The top châteaux in Bordeaux bring in 100 hands at harvest to hand-pick the grapes, but a small operation like Château Beaurang can’t afford that scale of operation. We were shown the tractor-like vehicle (not pictured...I don't know much about farm machinery, but I can say that the above is just a plain 'ole tractor) that Delphine’s father rides as it brushes the grapes off the vines into a collection receptacle. He recently innovated a way to install a camera on the back to increase efficiency.
When I returned to this château in September with my parents, I got to see the vines bursting with grapes almost ready to be harvested. It was then that we noticed some white grapes growing and inquired about it, noting they only sell rosé and red wines. I loved Delphine’s response - “Oh, we grow some white grapes for ourselves because our family likes it. The white wine is just for us.” The benefits of owning a vineyard!
The wine of Château Beaurang can only be bought on site - not online, not in any other shops. There goes the theory that any wine in France can be found in the US - if you like it, you have to make the journey here. Not a bad incentive to visit.
I love the personal touches of a small vineyard - one of the red wines produced here is named after Delphine’s grandfather, Joseph d’Aragon.
Nearby, Véronique welcomed us to Château Champion where we got another free, private tour. St. Émilion, like Bordeaux, is known for its red wines. The three main grape varieties used in a St. Émilion red are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Though as good as a glass of these red wines are, anyone who has spent a summer in France knows that warm weather brings forth a bounty of cool rosé wines that become synonymous with summer. Véronique is like many who prefer a lighter rosé for the summer months, and she set out to make a production of rosé wine according to her grape preferences. Even though her husband and in-laws didn't think the rosé would be a popular seller, she went ahead because she wanted to drink some - and now it sells out each year. Another tale of creativity realized in a smaller operation.
When I returned to St. Émilion with my parents, we discovered another vineyard together: Château Coutet. On yet another private, *complimentary tour (*it seems that there is a small fee now), we were shown around a special vineyard that has been in the family for over 400 years. We got to peek inside the family chapel (where a pope has visited!!) and go down into the family cellars. At which point our guide picked up a glass wine bottle sealed with a glass topper, and asked us to guess how old it is. What would you think? If you guessed around the year 1750 - pre-French Revolution - you would be correct. The family found the bottle buried underground when they were doing some recent construction and brought it to a lab to be dated. Can you imagine such an incredible link to your ancestry and family craft?
When you hear about a family chapel or reserving part of the crop for a family stash of wine, you might assume that these families are quite wealthy. But the reality is that each time the vineyard passes hands to the next family member, these estates must pay an incredibly high inheritance tax. How much? Just consider that Château Coutet is the last family-run plot in its immediate area, surrounded by châteaux owned by huge companies like Chanel and Louis Vuitton.
Hearing the stories from all three of the châteaux I visited, I was most impacted by the passion and love for the trade the families displayed. It is certainly hard work, and there are challenges ahead of these small businesses like in any other industry. But asking Delphine if she recommended the 2008 or 2009 Château Beaurang wine over the other summed it up. "These are like my children - each represents a year of hard work and time commitment. But I can help guide you according to your preferences."
Don't leave St. Émilion without connecting to its land, its legend, and the people who passionately cultivate it.
PLAN YOUR VISIT:
I can happily recommend visits to all three of the family-run vineyards I've mentioned here. I found them all thanks to St. Émilion's Tourist Office's website which lists all the châteaux welcoming visitors, as well as their hours and languages spoken for tours (all three I mentioned gave tours in English). You simply can’t go to St. Émilion and neglect to visit at least one vineyard! (Wine tastings in town cannot do justice to going on a tour at one of these gems.)
My picks :
Château Beaurang, open daily, free tour and tasting, contact Delphine Puyol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Within St. Émilion:
In town, it’s worth considering a climb up the bell tower for a view on a clear day. Pay and be entrusted with the key at the tourist office:
Daily, €1.50/person (€5 for a family of two adults and children, children under 6 years old free) - prices as of March 2014
Office de tourisme de la Juridiction de Saint-Émilion
Place des Créneaux, 33330 Saint-Émilion, France
See hours here on the tourist office's website.
And at 2pm there is a tour through the tourist office of the Monolithic church. (English tours are given daily from April 12th-November 2nd.) It gives some good history of the city as well as access to see inside this limestone church that still has some paintings on the walls. You can reserve ahead or try to get on the tour the day of (which didn't seem like a problem, at least in September).
A car is necessary to visit the vineyards. If you don’t have access to a car, a visit to Château Villemaurine is an option within walking distance, just on the outskirts of town.
Have you ever been to St. Émilion? What do you recommend?
Linking up with the All About France link-up!