Eat/Drink/Live – Saint Émilion
The present-day city of Saint Émilion sits in the heart of the Bordeaux wine region and is completely surrounded by vineyards. Emmanuelle Bouvet, Communications and Relations-Presse for the city, sets the scene: “Coming from the west, [you] will discover … a true ocean of vines … mansions and groves. The winding roads will take you to slopes and terraces from which you can see the silver ribbon [that is] the Dordogne River. This is how the main features of the Saint Émilion terroir are revealed ….”
In the 8th century, one lonely monk named Émilion left his family behind in Breton so he could through the forests and pray. He finally set down roots about 35 kilometres east of the city of Bordeaux in the Ascumbas forest, which once entirely covered what would become the city of Saint Émilion. There, he found a cozy cave to inhabit, and other monks eventually came to settle around him. Émilion may have found a particularly pastoral spot to lay his sleeping bag, but the monks who followed him just couldn’t rest. They took the vineyards the Romans had planted and turned winemaking into a commercial venture. And the nuns, well … they created culinary masterpieces.
French sovereigns called it “a privileged wine.” To the English monarchs it was the “King of Wines.” Jancis Robinson, British wine authority, describes Saint Émilion as “an important red wine district in Bordeaux producing more wine that any other right bank appellation.”
How is it that a vine-growing area covering only 5300 hectares can have such an awesome reputation? The answer lies in that evocative word — terroir. The vineyards of Saint Émilion are rooted in incredibly diverse landscapes, from limestone to gravelly soils to sun-drenched slopes. The region’s three grape varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, are transformed into both elegant and powerful wines, depending on where they’re grown. In such a small vine-growing area there are, in fact, hundreds of châteaux with vineyards typically no larger than three hectares. It’s the epitome of local artisanship. In Bouvet’s words, “There is no wine of Saint Émilion. There are, in fact, many.”
With 67.5 per cent of the landscape dedicated solely to vineyards, it’s no wonder that, in 1996, UNESCO wrote that this region is “a remarkable example of a centuries-old viticultural region which has remained intact and continues to produce wine.” By 1954, the city had organized itself into two Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C.) — Grand Cru Classé and Premier Grand Cru Classé. Unlike any other classification system, the Saint Émilion ranking hinges on the quality of the wine. Every 10 years, châteaux re-submit their products for evaluation. Wines must demonstrate a particular level of excellence in order to be listed under either heading.
“We wandered around the town, which was full of tourists, and found a restaurant at noon to avoid the rush. Logis de la Cadène has an outdoor area with vine-covered pergola; but we lunched inside. Deborah had steak and I had lamb chops — three of them on a skewer … At three o’clock the group is scheduled to arrive at Château Canon-La-Gaffelière, but we’re late because our bus is too large for the road and the next shortest route is under construction. Stephan von Neipperg takes us into the vineyard. From here we can see Ausone, Bélair and Magdelaine as well as the ugly building of the local co-operative. Stephan tells us that the director of the co-operative is a decent fellow who is prepared to turn off the lights at night if Canon-La-Gaffelière is entertaining guests. Stephan is passionate about organic growing. ‘If you have no life in the earth,’ he says, ‘you have no life in the wine.’” – Tony Aspler
Try a horizontal tasting. Line up a few bottles that come from different châteaux, but that were produced in the same vintage. Sampling a selection of wine from each part of Saint Émilion will help you develop an appreciation for how the diversity of the landscape can contribute to structure, aroma and taste.
premier grand cru classé
Château Bélaire 2006 ($85)
Château Figeac 2006 ($129)
Château Magdelaine 2006 ($82)
grand cru classé
Château Canon-La-Gaffelière 2006 ($115)
Câteau La Serre 2006 ($52)
Château Coutet 2006 ($42)
• The châteaux of Saint Émilion produce about 36 million bottles of red wine a year.
• Most châteaux are family-run.
• Saint Émilion was the first wine-producing area in the world listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
• It is the oldest wine-producing area in the region of Bordeaux.
• Saint Émilion vine growers have their own patron saint — Saint Valéry
• Baraganne (vineyard leeks) are a delicacy that grows naturally in between the vine rows.
Wine, wine, wine … that’s what Saint Émilion is known for, right? Of course it is. But, what you may not know is that this little city consisting of only 27.1 square meters is world famous for its food, too. Made according to the same philosophy as its wine, traditional dishes are all about what’s available locally. Duck, beef, salmon, pork, mushrooms and a host of other foods are grown so close to Saint Émilion that even 20 kilometres away is no longer considered local. Other yummy eats worth trying are roast lamb, wood pigeon drizzled with red wine sauce and served with garlic croutons, and, of course, steak grilled over vine-prunings.
Saint Émilion is probably most known for its macarons (macaroons). These scrumptious little cookies are made with ground almonds, egg whites and sugar. In 1620, the Ursuline nuns, having recently arrived in the village, unpacked their suitcases and set about baking goodies from their secret stash of recipes. The original macaroon recipe was passed down from generation to generation of nuns until the early 20th century. At that point, the recipe was given to Madame Grandet who featured the cookie in her newly opened Blanchet Bakery, which still exists at 9, rue Guadet. The recipe remains the same as what the nuns used, and Blanchet Bakery continues the tradition of hand selecting, roasting and grinding the almonds on site. Although the macaroons can be found in practically every bakery across France, only the ones made at Blanchet can be called “Saint Émilion Macarons.” The 2008 Petit Futé Guide for the Gironde Region claims, “It is almost impossible not to be tempted by these small macaroons that somehow manage to be soft and crunchy at the same time.”
Although the original recipe remains the property of Blanchet Bakery, there are a number of very good variations to be found. Here’s one adapted from Stéphane Reynaud’s French Feasts.
1 3/4 cups icing sugar
1 1/4 cups ground almonds
1/2 cup egg whites
Mix together sugar and ground almonds; sift into a bowl.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites into stiff peaks and carefully incorporate the sugar-almond mixture with a rubber spatula.
Pipe or spoon dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Let dry approximately 10 minutes.
Bake in a preheated 300°F oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
where to eat in saint émilion
L’Envers du Décor
Logis de la Cadène
Bistrot Le Clocher
“Restaurant Amelia Canta — We picked this place because it was convenient, on the main place in Saint Émilion, and we happened to be there at lunchtime. It was quite touristy, but that’s Saint Émilion. The food was better than expected. For the starter, I had a savoury tarte tatin with some sort of root vegetable, and my husband had a very good vegetable soup. For mains, I had an egg dish that was rich and tasty, and my husband had a sausage with mustard sauce …” (Chowhound member)
What must it be like to live in an open-air museum? Everywhere you turn are monuments and relics. Except for updated conveniences, this is a city that hasn’t seen a building boom since the 12th and 13th centuries. Yet, being surrounded by the weight of history seems to be as magical for the locals as it is for the one million or so visitors who pass through the city each year. Bouvet is quick to say that, other than great wine and food, the locals are very proud of that historical and architectural heritage. From a tourist’s perspective, history can be expensive. You might find that dining on that exquisite rack of lamb leaves a painful dent in your wallet. But, it won’t last; the beauty surrounding you will no doubt make it all worthwhile.
Once you’ve had your fill of Saint Émilion’s culinary delights, take time to do some shopping. The many boutiques dotting the village sell items handcrafted by the locals. At night, stroll the streets by lamplight, which gives this medieval city an ethereal look. While most tourists vacation in the summer, Bouvet suggests that the best times to visit may actually be in March, April and October when the temperatures are a bit cooler. While you’re there, stop in at the Tourist Office at Place Créneaux to find out when tours of the city, its attractions and surrounding countryside are held. Better yet, become a student for a few hours at the wine school housed within the Saint Émilion House of Wines shop.
“I live in Libourne, which is about six kilometres away from Saint Émilion. It’s a marvellous village, definitely within the top 20 of the most beautiful villages in France. Well-maintained, superb lanes that intersect the village, gorgeous ramparts, lots of history … The view from Saint Émilion across the vineyards and the rest of the region is spectacular. It’s really worth the effort of getting there.” (Linternaute.com member)
• Pack good walking shoes! Steep cobblestone streets wreak havoc on high heels.
• Take a sweater even if you’re visiting in the height of summer. Those underground caves can dip to 13°C.
• If you’re traveling by car, keep in mind that any vehicle wider than two meters isn’t allowed within the city limits.
what to see
• Europe’s largest monolithic church
• 70 hectares of underground caves carved out of limestone
• The Spring Festival (judgment of the new wine), which takes place on the 3rd Sunday in June
• City tours just for kids
• The expansive cellars of each château
• Au Logis Des Remparts
• Hostellerie de Plaisance
• Grand Barrail Château-Hotel-Spa
Visit the Saint Émilion tourist office at www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com for details on how to plan your trip.