St Emilion is a lovely ancient walled town 20 miles from Bordeaux. A Right Bank AC, meaning it's on the right of the Dordogne River & the Gironde Estuary. Steep cobbled streets are lined with picturesque crumbling limestone buildings cut from the surrounding terroir the vines love so much. The clay deposits suit the smooth, accessible Merlot grape which is the vine of choice around here (70%). Others are grown to make up the blend but the late ripening Cabernet Sav bunches (the Left Bank vine of choice) don't generally do that well. This of course gives the Right Bank wines their own distinctive style and character, inevitably leading to much puffed up banter by Bordeaux buffs as to which style is superior. I generally like both but it is true that the weather can sometimes favour the Left or Right Bank due to the differences in soil and outlook.
St Emilion bustles with charming restaurants, cafes and wine shops. It is well worth a visit especially at harvest time when the scarlet robed Town Officials ("The Jurade") ascend the monolithic old church tower and herald the Ban De Vendanges (time to start picking!) with glorious overblown pageantry. The vineyards come right up to the town wall - this land is too precious to waste! Many of the Chateau give tours of their cellars and free tastings. These are generally small properties as opposed to the huge aristocratic estates on the Left Bank. The wines are all pretty good and the St Emilion standard is kept high by frequent re-classifications - the threat of demotion is a strong deterrent against taking your eye off the ball! This is not the case on the Left Bank which hasn't been re-classified since 1855. The rankings go as follows from bottom to top: St Emilion, St Emilion Grand Cru, St Emilion Grand Cru Classe, St Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe B, St Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe A. Since the most recent classification in 2012, there are now 4 class A's: Ch Ausone and Ch Cheval Blanc, Ch Pavie & Ch Angelus, the latter 2 only just added.
Here is the famous Cheval Blanc label, affixed proud & majestically to a very expensive bottle of wine! The 2000 pictured is currently trading at around £7000 per 12 while a case of the legendary 1947 I've seen go for £50,000+! Bordeaux fans just love their historical icons and the 47 Cheval will no doubt remain a talking point 100's of years after it's creation. I'd love to own it or even just taste it but (a) I couldn't afford it & wouldn't risk a purchase for fear of fakes & (b) I'm yet to move in the kind of Claret tasting circles that actually open these kind of bottles. They do exist though...alledgely! "The first rule of Claret Club..." etc etc! So why is the 47 so revered? Well apparently it's almost jet black but has a rich and perfumed sweetness followed by a finish that still tantalises, minutes you've swallowed it. It's highly, highly complex and, amazingly, still fresh after all these years. The benchmark of a truly great wine...the 1921 Cheval is still breaking hearts too. My own experiences have been with more recent vintages of Cheval Blanc. I have always found it to be an exceptionally lush, immediate wine but the high proportion of Cabernet Franc mixed with the Merlot (unique to Cheval Blanc) also gives it some left bank style backbone and a feeling of longevity. If I'm honest though, when pitched against Ausone, for me the latter just edges it. Perception is a strange thing though, and the fact that Ausone is even harder to find than Cheval creates an ultra rarefied platform for it. This knowledge can mess with the mind! I've never tasted them blind against each other (or even non blind at the same time!) but Ausone just has that super smokey quality I personally love, matched with jaw dropping complexity. Made from extremely old vines, perfectly situated on a steep slope just outside the town. They only make about 2000 cases a year which includes the Grand Vin and the Second wine Chapelle d'Ausone. The brilliant Alain Vauthier is the man at the helm and it's generally excepted that his decisions have made the modern Ausone the very best in St Emilion. He has the terroir to play with mind! As a small merchant, I lust after an annual allocation of such a wine...dream on!!
Still, there plenty more awesome, but more affordable wines to get excited about in St Emilion. In the £20-£50 per bottle range there are some real gems that, although they may still seem expensive to the average wine buyer, I would actually call them bargains! This is because they taste absolutely sublime and they are made in small quantities with some serious attention to detail being paid. One of my favourites is Chateau Monbousquet. It's very much a wine in favour right now and it's making a rise up the St Emilion rankings. That's for good reason as it's very clever stuff made expertly by Gerard Perse, a major player in Bordeaux. It's usually very dark in colour and concentrated in style. It can age better than some St Emilions too and benefits from a rare ridge of gravelly soil in this area. A lot of new oak is used in the initial aging of the wine and that can make it quite a full on mouthful in early years. Best to leave it about 5 years and the tannins then turn super voluptuous! Perhaps a little strong willed for some people but I can take it...again & again please! £30-£60 a bottle depending on vintage. A slightly gentler St Emilion which I always re-order is Chateau Clos de L'Oratoire. There's more Merlot in this which makes it very immediate, silky smooth and fruity. Plump but rather cutely so! It's still very fine and in top years can cellar for a considerable time. It's generally sub £30 a bottle and really is worth that IMO. I sell it a lot into gastro pubs and I find it really works as a catalyst in securing new customers for TBC... folk who have tried it & want to know more about fine Bordeaux. That's a good testament I think. Handlebar moustouched owner, Stephan Von Neipperg, is a seriously dedicated fellow and great value at tastings. He also makes Ch Canon La Gaffeliere and La Mondotte which are also delightful St Emilion's. Another teriffic wine from west of the town is Chateau Grand Mayne (£20-£40). I always buy this for TBC and have to try really hard to keep a few back for myself. It's popular!! Soft and full of glycerine but also quite oaky & modern. I can't write about St Emilion without mentioning Chateau Figeac (£50-£100). This is next to Cheval Blanc and, in fact, used to own the terroir there. I find it a tad overpriced, but it is without a doubt an iconic brand of the area and beautiful, complex wine with aromas of leather and smoke. Superb, and one of the most welcoming Chateau to visit too. The 1990 pictured here was absolutely incredible! I'm glad I got to sample it before selling it on...actually that's the problem - when a wine is that good you can find that you get 3 times what you paid for it and buy 3 new bottles of something new. A dilemma that got me started in this business in the first place...a nice dilemma though! A final estate I'll mention (there really are so many in St Emilion) that makes excellent wine in the £20-£30 range is Chateau Fleur Cardinale. Plenty of attention to detail here and it's really good value for a Grand Cru Classe classification. Below this at £15- £20 you can't go wrong with Chateau de Fonbel. It's made under the direction of Alain Vauthier of Ch Ausone, but from lesser terroir at the bottom of the famous Ausone slope. Ausone sells for £1000+ a bottle, but this is better wine than the price differencial would suggest! It's often called the poor mans Ausone which is fine by me. It's on my table regularly! There is still some great quality in St Emilion below this price range though be careful with initial purchases! What I do in the £10-£15 price range is to hunt around the St Emilion satallite regions like Lussac St Emilion, Montagne St Emilion and Pusseguin St Emilion. These AC's maybe slightly less blessed in the terroir stakes, but small patches of excellent terroir still exist and are used with delicious results by aspiring Chateau. One I have recently discovered is Chateau Croix de Rambeau from Lussac St E. The 2005 was a total joy, but sadly I discovered it too late to buy in for TBC. It was pretty much all gone which tells a story in itself! I'm currently selling the 2006 at £12 a bottle and it's provides a fantastic value semi-fine wine experience. It's robust enough to age and improve too. Merlot heavy with plenty of jammy fruit and a whiff of vanilla & woodsmoke. A brilliant stepping stone to the lofty wines described above! It's so much fun feeling your way around the AC's like this and finding new favourites. Bordeaux is thankfully large enough, even for 30 year careerists and collectors to find wines they've never heard of before! That really appeals to me as a relatively new merchant on the block! Get to it...