One of the things Bordeaux is well known for is its wine. The appellation ‘Bordeaux’ belongs to a region that extends beyond the city to the point where the river finally meets the sea. Within this domain, the wine-growing area is once again divided into smaller regions. One rather prestigious region, considered to produced wine of an excellent quality (although there are always exceptions) is that of Saint-Émilion, about an hour’s drive from the city.
The Romans planted vineyards in Ascumbas (as the site of Saint-Émilion was previously called) as early as 200AD. The name of the town was named after the refers to a monk (Émilian) from Vannes who in the 8th century, settled a hermitage there. His presence became known outside of the local valley, thanks to the miracles he performed and his great generosity. Followers came to join him, and within 7 years, Émilian had established a population of Christians there. It was the monks who followed him here that began the commercial production of wine in this area.
The village itself was constructed slowly, throughout the middle ages. This was done by extracting rock to build the whole of the city, as well as the châteaux viticoles (wine estates). As a result, 200km of underground chambers lie below what is the largest monolithic church in Europe.
Today, the village is home to just over 2000 residents and is considered a world heritage site by UNESCO. Walking through the streets, you know this place is old. Not only is it old though, it is beautiful. I visited the city through a guided tour organised by the Tourism Office in Bordeaux. It is possible to make your own way there, but since I was without a car and not wanting to pay to stay there overnight, a tour was a much better option as public transport to Saint-Émilion was limited. It was an afternoon tour and I was a little disappointed to find myself among fellow anglophones, although I expected that might be the case. The two families (one Columbian, the other, Australian) made good company, and it was nice to speak with some people from home.
Since it was a winter’s afternoon, we had the town mostly to ourselves. I saw about 6 people who weren’t part of the group- our guide said that it summer the streets are as packed as Rue Sainte-Cathérine during the sales. I’ll have to admit, it would look glorious in late spring or early summer with the grapes hanging off the vines. It also began to get a bit cold as the sun dipped closer to the horizon- so during our free time I took my camera for an energetic walk. As well as a look around St-Émilion, the tour included visits to two wineries, both considered Grand Cru (A title awarded every ten years to vineyards that produce wines of a high standard). It was interesting to hear the different approaches to wine making, and to taste the wine made there. The owner of the second place was quite a character, conducting the orchestra to the mini-movie he’d made about his winery. Later, I was told to stand in front of the grape press, while the adult son of another family was told to stand next to me. I was laughing at the awkwardness of it all and so was he, although to tell the truth I was pretty flattered. We both shrugged our shoulders and stood there for the photo, laughing at the owner’s embarrassment when he realised that I had come by myself and we weren’t a couple but complete strangers! Very much the entertainer, the winemaker even gave us a display of magic tricks….some of which were more impressive than others.
Being on a budget, I declined to buy any bottles of wines that day. Now that I understand the meaning of Grand Cru when it comes to Bordeaux wines, I will keep an eye open, especially if I ever need to toast to a special occasion.