Sometime later this summer, when I have ploughed my way through another 100 pages of paperwork and weaved through a bewildering slalom of French bureaucracy, I will have realised a dream. I am buying a house in Bordeaux, a few miles from St Emilion. It sits in a small hamlet in Entre-Deux-Mers, surrounded by well-tended organic vines and I am looking forward to lazing in my deckchair, watching those grapes ripen in Bordelais sunshine.
Among other things, this adventure has made me begin to reappraise St Emilion and its wines, which I’ve always been slightly sniffy about. I’ve preferred the Left Bank and the Medoc, believing their Cabernet Sauvignon blends were unquestionably superior to the Merlots of St Emilion and Pomerol.
A few visits to St Emilion itself have shattered that long-held belief. I now realise that St Emilion is a mecca for wine lovers – the place, the region and the wine itself. I am looking forward to many, many happy afternoons winding through its cobbled streets, and tasting the best it has to offer. It is also clear that St Emilion has so many chateaux and so many wines, there is a lifetime of gentle snorting and gurgling ahead of me.
What makes St Emilion so special? First, there is the town itself. The truth is that most wine regions become famous for producing good wine, rather than for their aesthetic beauty – Pauillac, for example, for all its world renown, is a rather lacklustre town beside the Gironde. Chablis is equally unremarkable while some New World wine regions look downright industrial. But St Emilion is a gorgeous, ancient hill town, dating back to prehistoric times. In the second century, the Latin poet Ausonius was extolling the virtues of its wines, while much of the Medoc was still marshland.
Today you can wander through its narrow, cobbled streets and battlements for hours on end, discovering tiny churches half buried into the limestone rock and half-hidden entrances to cellars stuffed with ancient wines. Every other shop is a vente des vins, where you can try and buy wines from small but lovely chateaux whose produce never touches these shores. On my last visit I discovered Clos de Jacobins, A dark and brooding Grand Cru Classe with a 300 year history, whose cellars lie under the city walls. Hard indeed to find in the UK but Millesima is selling the 2015 in bond for an attractive £228 a case (millesima.co.uk).
St Emilion wines tend to be made up of 60-70 per cent Merlot, with the rest being mainly Cabernet Franc, sometimes with a smidgeon of Cabernet Sauvignon. Over the other side of the Gironde those proportions tend to be reversed. But Merlot is not the poor relation grape I’ve always imagined. Admittedly it doesn’t produce the powerful tannins of the Cabernets, but it delivers a wonderful fruit cocktail and can still be remarkably long lived, allowing you to open a great bottle a few years after it was made, or keep it for decades.
Another attraction of St Emilion is that it regularly reassesses its wines, unlike the Medoc, which still relies on a classification system drawn up in 1855. This means that every ten years or so, St Emilion Chateaux can be promoted or demoted. True to all things French, historically, this has led to years of lawsuits and mutual loathing, but the situation has settled down for the time being.
Unfortunately I am not alone in reappraising St Emilion; the place is swinging back into high fashion in the wine world these days. The reports of the 2015 vintage are almost breathless in approval and the big money has already snapped up the wine from the big four Grand Cru Classe A houses – Angelus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Pavie – while it is still in barrel. But there are no fewer than 64 other Grand Cru Classe houses whose wines remain remarkably reasonable for all the excitement. Many, though, are small houses, and hard to find in the UK. One good place to shop is the excellent French website 12bouteilles.com which is currently selling 2006 Chateau Fombrauge for a bargain €32.30 a bottle. Otherwise you will just have to visit. Drop in and see me when you do.