This story tells how the history of Saint-Émilion, the UNESCO World Heritage wine region located in Bordeaux France, provides travel inspiration.
The History of Saint-Émilion
In the 8th century a monk from Brittany fled south on his way to Compostelle for protection from persecution for his faith. Not an easy journey, the monk delayed along the way to rest and hide in a cave near the Dordogne River where he attracted high admiration from area citizens as he was said to have performed miracles. Other monks began to approach him, and the energy and influence of his presence grew. After his death and eventual canonization, religious sites were erected in his name; perhaps the most famous is the Monolithic Church of Saint-Émilion .
Saint Émilion — a monk whose name represents heritage, faith, integrity and history — had settled himself in an area where vines grew plentiful. The vineyards were first established by the Romans, who removed forest in order to cultivate the vines they’d acquired near Marseille. The vines remained valuable when the Christian church eventually became the steward of the vineyards after the disintegration of the Roman Empire. During this time, the use of wine in religious ceremony took hold, again increasing the worth of wine-production.
In the years after his death the community of Saint-Émilion established under the monk’s name. It turns out the spot is not a bad place to leave a legacy, with a location on the now well-established Christian pilgrimage route know as the The Way of Saint James.
Note Bordeaux on the map above. Smack dab on the journey from Paris the the pilgrimage starting point at St. Jean Pied de Port, a perfect watering hole for thirsty travelers and church influencers. Paying attention to hopes of prosperity, the location appealed later to the medieval farmers during the Middle Ages. During this phase, landholders carved up the space for themselves, each taking parcels and thus creating the the notion of “cru“, whereby certain vineyards bear a particular terroir resulting in a particular wine. Eventually winemaker unions established themselves to collectively position Saint-Emilion as the world-class, UNESCO-recognized area that it is today.
A Traveler’s Treat
The history is inspiring for travelers. Many of us hope to leave a piece of ourselves behind when we travel, even if it is just a few friendly smiles to passersby. Others look to shed inhibitions, prejudices, fears or inexperience. The remarkable story of Saint Émilion, the miracle-performing monk in a cave, inspires the notion that any trip could be a miracle trip, the trip that changes everything.
A visit to Saint-Émilion issues immediate proximity to sixty-four Grands Crus Classés and eighteen Premiers Grands Crus Classés! The prestige is high, but so is the natural beauty of historic vineyards framed by a sweeping view of the ancient church or an elegant château. Saint-Emilion is a representation of human cultivation of grapes at the highest cultural standard. UNESCO justifies inclusion on the World Heritage List as such:
Criterion (iii): The Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion is an outstanding example of an historic vineyard landscape that has survived intact and in activity to the present day.
Criterion (iv): The intensive cultivation of grapes for wine production in a precisely defined region and the resulting landscape is illustrated in an exceptional way by the historic Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion.
This does not mean “hands off” for wine-loving visitors. The Maison du Vin of Saint-Émilion says that “wine is a story of meeting and sharing” and a visit to the “Wine House” offers photo and video education as well as interactive exhibits and of course, the opportunity to taste by arrangement of tastings with Saint-Émilion winemakers. There is also an extensive shop offering wine at producer prices, with personal shopping expertise available to help choose the perfect case. Immersion sessions, led by winemakers, are available through the École du Vin.
There are four AOPs (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) which Les Vins de Saint-Emilion calls “a magic quartet”: Saint-Emilion, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Lussac Saint-Emilion and Puisseguin Saint-Emilion all of which produce Merlot, which is (to quote Les Vins de Saint-Emilion again) the “lord of the vineyard”. Also highly relevant are Cabernet Franc (Bouchet), Cabernet Sauvignon and, to some extent, Malbec. These are expertly blended for aroma, balance, complexity, taste and aging ability.
Merlot’s importance in the assembly sets the tone: that of a refined elegance but not devoid of simplicity. Merlot is recognizable by its roundedness in the mouth, its aromatic complexity pulling through blackberry and cherry flavors and its rich alcohol content. This beautiful presence allows the Saint-Emilion wines to subtly interact with game-based or spicy dishes. The intense ruby color that coats the young Saint-Emilion wine, already very pleasant to drink, is another gift from Merlot. ~Les Vins de Saint-Emilion
Advice from Bruno Dumery, director of Maison du Vin
At the Maison du Vin, efforts are made to enliven enthusiasm and education. The director, Bruno Dumery, provides wine drinkers with the following guidance for treatment of the wines of Saint-Émilion:
If you do not have a suitable wine cellar, do not panic! Opt for a cool place away from light and odor, your wine will keep without any problems at temperatures up to 20 or 21 ° C. It simply requires regular monitoring of its evolving taste because at these temperatures the wine does not deteriorate but evolves and ages faster.
Aeration for 2 to 3 hours is preferable for the young and powerful vintages such as 2010, 2009, or 2005 to round off their tannic structure and to develop their aromatic complexity. Interestingly, aeration for one hour is enough for the young wines- 2011, 2012- so that they exhale their fruity aromas. For older vintages up to 2000, I recommend opening the bottle one hour before and just pouring it into a carafe before serving and the decanting will have been removed the sediment.
But perhaps the best advice given by Monsieur Dumery is wrapped inside this quote:
“When you drink wine on your own, there is no particular enjoyment. It’s important to be able to discuss the quality of the product”.
The French #Winophiles
To discuss the wines of Saint-Émilion further, please join the French #Winophiles on Saturday, August 20th at 10am central for a live twitter chat about the wines, foods, places and people of Saint-Émilion. Find us at the hashtag #Winophiles. Here’s what we have in store:
Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla tempts the palate with “To St. Emilion with Plum & Mustard-Glazed Pork Chops”
L’occasion brings you “Saint-Émilion, Message in a Bottle” (thanks for reading)
Jeff from FoodWineClick shares a classic pairing with “Foie Gras & Steak for a Right Bank Bordeaux”
Martin from Enofylz Wine Blog tells the tale of “An American in Saint Emilion”
Michelle from Rockin Red Blog explores “Diving into Bordeaux #Wine with #Winophiles: Saint-Emilion
and Christy from Confessions of a Culinary Diva will share“The St. Emilion Affair”
In the upcoming months join us for:
September 17th – Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers
October 15th – Jura
November 19th – Cahor and Beaujolis
Thank you to Les Vins de Saint-Emilion for the priceless education. Also, thank you to DavityDave, Cyril555, Agne27, Mkonikkara and Marianne Casamance for sharing their photos for this piece via the commons.