Saint-Emilion Grand Crus
Castle hopping through the Right Bank of Bordeaux
Saint-Emilion is scenic hilly wine region dotted with regal chateaux and old castles. The city is built atop a deep limestone plateau and some wineries have huge quarries as deep as 150 feet. This past harvest I visited Saint-Emilion to attend The Jurade—the most fascinating medieval event that’s been going on in the UNESCO heritage city and wine region of Saint-Emilion since 1199.
The Jurade—the harvest festival and ceremony to induct members into a brotherhood of Saint-Emilion Grand Cru enthusiasts—opens with a parade of red-robed men carrying torches. They wend their way through Saint-Emilion’s steep cobblestoned streets and up the ancient tower to announce the harvest. Fireworks fill the night sky.
Sunday kicks off with a Mass followed by a parade of congregants who enter an ancient subterranean limestone church to witness 50 global citizens ceremoniously inducted by the Jurats. At the festival’s close, enormous black balloons formed into grape bunches are released into the sky, symbolically sending out the new vintage to the world. I watched as the clusters drifted high over the city and surrounding vineyards.
Experiencing this pageantry, I set myself the goal of becoming a Jurade inductee. This means I’d have to immerse myself in Saint-Emilion Bordeaux, which is quite different from its cabernet sauvignon cousin in the Medoc. The Right Bank is known for a majority of merlot in its blend, which results in lovely wines, often with beguiling feminine personalities. The Medoc’s masculine wines flaunt their pedigree under France’s 1855 Classification but Saint-Emilion has it harder. The wines were only classified in 1954 and must reapply every 10 years to maintain Grand Cru status.
During my whirlwind visit, I toured and tasted at 18 wine chateaux and stayed at the charming restored Chateau la Dauphine, built in 1747, a large property in Fronsac, where their top wine’s blend includes cabernet franc from 60-year-old vines. Each day I went appellation and castle hopping, jumping in and out of centuries like in a time warp.
In Pomerol at Chateau de Sales, the property’s history dates back to 1464 and the chateau’s lion sculptures had their tails cut off during the French Revolution. Owner Bruno de Lambert told me, “There’s always been something mysterious and mystical about Pomerol. Everyone thinks Pomerol is only Petrus, but there are 140 other chateaux here and 1600 planted acres.”
From the oldest property I jumped to the newest, Chateau Faugeres, a high-tech wine cathedral designed by Mario Botta, famous for his use of light and gravity. I stood on the balcony of this contemporary tower, which faces the steepled 11th century St. Colombe Church in the distance, and marveled that the two structures were built a thousand years apart.
Continuing in the 21st century, I headed over to see the much-celebrated new winery of Chateau Cheval Blanc, which has a roof that is shaped like a curling wave and has a planted garden atop. The haute design winery was stunning. The oval barrel room appeared like an art installation with raindrop lights hanging throughout in perfect feng shui. Unlike most of the region’s merlot focus, Cheval Blanc’s blend is 60 percent cabernet franc. I tasted the new vintage 2004. It had silky tannins, spicy notes and hints of mint and licorice. Chateau Cheval Blanc is right near the border of Pomerol and looks out onto Petrus.
The castle hopping continued on to the majestic 1770s castle, Chateau Saint-Georges, whose property accounts for almost the full namesake AOC, and then to Chateau de Pressac, a castle first constructed in the Middle Ages (with towers and wings added in subsequent eras) sitting 200 feet above the Dordogne River. There I spoke with owner Jean-Francois Quenin, President of the Saint-Emilion syndicate, about the complicated Grand Cru classification system. Big stakes are involved. “A Premier Grand Cru Classe (B) like Chateau Angelus will sell for $200 a bottle, whereas Chateau Cheval Blanc, a Premier Grand Cru Classe (A)—one of only two, along with Chateau Ausone—is $1,000.”
Back to Fronsac, I toured and tasted at Chateau de la Riviere, an 18th century fairytale castle with turrets and towers. Fronsac definitely must have magic in the soil proven again at Chateau Lague where the wines are 100% merlot (like Petrus). Here the winemaker/artist, Arnaud Roux, paints colorful canvases expressing the visual equivalent in taste and energy of each vintage.
At Chateau Cassagne Haut Canon, I was charmed by winemaker Jean-Jacques Dubois and his seductive wines. Chestnut trees grace the property and Dubois’ truffle dog, Anemone, a Hungarian Vizsla, helps out with the finances by sniffing out the truffles. In 1995 Robert Parker gave Dubois’ wine, La Truffiere, a perfect 100-point score. Certainly the soul of the region lies in these remarkable small family wineries.