The 8th century Breton monk Emilion was a baker by trade who gave his bread to the poor before withdrawing from the world to meditate on the hillsides of the River Dordogne. He established his hermitage in one of the limestone quarries and lived as a troglodyte for 17 years. In the solitude of his cave Emilion found a grotto with a natural spring whose healing properties were believed to be miraculous. He was joined by Benedictine monks who helped to build what would become St-Emilion’s monolithic church. In its limestone bowels you can still see the saint’s tiny bed and meditation seat and the crystal clear water of the underground fountain, part of 35 kilometres of catacombs that run under the village.
There is no record of St-Emilion cultivating or even drinking wine and its reputation for exceptional quality was established only in the 12th century. Known as vins honorifiques or Royal wines, samples were presented as gifts to important visitors. This wine, almost certainly white, was controlled by a menacing red-robed society known as the Jurade. It met at the top of the castle keep, from where those who failed to keep its secrets were cast into the ditch fifty feet below. The Jurade, suppressed during the French Revolution, was restored in 1948. Twice a year its procession climbs the tower and the Jurade continues to monitor the quality of St- Emilion wines with more peaceful methods.
The St-Emilion reds date from the mid-19th century, and established their reputation after 1884, when the village created the first wine syndicate in France. Viticulture thrives in St- Emilion’s climate. The grapes grow strong in the mild, wet winters and ripen during late, warm summers and sunny autumns. More than 800 wine growers cultivate the vines, the best of which can be found on the high ground around the village itself. Those that meet the highest standards are classified as St-Emilion grand cru classé and the very best, unsurpassed in their quality, as premier grand cru classé. Some of them are available by the glass in chic wine bars but be warned, at seven or eight times the price of a decent glass of champagne.
The wine shops that form a kind of tourist bazaar in the centre of St-Emilion, promising to ship your purchases home, are not generally good value. Far better to join an organised coach tour to one of the 89 châteaux with cellars open to the public every day except Sunday. In April, June, October and December wine tastings at châteaux are combined with a programme of concerts that can be booked at the tourist office in the place des Crénaux.
Not every St-Emilion wine, even from vineyards that have attained from time to time the grand cru status, is of uniform quality. One renowned wine taster described a prominent 2002 vintage as ‘fermented grape juice...that reminded me of gravy!’ and a 2003 vintage as ‘slightly stewed’. This is not a wine to invest in without trying it carefully on the spot.
You will be on much safer ground with veritables macarons, sweet biscuits said to be a speciality of St-Emilion himself, sold in little cake shops clustered around the Place du Marché, a cobbled square covered with café tables. Above the square is the Place du Clocher, whose belfry has a 15th century spire that soars to 220 feet. It provides a splendid panorama of the village, its terracotta tiled roofs and its old fortifications, which once protected the upper town against the unruly inhabitants below. The Couvent des Cordeliers, a 15th century Franciscan monastery, rents out its cellars for the manufacture of Crémant de Bordeaux, a sumptuous sparkling wine.
The original architects miscalculated the number of pillars needed to support the belfry and included far too few. As a result, the tower is sinking and no longer perpendicular. Thirty-eight cement supports with metal braces have been installed to shore up the structure. If the wine ever runs out, St-Emilion has a future rival to the leaning tower of Pisa.
Photos © Agence Heurisko