As an American, one of the best-known wines in the Bordeaux region are the reds of Saint Emilion. Honestly, once you are in the Bordeaux region it seems funny that we should be so aware of these reds, seeing they are generally from small, family-owned vineyards and produced in minute quantities compared to those of Medoc (for example). The drive is easy and beautiful from Bordeaux and it’s worth arriving by car so that you can take advantage of the visits available at the many chateaus nearby.
There are times of year one might wish to avoid visiting, say the month of January when everything is closed…or the height of tourist season in July and August when the town is swarming. However, even in the month of February when restaurants and cavists are only just reopening, you will find plenty to see and do without crowds.
Saint Emilion is a stunning village with the UNESCO heritage denotation, which feeds its notoriety. It is small, easy to walk around in a day (without heels) and charming. The winding, cobbled streets, only add to the allure. Once named Ausonius, the name changed to Saint Emilion after the saint decided to call it home for a good portion of his life. If there is one tour you should take, outside of the vineyards, it’s the monolithic church tour which takes about an hour and costs 9 euro. You will learn a great deal of history, architecture, and folklore.
What is tricky about most wines in the Bordeaux region is that they vary in taste from house to house, based on differential grape blends, materials used during aging, and the very unique distinction of terroir (environmental factors such as soil and climate). Around Saint Emilion you find lots of gravel, sand, limestone, and clay which can add different mineral or earthiness to the grapes. Merlot is the main grape variety, but you will see the subtle richness this grape gives to local wines versus the typical Australian or American wine.
If you can, take a hotel and enjoy tasting the many wines and discussing the viniculture with the shopkeepers. Many shops are owned by a certain chateau and are great at promoting their wines, but are equally keen on helping you discover your own favorite. My recent visit brought me to Australian cavist Craig Stanford of Bordeaux Classique who introduced us to the 2012 Tour de Seme from Chateau Milens. This was a great example of what I find to be the perfect, classic, light and red-fruity wine from the Saint Emilion AOC.
Besides wine, Saint Emilion is also famous for their light, airy macaron cookies (not to be confused with the Bordelaise macaron which is the classic, colorful ‘sandwich’ filled with jams or creams). The local version is generally sold attached to a piece of paper, with the original recipe from the 17th century being used at Macarons Ferlion. You can read more about the history of the Saint Emilion macaron on the Eat Live Write Travel Blog.
Restaurants can be a little hard; worrying about bad food might be on the back of your mind. In general, the food will be good, no matter where you eat. Many of the finer (Michelin) restaurants will require a deposit to avoid no-shows. If you have allergies or aversions, please let the restaurants know in advance. Feel free to contact me for recommendations.
Monolitic Church – impressive crypts, chapel and early Christian church built into the limestone with a visit to the hermitage of Saint Emilion. One hour, only in French (save for the summer tours) but they do offer a paper handout in English to help you through the visit – http://www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com/uk/3-what-to-do/20-underground/438-underground-saint-emilion.html – Hours vary; buy your tickets at the Saint Emilion tourist office who can also give you a list of the chateau open that day for visits.
Bordeaux Classique Wine Shop – filled with Bordeaux wines of all budgets, and other French wines. Friendly, English speaking cavists, worldwide shipping and degustations available – http://www.bordeaux-classique.com/ – Open 9am – 8pm every day – 15, rue de la Porte Bouqueyre – Phone +33 (0)5 57 74 49 49 or email email@example.com
Macarons Ferlion – small confectionery selling ‘the original’ Saint Emilion macarons – http://www.macarons-saint-emilion.fr/Accueil.html – Open (hours vary slightly by season) every day from 8am – 730pm – Phone +33 (0)5 57 24 72 33 and email firstname.lastname@example.org