Monday, April 15, 2013

The St. Emilion wine region

The world's most renowned regions for the production of Merlot wines are St. Emilion and Pomerol on the right bank of the Dordogne River in Bordeaux. I have previously written about Pomerol and, as a precursor to an upcoming post on a French versus Italian Merlot tasting, I herein provide a similar treatment for St. Emilion.

St. Emilion, the oldest winegrowing region in Bordeaux, is located 40 km north of Bordeaux City and 8 km east of Libourne on the right side of the Dordogne River. Its 5400 hectares encompasses eight municipalities and a part of Libourne and supports the activities of 800 grape farmers.

The region is blessed with a mild maritime climate and higher daytime temperatures than other vineyard areas in Bordeaux. Average annual temperature is 12.8℃ and annual rainfall is 800 millimeters. The risk of frost is lowered as a result of the air movement facilitated by the Dordogne and Isle rivers.

Grapegrowers in St. Emilion contend with the most diverse soils of any Bordeaux region. The most desired locations are situated on clay- and chalk-rich soils that, while not well-suited to the reliable ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon, is a perfect fit for Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The soil underlying Châteaus Figeac and Cheval Blanc is a "gunzian" gravel akin to that found in Graves and the Medoc and allows Cabernet Sauvignon to flourish at these sites. The St Emilion soils are graphically illustrated in the figure below and their characteristics highlighted in the table immediately following.

St Emilion soils map (Source:

Beginning in 1955, St. Emilion chateaus were classified as being either Premier Grand Cru Classé A or B, Grand Cru Classé, or St. Emilion based on criteria to include "historical reputation of the winegrowing estate, as well as strict requirements regarding soil, analysis and tasting." Unlike the Medoc, the St. Emilion classification is designed to be revisited every 10 years in order to reward quality and, to that end, has been revised in 1969, 1986, 1996 and 2006. The 2006 revision was contested by chateaus that lost out in the process so the system functioned under the 1996 revision while the challenge wended its way through the courts. A 2012 revision was issued to replace the 2006 version and is now the "law of the land." The Premiers Grands Crus Classé chateaus of the 2012 revision follow:

Premier Grand Cru Classé A
Château Angelus
Château Ausone
Château Cheval Blanc
Château Pavie

Premier Grand Cru Classé B
Château Beauséjour
Château Beau-Séjour -Bécot
Château Bélair-Monange
Château Canon
Château Canon la Gaffelière
Château Figeac
Clos Fourtet
Château la Gaffelière
Château Larcis Ducasse
Château la Mondotte
Château Pavie Macquin
Château Troplong Mondot
Château Trottevieille
Château Valandraud

Sixty percent of the wine produced in the region is classified as St. Emilion. The requirements for this wine are yields of 9000 kg/ha, must weight of 180 grams of sugar per liter, and 11% minimum alcohol. St. Emilion Grand Cru wines have lower yields (8000 kg/ha), higher must weight (189 grams of sugar/liter), and higher alcohol requirements (>11.5%) than their St. Emilion counterparts. In addition, Grand Cru wines must have the approval of two tasting panels and must store the wine for an additional 14 months before release on the market.

The allowed grape varieties in the St. Emilion and St. Emilion Grand Cru appellations are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Carmenère. The distribution of vineyards by variety is as follows: Merlot - 60%; Cabernet Franc - 30%; Cabernet Sauvignon - 10%; minuscule amounts of Malbec; and no Carmenère. Vineyards are planted to a density of 5500 vines/ha and the average size  is 5 ha.

Saint Emilion wines are primarily Merlot rounded out with Cabernet Franc and Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon wines produced in the small, gravelly area adjoining Pomerol. The wines tend to red and black fruits when young and gain complexity with age where the aromas/flavors lean to spices, minerals and truffles. Annual production is around 36 million bottles and top recent vintages are 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2010.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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