“They work the vines all the time; there is never a time when there is nothing to be done in the vineyard”. My hostess was explaining the work I could see going on in the vineyards that surrounded us in all directions as we sped towards St. Emililon. Workers were busy cutting the vines back to one leader and securing that branch to low horizontal tuteurs. Interestingly, vines did not cover the entire landscape. “The best wine comes from the top of the hill, that’s why you don’t see grapevines in the lower parts of the valley,” explained our host. Both of them grew up in the vineyards, and they know wine-making both as a craft and as a business. They impressed on us the difficulties and limitations of the vintners’ life in Bordeaux. All aspects of wine production are strictly controlled. For example, those who exceed their appointed production limit will have their entire production for the year seized. So, if there is a bumper year, they have to throw any extra away. Ouch. The vineyards are ancient, and have been subject to division within families, so many of them are quite small. Making a living on less than twenty hectares is a challenge, I was told, but many of the St.-Emilion vineyards are smaller than that. Cresting a hill, we stopped. We had arrived at a hilltop village whose entry was marked by the picturesque ruins of a monastery: St.-Emilion.
Everywhere in the village, there are opportunities to taste and buy wine. I don’t want to upset anyone too much, but yes, that is a sign on the shutter offering prime bottles of St.-Emilion for 7 euros. Wouldn’t it be great to spend a few days here, tasting, strolling and eating? There is a Relais et Chateau hotel at the top of the hill. I think that it would be a good place to spend my final years, no? This fresco image of a devil in the massive church in St.-Emilion seemed appropriate, somehow, as we prepared to indulge the flesh. After all, it was almost noon and we hadn’t tasted any wine.
Our hostess took us to the vineyard of a couple with whom she grew up. The Lamartine vineyard is just outside St. Emilion and has received many prizes of late for its quality Merlots and Cabernets. They greeted us with warmth and our hostess with joy. We toured their set-up.
These are the casernes that contain the wine before it goes into the barrels. Our host wanted to buy a case of last year’s wine to put down. “I can’t sell you any”, the vintner explained. I sold it all to the Chinese. Take this as a warning and drink as much Bordeaux as you can now, while you can still afford it. But here, the wine was 36 euros for a case of 6. I know. Why aren’t we ALL living there? In the tasting room, we tried two 2010 Merlots. One had been aged in the barrels you see pictured above, and the other aged outside barrels. I preferred the depth and richness of the former, although given the early hour the latter had an appealing freshness. My host pointed out the long finish and roundness of the wine, which he views as typical of the St Emilion region. With our cases in the back of the car (we took some 2008’s) we drove on to a light, perfect lunch. With wine, of course. The restaurant is another spot you can taste and buy local wines, and boxes of their top 100 wines are on display throughout the restaurant.
Our last stop for the day was the childhood home of our host, a chateau and working vineyard about half an hour from St.-Emilion. His parents, although aged, still live there and direct operations. As we met them, toured the chateau and grounds and shared a coffee with homemade cannele, the brioche-like cakes of Bordeaux, we could sense this family’s deep sense of stewardship and commitment to the place.
The date refers to the year one of the wings was built. Above it is one of many wine awards they have achieved, this one for the year 1878. Now, the Chateau no longer bottles its own wine. They sell it to the Rothschilds.
Opening this bottle at dinner the next night, our host said that his family’s wine was one of the wines selected for the Barons de Rothschild collection.” Voila. A taste of our chateau.” Legend indeed.