Saint Emilion, also known as “Right Bank” due to its location east of the Garonne River, is one of the main wine-growing regions in Bordeaux.
There are six grape varieties that are grown in this region.
- Cabernet Franc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Petit Verdot
Peter and I have struggled to understand French wine since moving to London and dabbling in it with a bottle here-and-there. Our biggest problem has been that we are used to seeing the grape varieties listed on the wine label. Wines from France do not include such details but now that we understand that wines from the Saint Emilion (SE) region can only be made from the six aforementioned grape varieties, things are very clear now.
With Washington (and other North American wines), it is common for wines to be of a single varieties (“varietal”) but this is uncommon with SE wines. A SE wine is typically a blend of 2-3 permitted varieties and it will almost always be Merlot-dominate. I don’t know much more than this other than I really like wine from this region!
We booked a wine tour to Saint Emilion and Pomerol (also Right Bank) with a company called Bordeaux With Elodie (exceptional, 10 out of 5 stars!).
Our guide collected us from our hotel at 10am and we sped across the super clean Garonne River (on a bridge, obviously) and the next thing I knew, we were on the narrow, winding roads I had dreamt about.
Our guide provided us with the Saint Emilion wine hierarchy (below) and gave a verbal explanation of how the system works, what to look for on wine labels, etc. At a 30,000 ft level, the higher up the pyramid, the better the wine so if you see a wine from Bordeaux with “Premier Grand Cru” on the label, you know it is the best of the best.
The drive from the city of Bordeaux to our first winery (via a short detour through Pomerol) took about 1.5 hours. I don’t even think Peter took a nap!
I was not sure what to expect with our winery visits. I am a casual person and France is very fancy to me. Fancy food. Fancy clothes. Fancy language. Fancy retirement age of 62.
We were preemptively asked to “Wear comfortable shoes – no high heels” by our tour company. The high heels part scared me. My immediate questions were:
- People sometimes are so fancily dressed that they wear high heels?
- Aside from the obvious risk of day drinking whilst wearing high heels, do these people not understand that wineries are – at a very basic level – a farm?
Even fancier is that almost all winery visits in the region are by appointment only. Winery visits typically include a tour of the vineyard and wine-making facilities and conclude with a private tasting which is sometimes paired with food. Each visit can last 1-1.5 hours which makes an itinerary in Bordeaux very different than an itinerary in Napa/Sonoma or Washington state. For more information on day drinking wine in Washington state, see my blog posts here and here.
Climate change in Bordeaux
The average temperature in Bordeaux has climbed more than one degree Celsius (1.8° F) since the early 1980s. The warmer summers were welcomed in the beginning, producing some of the best vintages but they are not good for the long term. It is believed that Merlot’s days in the region are numbered as the grape cannot handle the higher temperatures. Some believe Merlot only has about 30 years left in Bordeaux.
Since Bordeaux grape varieties are controlled nationally, introducing another variety to the region is not easy and the future of Bordeaux wines, with respect to Merlot and permitted grape varieties, is unknown.
In addition to some of the recent hottest summers on record, there was also a freak frost that happened in April 2017 which devastated the crops. Roughly 40 percent of grapes were lost and production plunged by 295 million bottles that year (estimated at 1 billion Euros).
The devastation was not equally distributed because and some areas were hit harder than others. The regions of Pomerol and Saint Emilion are estimated to have lost nearly 80 percent of their grapes to the frost. Some properties lost 100 percent whilst other properties like Beau-Sejour Becot escaped mostly unscathed.
It has been a rough few years for Bordeaux between the record-breaking hot summers and the freak frost and I’m afraid that this is the new normal.
Our day in Saint Emilion included two winery visits, one private wine tasting at a wine shop in the village of Saint Emilion, and lunch at a third winery (lunch only, no tasting or tour).
Our giant minivan filled with only three people rolled into the parking lot of Chateau Tour Saint Christophe around 11:30am. Our guide handed us off to a friendly woman (her name escapes me) who gave us a brief tour of the vineyard. She described the vineyard as being unique to the area because it was terraced (the region is mostly flat).
I wanted to stay outside in the vineyard all day and soak up the sunshine but we had to move on and the next item on the agenda was a quick stroll around the newly renovated production facilities. The barrel room was stunning – so modern for such an old estate.
We concluded our visit with a private wine tasting in a living-room style room at the back of the sales building overlooking the vineyard. Set out on the coffee table was a selection of cheese and breadsticks – a welcome gesture because we were starving!
We tasted three wines with our guides and learned more about the owner, a billionaire from Hong Kong who bought his first winery in Bordeaux just over 20 years ago. At the time, the locals thought he would export all of his wine to China so they were a little bit hesitant with his arrival in the region.
The owner, also named Peter, made a promise that he would not export all of his wine and he held true to that promise and slowly won over the hearts and trust of the locals. He is now one of the most prominent and well-liked owners in the region.
Wine tasting over, we were then led to the sales counter and I thought, “OK, here comes the shock and horror at the price of these wines.” I was wrong. The prices were customer-friendly and we bought six bottles, three of which we did not taste and went based on our winery guide’s recommendation. The wine was shipped to our flat in London a couple of weeks later and the process could not have been easier.
Our first wine tasting was a super casual success! Yay!
Thankfully, the next stop on our tour was lunch at La Terrasse Rouge, “the red terrace”. During the planning phase of our tour, we were provided a list of three restaurant options for lunch and all of the menus were so fancy. We are not fancy food people so this was a struggle for us and we ultimately decided on La Terrasse Rouge because it had the least fancy menu of all.
The restaurant is located on the roof of a building overlooking the vineyards of Chateaux La Dominique. The external entrance is a staircase hidden by a shiny red wall. The gradient of the red on the wall from light to dark represents Bordeaux red wine as it ages with the top layer representing the color of a red wine that is good to go!
The staircase leads to a rooftop “pool” filled with red glass stones. It was a good spot to people watch as they took multiple photos of themselves on the terrace, some in high heels!
Nearly two hours later, we emerged from lunch and we were on our way to the village of Saint Emilion, arriving at 2pm-ish.
Our tour guide yelled, “Picture time!” as we hopped out of the van that she had just parked in a parking spot large enough only for a go-cart. My wine-buzzed self glanced to my left and saw this fairytale village:
It was only as we started walking around Saint Emilion did I fully understand the “no high heels” comments. Cobblestone.
We walked over to the church steeple in the photo above which gave us a panoramic view of the village and vineyards further afield. The village is adorable and is possibly one of my favorite villages of all time.
The weather was beautiful and the main square was packed with people drinking wine in the sunshine. The entire experience in Saint Emilion was a dreamy fairytale!
After a few minutes at the church, we descended to the main square for our private tasting at Le Cellier de Saint Emilion. This wine shop/tasting room is run by two fellas: A Frenchman and a Canadian named James. The basis of the shop is to help small wineries who cannot afford a marketing team and/or do not have the staff required to fulfill orders get their wines to market. A noble cause, I thought.
Protip: Le Cellier de Saint Emilion is a wine shop that is open to the public, however, their wine tastings are by appointment only.
I do not recall how many wines we tasted but it was a lot, like 8-10 wines! Our friendly Canadian sommelier provided a brief history of the winery/winemaker and provided details of every wine we tasted. He was a knowledgeable chap who has worked at wineries in Napa, Australia, and Italy before finally landing in his forever home, Bordeaux.
During our tasting, I commented on the number of boxes of wine stacked in the corner. Most of the boxes had “USA” written on the side of the box in bold black marker. James explained that his customers are stocking up before the new USA tariffs go into effect at the end of October (25 percent on wine). He said that the amount USA customers were saving in tax/tariffs essentially covered the shipping cost but with the new tariff, the cost of French wine to a customer in the USA is quite a bit more expensive and he feared that his business would be hurt.
European wine is now under threat of a second round of tariffs (up to 100 percent). The administration “leading” the USA will be voting on this tariff sometime in January 2020. As a reminder, the new tariffs are proposed by a toddler-man who has never drunk wine in his life and has based the tariffs on his opinion that USA wine labels are better than French wine labels.
More information about the proposed tariff and potential political reasons here.
The wine industry in France has already been hit hard by the first round of tariffs (in addition to train strikes which has decreased tourism to the area) and if the second round of tariffs passes, it will be a devastating blow to European wine as the USA is the largest wine-buying market.
One of the most interesting tastings we did was to taste the same wine but different vintages. It is fascinating to me how the same grapes grown on the same vines can taste different from one year to the next.
We concluded our visit by purchasing some wine to be shipped to London. The average price per bottle that we paid for wine from the wine shop was more expensive than at the two wineries. We paid roughly the same price for four bottles from the wine shop than we did for six bottles from the two wineries. This just shows how much you can save by buying directly from the winery. I guess noble causes come with a catch.
Price point aside, our experience at the wine shop was casual and fantastic!
Our final wine stop of the day was to Chateau Beau Sejour Becot which is a Premier Grand Cru Classe (second level on the Saint Emilion wine hierarchy). Our first impression was that this winery visit was going to be the most pretentious visit of the day. I can’t put my finger on why we felt this way exactly but I think it was partially due to the personality of the guy who greeted us and who ultimately gave us a tour of the property. He looked very serious.
After a tour of the wine-making facility which was basically a sprint through a building with large wine tanks, we descended into the winery’s caves where they store their wine. This is when things got very impressive.
I do not know how many kilometers of caves exist under their vines but I have a feeling that we walked less than 10 percent of the caves and we were down there for 15 minutes. Wine bottles were stuffed in every niche and corner. It was mind-boggling at the quantity of wine in the cellar – tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands.
It takes a special type of person with a special type of patience to (a) stack the wine, (b) unstack the wine, and (c) inventory the wine. I asked if he was concerned with people breaking into the caves and stealing the wine and he said with extreme confidence, “Nope.”
Back above ground, we were guided to the large patio at the back of the property overlooking the vineyard. It was the perfect patio for a wedding reception. The winery was technically closed at this point and it was like a switch flipped with our winery guide. He went from serious to jokester. He would bring us wine and then make sarcastic jokes and comments. He was funny.
He handed us a “mystery wine” and asked us to taste it and tell him how much we thought it would sell for. In my buzzed state, I yelled, “Sixty-nine Euros!” He laughed hysterically and I thought I had undershot on price because, you know, France is fancy.
He then revealed the price – €16/bottle. We immediately bought four bottles and laughed our way through the rest of the tasting. Our visit to Chateau Beau Sejour Becot was our favorite stop of the day. The caves were unique, the guide was funny, and the wine was spectacular.
As we sped back to Bordeaux (we had to get back before 6pm when the marathon road closures started), I was sad that our day of wine tasting had come to an end and I wondered if we would ever be back in Bordeaux. Ideally, I would like to tour the Medoc region but the hassles that came with the train strike during our trip to Bordeaux and then later during our trip to Strasbourg are very off-putting to me.
Our final night in Bordeaux ended with dinner at Echo where we shared small plates and a bottle of wine while watching marathon spectators dart through the cobblestone roads in search of their friends and family members running the race.
Having had our return train canceled, we flew back to the UK. The airport is located west of Bordeaux and, unfortunately, the light rail does not extend to the airport so our options were to take a taxi or a bus. We opted to take a direct bus to the “30 Direct” which is a 30-minute direct bus from Bordeaux Saint-Jean train station to Bordeaux-Merignac airport.
We arrived about 30 minutes early at the train station to ensure we got seats on the bus because we were convinced that there were hundreds of other people in our same “train canceled” situation but we were only two of five people who boarded that very early morning bus.
This is one of the many frustrating things about the train strike that left a bad taste in my mouth of France. Not only was our personal time consumed by booking alternative travel and being extra cautious like getting to the train station early but there was also the cash outlay for the alternative travel (thankfully we had travel insurance) and wine shipping fees.
And after being negatively affected by the train strike, all I could think about was that our next planned trip was to Strasbourg, France via train. And boy was it a total train wreck.