Hoorah … we awake to sun and blue sky. Fantastic as this is one of the days we have been looking forward to … Saint Emilion. Our day begins with a walking tour and wine taste, of course, and then a free afternoon. In this glorious sunshine it is going to be awesome.
We are now on the right bank with different soil and the weather cooler and wetter, a perfect climate for Merlot. Unlike the other appellations that were granted the 1855 classification this area rerates the wineries every 10 years. Some move up some move down. However a few years ago those that dropped down sued the raters and in the end they settled by allowing them to stay in the top 10% as well as those that had moved up. Really kind of puts to question how valid the rating system is … what is Grand Cru Classic!!
There are over 800 vineyards in this area and the ‘best’ and most famous are in the Pomeral section. Here you find Chateau Petrus where you can buy a 1945 vintage for over 15,000 euros or about $24,000 for a bottle.
The town of Saint Emilion, like most European cities, is surrounded in the old town square by a medieval wall and fortifications. It is a very hilly town so you find steep uneven steps or Tertre from one square to the next. The centre of the town has the massive King John’s bell tower with stunning views of the vineyards around. Named for the King hated by most during the days of Robin Hood. But as he gave the town its freedom from church or monarch rule to self-government he is much beloved here.
Every year the town holds a festival with the council marching through town in medieval garb and climbing to the top of the tower to announce the start of the grape harvest. Most interesting is that we learn that the rest of the church, called a Monolith, is in fact below us. Carved into the rock below by the monks over a 1,000 years ago.
We go down to the lower levels to find a small chapel where only 20 years ago amazing frescos were uncovered. During the time of the revolution the chapel was used as a cooperage so that it would not be destroyed. The soot from the ‘toasting’ process covered the walls for centuries.
There is also a tiny ‘cave’ where the monk St Emilion lived as a hermit for more than 17 years. Venturing out only for food he stayed away from others, sleeping on the stone floor and getting water from the underground springs that flow under the area.
Beside the cave is the massive church and catacombs. In the catacombs only 3 types of people could be buried; the wealthy, high members of the church and as we can see from the size of the graves, children who died at birth. It is not known where exactly St Emilion tomb is.
The church is part of 150 km of tunnels dug by the monks. It is 40 metres long, 20 m wide and 11 m high. Today the pillars are fortified by steels as they had noticed cracking. While they thought it was due to the weight of the bell above it turned out that over the years the drainage for the underground springs that the monks had created has filled with silt and the water with nowhere to go was slowly undermining the columns. Having rectified the situation the decision was made to keep the reinforcements in place.
While the frescos remain in the chapel here they have all been destroyed. The scrapping of the salt peter off the walls to make gun powder during the Revolution scraped away the frescos as well. Being a great hiding space the church was used during WW II to hide the stain glass windows of the churches of the north, like Notre Dame, from the German forces.
After our walking tour we head to a Chateau right on the edge of the medieval wall, Chateau Villemaurine. Here they have 7 hectares of primarily Merlot grape which after fermentation is blended to make their Bordeaux vins. Again picked by hand in small crates no more than 10 kilos in weight so as not to crush the grapes each plot is kept in its own vat for 20-25 days before blending and spending the next 18 months in barrels.
Here we can see the modern optical scan process which can sort out the good from bad grapes based on size and water quantity to have only the best go to the vat process. This is an expensive process as 80% of the oak barrels are used only once.
From our wine taste we are on our own and we stroll back into town for of course more pictures. We see Fran and Sue, who had been part of our wine tasting on the ship, in a little wine shop Etablissements Martins. The proprietor Ben is pouring a sample so we join them. In the end Ben shares 5 different wines of the region ranging from 48 to 80 euros a bottle. The latter from the famous Pomeral area.
We find a little spot, La Cote Braisee , for our lunch instead of heading back to the ship. We share two starters of Fois Gras and Salad Chevre Chaud. I get my beloved escargot and then an entrecote or steak. Gail tries Duck Confit for the first time, not her favourite as it was a little dry.
This was a very special little town and exactly what we both like about Europe. Small shops and restaurants amongst cobbled streets and ancient stone buildings with great stories.
We take 3 pm bus back and with plenty of time to spare and a beautiful day we head into the town of Libourne where the boat is anchored. It is not a big town but has a lovely square and a long pedestrian street of over 400 shops. While we go into a few we sadly leave without a package in our hands.
When we get back to the boat the tide is up and the boat has had to pull away from the moorage for about 45 minutes. Not a problem we sit along the river with other passengers and enjoy the sunshine. Good thing tomorrow starts out not so nice.