I’m just going to say it, be prepared to be blown away by by Saint Emilion! Why? It has the most complex wine classification system I’ve ever heard of. Spectacular scenery to compliment its deep history and did I mention theres wine??
If you’re thinking of taking a trip to St Emilion while you’re in the Bordeaux region. DO IT! Its one of my favourite parts of France such a different experience to any other. In this post I’ll explain the wine classifications to give you an idea what Chateau’s to look out for. How to go about tasting wine and some other handy information and tips I wish I knew before visiting.
If you know very little about Saint Emilion, as I did before I got there. It’s a small, quaint little town which is home to around 2000 people but over 800 Chateaus. Traditionally a medieval village, the town is named after Emilion, a monk who lived in a cave in the area between AD 750 and 767.
Now famous for it’s full bodied, deeply coloured red wines. It’s a hot spot for any wine lovers who want to get a taste for the Bordeaux region.
There are 3 classifications of wine just for this region alone! A staggering amount of Chateaus have been established here over hundreds of years and because of this, a new classification system was created.
Primeur Grand Cru Classe A
This is the top dog, the creme de la creme of wine. Only 4 Chateaus are awarded this standard and worked extremely hard to get there! There are some tough barriers to get considered for this class. Providing tastings for their last 20 vintages to be judged on ins’t a small task alone. Although it’s not just the wine either, they inspect the terroir, price and reputation of the company.
Primeur Grand Cru Classe B
Similar to the Classe A standard, Chateaus go through a rigorous process to be able to use this name on their labels. They still need to provide 15 of their last vintages and judged on their price, reputation and terroir. There are 14 Chateaus that have made it to this standard, so still extremely exclusive.
Grand Cru Classe
These 63 Chateaus have provided their last 10 vintages to taste and although judged on the same criteria. each one is weighted a little differently. For full details on what those weightings are, have a read of this in-depth post by The Wine Cellar Insider.
Then theres everything else too! If you want to see exactly what Chateaus are included in each classification, as mentioned above, The Wine Cellar Insider has a ton of useful information about the history and specific Chataeu’s involved.
How to Start Tasting
So, onto the good stuff. How do you taste all these wonderful wines? There are a few ways to go about it. You can always pair with food as all the restaurants have a vast selection of local wine, as you would expect. But no one can eat that much. So you might like to mix in a tour of a Chateau to see how they’re ran, they’re history and of course taste.
For tours, I’d strongly suggest booking ahead. Don’t do as I did and assume you can rock up to the door like in NZ, USA and Aus. Instead, you can book into organised tours who can sort all of that out for you. Or like I ended up doing, ask around the town and people are more than happy to help out and make a booking on your behalf. Tour prices can vary depending on the Chateau and group size, best to ask when making the booking to find out up front the full cost.
The third and my favourite way to taste the wine. Is the wine shops dotted all over the little town. They all have a variety of wines on offer for you to taste. I visited 3 over the few days I was there and found each owner has a world of knowledge about wine and the region to share. Of course they also have some great insider knowledge on which Chateaus to visit and who their favourites are. The cost? FREE! However I feel it’s only good manners to buy something in store when spending time with the owners. I bought some wine to share with the AirBnB host and some novelty wine orientated gifts to take home.
When To Go
Or in my case, when not to go! I managed to visit at the one time of year it’s extremely hard to get a booking. When the Bordeaux Wine Expo is happening. This meant all the wine makers, wine sellers and wine buyers were at the expo, oops! You may be thinking “but surely, you skipped the crowds?” hmm sort of. I got lucky with reservations in restaurants and Chateau’s mostly but on one occasion I made a booking which was cancelled when I got there, in favour of a group of wine cellars. They did make a booking at a nearby Chateau but pretty sure that was a bit of luck. My advice would be to avoid anytime the Wine Expo is on and go when you’re more likely to get to all the places you want to.
The Chateau’s I visited
Set amongst a beautiful line of trees the stunning 16th century house sits at the end of drive away ready to stun you. Unfortunately, the house is for staff only these days. However, to the left is more modern style tasting room and shop where your tour starts.
The tour gives you a chance to see the variety of grapes they grow and some information on the Chateaux itself. Once a family owned and ran winery is now owned by AG2R Group, a french insurance company. You may have heard of them through the Tour de France as their team has been really successful in the last few years.
And just for funsies, the original family was one of the first to plant their vines in rows back in the 1700’s.
Château La Marzelle
Another Premier Grand Cru Classe vineyard with a vibrant history. Over the last 20+ years this Chateau has gone through a major reinvestment and thrived because of it. The owners, Mr & Mrs Sioen, have expanded their land and brought in new equipment to ensure their place in the Grand Cru Classe.
Much like La Soutard, the tour walks you through a section of the grounds and vines. Onto the storage vats and of course the barrel room. After a lot of interesting information and sometimes even a little quiz, it all ends in a tasting of course.
I thoroughly enjoyed both our Chateau tours and have to say, the passion of everyone I spoke to there really shone through. From the staff in Chateaus, the restaurant works and the wine shop owners. Everyone was happy to talk wine with you and answer any questions you may have, give you tips on wine tasting or even growing. Writing this post is already making me want to go back, I’ll have to settle for a glass instead!
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