One of the most famous and most important wine producing regions in the world, Saint-Emilion is a contrast in styles with other areas of Bordeaux and even of itself. Some of the most sublime and supple wines in the world are made here, as well as a large amount of very ordinary wines that rely more on the name of Saint-Emilion than on the distinct soils that reside here.
Saint-Emilion is very old in wine terms. The village itself is surrounded by old Roman-built walls, and vines have flourished here for at least two millennia. It is of some debate as to whether the Roman Poet Ausonius actually owned the vineyard that bears his name (Cha. Ausone) but either way this provides an idea of the historical significance of this area. For many years this region was considered something of a country-cousin to the fame of the Médoc. The wines were neither as good nor as prestigious as those across the Gironde. Much of the lack of fame was due to the fact that there were no bridges across the Gironde until the 1820s. After this the wines have improved along with the reputation.
Located to the east of Entre-duex-Mers, Saint-Emilion is centered near the town of Libourne, the commercial capitol of the Right Bank. Along with Pomerol and the satellite communes this are is known as the Libournais. Saint-Emilion can be divided into a few different areas, the most important being the Côtes-Saint-Emilion. This area consists of a series of slopes and ridges that rest south of the town and above the plateau of Saint-Emilion. Blessed with a soil type that boasts a thin layer of limestone soil above limestone rock, many of the best wines are produced here. On the plateau below Côtes-Saint-Emilion lie many ordinary estates. Merlot is the main grape variety here, along with high percentages of Cabernet Franc. These grapes thrive in the cooler and less rocky soils that are found across the Gironde.
To the west is the Graves-Saint-Emilion, and area named for the higher proportion of gravel and sandy soil. Here lies the great estates of Châteaus Cheval-Blanc and Figeac. Just to the east and north lie the Sables Anciens, or ancient sands, an area that produces good but seldom spectacular wines made almost entirely of Merlot.
The wines of Saint-Emilion were ignored in the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, as they commanded neither the prestige nor the price tags of the wine of the Médoc at the time. They acheived there own classification in the 1950s, a system that is unlike others in Bordeaux in that the top wines can be reranked every ten years or so. The best wines are labeled as Premiers Grands Crus Classés (which are divided further into both A and B rankings) followed by Grands Cru Classés (which can be good, but rarely live up to their name) and Grand Crus (very ordinary wines) and then basic Saint-Emilion. Though the term Grand Cru may confuse the buyer, it is important to note that anything after the Premiers Grands Crus may be an average wine.
The best examples can be a haunting combination of grace, charm, richness and intensity, with much of the tannic structure found in other areas of Bordeaux, but usually approachable at an earlier age. The Premiers Grands Crus are unusually fine wines, with a bounty of rich black fruits that mingle with baking spices on a rich and supple frame.
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