St-Emilion: A Tale Of Limestone, Miracles, And Merlot

About 25 miles east of Bordeaux, St Emilion draws visitors for its rich history and its wonderful wines.

For wine lovers and foodies, weaving through the town’s narrow cobblestone alleyways is like being a kid in a candy shop. Aromas of grilled meats, fresh seafood, and chocolate desserts waft from scores of restaurants. Bakery and pastry shop windows display caneles, a rich custardy caramelized cake with its own 300-year history. Wine boutique blackboards tempt you with free tastings and famous premiers grands crus. Anything you want to swirl, sniff, taste, drink, or buy is possible and encouraged.

Overlooking Place du Marche, you’re at the heart of the town, immersed in 2000 years of history. A cafe’s waiters announce the day’s specials to thirsty customers. Wine glasses clink in toasts and couples study their guide books. The town’s 12th century gothic bell tower rises 174 feet over your shoulders like a lighthouse drawing in wine-loving travelers. Flowing down the hillside into neat rows of vines, limestone buildings take on an orange glow in the evening light.


This limestone is the heart and history of St Emilion. The stones were quarried centuries past from beneath your feet. Miles of passageways, catacombs, and wine cellars permeate St Emilion like a termite hill. You happen to be standing on Europe’s largest monolithic church – monolithic because it’s carved from a single piece of rock.


The limestone attracted St Emilion’s first settler. Legend has it that Emilion was a bread maker, hired by the local count to manage his finances. One day, as was his custom, the baker slipped some loaves of bread under his coat and took off to give them to the poor. Tipped off by rivals for Emilion’s job, the count stopped him and demanded he open his coat. Miraculously, the loaves of bread had turned into firewood and the count let him go. But this served as a warning, and Emilion escaped in search of a peaceful place to dedicate his life to God.

After much wandering, he chose the limestone outcropping of St Emilion for his meditation. He dug out a cross-shaped cave and lived there for 17 years, performing good acts and miracles. Over time, Benedictine Monks joined him and his retreat became a center of religious life. After his death in 767, the monks began three centuries of work enlarging the caves into the monumental subterranean church. Today, visiting St Emilion’s dwelling, the catacombs, and the monolithic church are a highlight of any trip to the town.


The limestone provides ideal soils for growing grapes too. For fans of Merlot, you’re in its homeland. Cabernet Franc provides a strong, fruity framework for the blend, and the Merlot fleshes it out with full, velvety richness. Wines from St Emilion can have fresh flavors of red fruits and plums, even minty chocolate and toasty oak aromas.

Every ten years or so, the wines are classified from entry level to the most elite. At the base of the pyramid is simple St Emilion. Moving up, there’s Grand Cru, and most of the best wines start with Grand Cru Classe. At the top are the Premier Grand Cru Classe. Presently, there are only 15 of these: 13 classified as Premier Grand Cru B, and just two: Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc, as Premier Grand Cru A. While a basic St Emilion can cost as little as $10, you’ll have to wait in line for a 2005 Premier Grand Cru A, and it’ll run upwards of $2000 a bottle.. best wine tours in Willamette Valley

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