Ever since its inception, St-Émilion has been producing wines of an unusual stamp. While arguably not as famous, and definitely not as expensive, as those of fellow Right Bank appellation Pomerol, the wines of St-Émilion bear a distinctive softness and approachability found in no other appellation for red Bordeaux. Calling red wines approachable and easy to drink would be an insult on the Left Bank, but in St-Émilion the softness and light sweetness of Cabernet Franc and Merlot bear a distinctive magic all their own. With time, the best wines mature to a silky complexity.
St-Émilion’s classification system is complex and inaccurate enough to be a poor compass in buying St-Émilion wine. While the preponderance of the great wines simply label themselves as St-Émilion (adding Grand Cru, Premier Grand Cru Classé A, or Premier Grand Cru Classé B), four adjacent communes, known as satellites, exist that are also important. Everything you could wish to learn about St-Émilion is below.
History has generally indicated that what would be modern-day St-Émilion was involved in the very first plantings of Bordeaux wine grapes. In fact, the Romans planted vines in the 2nd century and the wine attracted praise as early as the 300s. The Right Bank was originally very popular, with the town of Libourne among the most famous wine appellations in the world for several decades before the Hundred Years’ War. This war, however, ended Libourne wine, which was later reborn as St-Émilion. However, the main appellations for Bordeaux wine would be first Graves and then Médoc, with the Right Bank wines only coming into popularity in the last century or so.
Climate and Viticulture
While the maritime climate of Bordeaux is shared between St-Émilion and the communes of the Médoc and Pessac-Léognan, there are a few key differences. The river that St-Émilion borders is the Dordogne, different than the Left Bank’s Garonne. It is also significantly further from the ocean, meaning that the maritime influence is felt much less.
The truly crucial difference in St-Émilion is the soil. While gravel banks are outstandingly prevalent in the Médoc and in the appropriately named Graves, St-Émilion is an altogether different story. Instead, the area is known for its clay and limestone, which facilitate the growth of Merlot and Cab Franc.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape is altogether unremarkable in St-Émilion, and in fact in the entire Right Bank usually makes undistinguished wines from this grape, if producers choose to use it. In fact, in terms of grape varieties, St-Émilion is significantly less diverse than the Left Bank areas, with only two grapes commonly used.
- Merlot: Merlot gives the wine in St-Émilion a kind of approachability that does not manifest itself even in Pomerol. While most Merlot-based wines are approachable, in St-Émilion they have a kind of luscious, nearly sweet taste and a soft, gentle perfume that invites early drinking. Almost all worthwhile estates use around half Merlot or more; the average is probably about 70%. While some argue that Merlot provides most of the character of St-Émilion-based wine, others think that Cabernet Franc is what makes the greatest St-Émilions, and Merlot is better in Pomerol.
- Cabernet Franc: A grape often underestimated in the rest of the world, Cabernet Franc is at its best in St-Émilion when given the job of, in a third to half of a blend, texturing and filling out the Merlot. In addition, Cabernet Franc provides these wines with their outstanding ageability. Some believe that Merlot should be allowed to reign the blend, but houses such as Ausone and Cheval Blanc, the top two estates in St-Émilion, both have about half plantings of Cabernet Franc. Their wines, which are much more textured and complex than the competitors’ but still soft and approachable, seem to be a testament to Cab Franc’s greatness here.
The classification singles out two houses, Ausone and Cheval Blanc, as the “Premiers grands crus classé A” (how’s that for easy to remember?) in the St-Émilion classification, and therefore they are almost without fail the most expensive wines of the appellation, and also usually the best. The “Premiers grands crus classé B” include 11 runner-up estates, including Pavie. Then there are the Grands Crus Classés, which are less expensive but can often compete with the big boys in good vintages. Unclassified Grands Crus also exist. Bargain prices can be found in unclassified St-Émilion. In general, practically any St-Émilion wine is guaranteed to have good quality, and any classified wines come with a guarantee of excellent quality and good ageability.
The controversial classification has demoted various châteaux, which have become angry with the results and taken legal action. Appeals courts have had their various rulings, but the actual outcome is still not entirely clear. Until the classification is sorted out, the consumer might consider purchasing wine based on its reputation, rather than on a set standard. As a result, the following list is our own and is only based on the actual classification. The houses which are clearly considered to be leading (in this case our list agrees with the classification) are in the first category below.
- Château Ausone: Ausone’s inauspicious history with several ups and downs doesn’t change the fact that it has the best land in St-Émilion. These wines prove that Cabernet Franc and Merlot are not simply uninteresting blending grapes that should make up a fifth or less of a blend. Cab Franc and Merlot are equally blended in Ausone’s ultra-classy wines, which are usually considered the best in St-Émilion. Intense, perfectly concentrated, and excellently balanced, Ausone’s wines often show minerality notes as well as sweet fruit, earth, and flowers. While intense, they also have a sweet, soft texture often described as velvety. Long aging is helpful, but the wines can be oddly approachable in their youth as well. Prices for “low” vintages average out at $700, with “highs” for vintages such as the 2005 well over $2,000.
- Château Cheval Blanc: A number of crucial differences from Ausone mark Cheval Blanc’s similar wine. They are located in a similar area, and both use about half and half Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Cheval Blanc has a longer and more solid history than Ausone, having been the first château to achieve great fame in St-Émilion. Nowadays, Ausone charges more for their wine and gets higher ratings, but this is not to say that Cheval Blanc is inferior. In fact, its style is quite different. With sweet tannins, a medium body, and subtly textured flavors that cascade over the palate, it is an altogether stellar wine that lacks Ausone’s refined but potent intensity. Long cellaring induces the best of the velvety texture. The competition between the two “Classé A”s is so neck-and-neck that everyone’s own palate should judge which one is really better. Cheval Blanc is much lower priced, generally not exceeding $1,000.
Here is a list of houses that are considered close runner-ups to Ausone and Cheval Blanc.
- Château Angélus: Sometimes capable of rivaling Ausone and Cheval Blanc, Angélus occupies a similar segment of the classic St-Émilion market. Its name comes from the Angelus bells that one can hear in the vineyards coming from the nearby church. Angélus has risen in stature lately. Angélus’s wines are brute force powerful, combining rich tannins with an outstanding intensity and concentration of flavor. And yet the wine displays versatility in when it can be drunk. At $150-$350 prices are much more reasonable than the “Classé A” wines.
- Château Bellevue Mondotte: Some of the most intense and backward Merlot-based wines in the world are manufactured at this château. The wines seem to be critics’ choice, but nevertheless they occupy a kind of “cult” category. Minerally notes can characterize the wines, which pack a huge punch and, unless you’re interested in the monstrous power they promise at early ages, should be aged for a long time. Prices reflect the cult status, ranging from $200 to $400. The 2004 was an outstanding vintage for this château, surprising considering the fact that it was middling to poor for overall Bordeaux.
- Château Figeac: Although adjacent to Cheval Blanc, this château is not quite as legendary. Although always popular, toward the end of the 1990s it started to modernize its wines and has improved its pedigree greatly in recent years. Cab, Cab Franc and Merlot are usually about a third of the blend each. As a result, the wines are very powerful; ultra-concentrated, they nevertheless will show that silky, velvety texture at the right age. It can be much less expensive than its rivals, with the 2000 only costing a little over $100 and the 2002 coming in at $75.
- Château La Mondotte: An unclassified château making powerful, extravagant, outrageously expensive juice, this one pretty much fits the definition of a cult wine. While ultra-high in alcohol as well as acidity, tannin, and brute power, it does show the modest sweetness and velvety nature of Merlot. A very interesting wine; according to most of its critics, it might fall into a “love it or hate it” type of categorization. This is one of the leading modern St-Émilions. Prices are extremely high, nearing $500 in top vintages and rarely less than $150.
- Château Pavie: With a solid place in the latest classification, Pavie has become far too mainstream to be called a cult wine anymore, but it still occupies a similar sector. Robert Parker is one of its devotees, but the wine’s style is very controversial and many simply label it “Parkerized” in order to discredit it. It’s one of the most love it or hate it wines in Bordeaux, an area where such polarization is rare. Although the blend consists of a preponderance of Merlot, a great deal of unbridled power resides in this wine. Dark in color, its flavors are well concentrated but themselves unusual, as exotic as truffles and “unsmoked cigar tobacco” (from a Parker review.) The result is an almost earthy wine with great natural power. Tannins are high due to the limestone levels in the château’s soil. Prices are rising toward Ausone levels.
Houses of a slightly lower reputation also offer good St-Émilion.
- Château Canon La-Gaffelière: A long finish is the signature of this estates’ wines, which have improved notoriously in recent years. The wines are exuberantly powerful, generally approachable only in suboptimal vintages. They keep their elegance either way, however, with the velvety style that St-Émilion is known for. All in all, a nice combination of classic and modern. Prices are competitive, ranging from $60 to $150.
- Château Pavie-Decesse: This château has become extremely reliable in recent years. Its mostly Merlot-based, modern-styled wine is remarkable in nature, powerful but not exuberant. Berries and some earthy flavors are among the noted characteristics in a heavily concentrated bouquet. Long aging is required. Located near Pavie, Pavie-Decesse is less expensive at $100-$300.
- Château Pavie-Macquin: Pavie-Macquin, in contrast to the other Pavies, sticks to a more classic style of St-Émilion with high Merlot proportions and an approachable if powerfully flavored bouquet. As a result, its declassification in 2006 was a surprise to nearly everyone involved, and a matter of serious contention with Pavie-Macquin’s owners. A nasty tangle of lawsuits has resulted. Through it all, Pavie-Macquin remains a leading traditional wine for the appellation, costing between $50 and $120.
- Château Tertre-Rôteboeuf: Approachable in body, tannin, and flavor, Tertre-Rôteboeuf’s wines are very luscious, demonstrating classic Merlot-based St-Émilion characteristics. The price, however, is not approachable, with the highly acclaimed 2005 coming in at nearly $500. Lower-level vintages are less likely to break the bank.
- Château Beau-Sejour Becot: Modern, approachable St-Émilion. It can often be best in vintages that are considered “off”, as the winemaking tendencies are so solid that the quality difference doesn’t usually justify the price difference. Here the wines are elegant and approachable but also concentrated in flavor. They can often be had for less than $50.
- Château Berliquet: Deep and somewhat powerful for its price, Berliquet offers some of the best values in St-Émilion, especially since magnums and large bottles can be found often. Even vintages such as 2005 do not cost more than $50. The second wine is also fairly reputable.
- Château Canon: One of the best values in St-Émilion and worthy of special mention in this category, Canon has improved in recent years to compete with many higher-price offerings in the appellation. Its style is very traditional, with light, silky flavors and sweet fruit. Although feminine, it is highly ageable. You can certainly pay a bit for a great vintage, but prices can be as low as $60.
- Château Chauvin: Even top vintages such as 2005 cost less than $50 from this château. Full-bodied and powerful, the wines are less elegant for St-Émilion than some might like, but nonetheless provide outstanding values.
- Château Dassault: Almost entirely Merlot, Dassault is silky and approachable. Ageable despite its femininity, Dassault is a good entry-level offering to the soft kind of St-Émilion. Prices are going up but are still low.
- Château Destieux: Not commonly available, but if you can hunt it down, this is a well pedigreed wine. Once again, less desirable vintages are the way to go here, as they are often under $30.
- Château Ferrand Lartigue: At $40 for vintages such as the 2005, this wine is simply a stunning value. Although powerful, it has typical Merlot flavors that can be quite elegant. The 2006 is one you can get for under $20!
- Château Fleur Cardinale: Concentrated and slightly sweet Merlot can be aged or drunk immediately. Shows nice approachability but some complexity, good for an entry-level purchase. The 2004 is $40, so it’s no big bargain but well-priced in such an expensive appellation.
- Château Fombrauge: Powerfully aromatic but at the same time silky and approachable. Classic St-Émilion for approachable prices. $33 for the 2004 is good, but only $44 for the more intense 2005 is also competitive.
- Château Grand Corbin Despagne: In the top vintages this is very competitive, with full Merlot flavors and elegance, and costs in between $30 and $50.
- Château Larcis Ducasse: The 2005 caused a stir by getting a rating of 98 from Robert Parker, but it costs over $200. More interesting are the cheaper vintages, which are well-valued at $50 or less.
- Château Lusseau: This wine is too reasonably priced to have outstanding elegance, but nonetheless it has good fruit character and is true to its appellation. The 2005 is $45, which is quite inexpensive for the vintage and region.
- Château Monbousquet: Monbousquet is now owned by the same person that owns Château Pavie. The wines display great full-bodiedness and sophistication. They are very modern, leading to more intense flavors and a full body, with unabashed power more reminiscent of a Pauillac than typical St-Émilion. Tannins are sweet but still overpowering. Some Cabernet Sauvignon is used in the blend, but it’s mostly Merlot. Prices for the 2005 are around $70, with inferior vintages around $50, but are rising.
- Château Quinault l’Enclos: Although silky and soft in only Merlot’s style, these wines display powerful concentration and an amazing diversity of flavors. Long aging is recommended. At $60 the top-notch 2005 is a collector’s item for much less than normal. The usual prices are a good bit lower.
- Château Rol Valentin: A very solid St-Émilion that usually costs $80 or less. An extremely soft, harmoniously concentrated and balanced wine, it shows that Merlot does not need to be ultra-powerful to be remarkable. As opposed to Monbousquet and other “modern” châteaux, this one is a classic style. Few vintages have failed to receive critical acclaim.
- Château Troplong-Mondot: Troplong-Mondot was tremendously offended by the 2006 classification that resulted in a legal brawl. Its declassification seemed unfounded to the château’s devotees, who are enamored of its modern flavors. Its detractors think it is too strong and unrefined—”Parkerized”. In less notable years flavors are less intense, but in good vintages it can be terrifically powerful.
- Château Valandraud: While very expensive, Valandraud has a pedigree that often makes it worth the price. While the wines could be considered slightly modern, they have concentration and balance to rival the best St-Émilions. Flavors are somewhat exotic, straying away from the earthy, velvety style that the traditional wines of the appellation are known for. Valandraud is very consistent in its style, with little difference between “bad” and “good” vintages. Prices stay within the $200-$300 category in general.Château La Tour Figeac: Concentrated wine shows both feminine and masculine style, varying between sweetish, round flavors and overpowering currant and a luscious texture depending on the vintage. Even the best vintages do not usually exceed $50.
St-Émilion is such an expensive appellation (even more so than Médoc, in which 3er, 4er, or 5er crus might be available at somewhat affordable, if not bargain, prices) that even those wines which might be on a qualitative and pointwise par with Médoc third growths, are much too expensive for the budgets of normal people. As a result, we have compiled a list of well pedigreed, uncompromising St-Émilions that are reasonably priced.
A number of “cult wines” also exist. Some of these, like Bellevue and La Mondotte, are listed above since they have moved into the top ranks. Others are simply expensive, well-produced garage wines made from tiny vineyard stakes with low yields. Wealthy collectors are often the only people who purchase these wines, but their existence should be noted by those who want to learn about this phenomenon. Although standard in places like Burgundy, the cult wine movement is almost entirely confined to St-Émilion among Bordeaux regions.
While the majority of the leading St-Émilion wines will be labeled under St-Émilion, followed by some kind of Grand Cru designation, four other AOCs also use St-Émilion in their name. Most of the wines made in these places are under $25, and can provide good quality for even as low as $10. They were all given classification in 1936, and they are:
- Lussac-St-Émilion: Mostly Merlot-based wine from this satellite. Since the appellation resembles St-Émilion itself in many forms, the wine is often very similar. It lacks the flawless structure and balance of St-Émilion’s leading wines, but provides a very similar style. Houses such as Château Lussac and Château Lyonnat are very affordable and high quality.
- Montagne-St-Émilion: These wines have been commended as being slightly earthy, and are usually medium-bodied with solid textures and good flavor. They exhibit a fruity style of Merlot without unsophistication. Beausejour and Faizeau are two leading estates here.
- Puisseguin-St-Émilion: This one is small and more obscure than Lussac and Montagne, but also provides rather ageable wines for the price, and most of the wines are of good quality. However, these are also often difficult to find. Châteaux Soleil and especially La Mouriane are good values and have pedigrees.
- St-Georges-St-Émilion: The smallest of the satellites. Very soft and feminine in a good Merlot style, the wines made here are rarely intense and are usually approachable at any date after bottling, but can age. Most of the wines are fairly obscure, however the eponymous Château St-Georges and Château St. André Corbin are two that can be found and have good reputations. Not to be confused with Château Moulin St. Georges, which is located in St-Émilion itself.