The famous French wine-growing area is located in the east of the Bordeaux region and, together with Pomerol, forms the core area of the so-called Rive droite (right bank) of the estuary of the Gironde and the Dordogne. It is named after the small town with about 2,000 inhabitants, which is situated on the slopes of a hill above the valley of the Dordogne. It takes its name from the Saint Benedictine monk Émilion (Aemilianus). According to legend, he lived here in the 7th century in the forest of Combes in a cave which is now on the grounds of Château Laniote. Saint-Émilion is also a stop on the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago de Compostela. It is one of the oldest wine-growing areas in France, as the Romans planted the first vines here.
Vineyards, climate and grape varieties
In 1999, Saint-Émilion was the first wine-growing area in the world to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The vineyards cover some 5,500 hectares of vines, which are managed by over 1,000 winegrowers. In addition to Saint-Émilion, the ten-by-five-kilometre area includes the communes of Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes, Saint-Hippolyte, Saint-Étienne-de-Lisse, Saint-Laurent-des-Combes, Saint-Pey-d'Armens, Saint-Sulpice-de-Faleyrens, Vignonet and, in part, Libourne. The four communes of Lussac, Montagne, Puisseguin and Saint-Georges, separated by the small Barbanne stream, are independent appellations which are allowed to display the place name with the addition of Saint-Émilion on the label.
The climate is more continental and not as maritime as in the western Médoc, with greater variations in temperature. The vineyards are situated between 25 and 100 metres above sea level. The area is characterised by a variety of soil types, often even within individual châteaux. It is roughly divided into four zones: Plateau (limestone formations with clayey limestone or sandy clay), Côtes (similar, but different slope and orientation), Graves (gravel and coarse gravel) and Sables (alluvial gravel). These soils also produce a wide variety of wine types.
Mostly red wines are produced, only these have the appellation status. The full-bodied and full-bodied plants with a silky texture are produced from the dominant Merlot variety, which occupies about 60% of the vineyard area here, as well as Cabernet Franc (here Bouchet) with shares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cot (here Malbec, Pressac) and Carmenère (also Carbouet); the typical grape varieties of the Rive droite. Long and ageing in barriques in mostly new French oak barrels are common. They are softer, fruitier and less tannic than those from the Médoc.
In addition to the AOC Saint-Émilion, there are also Saint-Émilion Grand Cru - wines with sensory quality criteria. There are four main differences between the two. The yield is limited to 8,000 kg/ha or 55 hl/ha (instead of 9,000 kg/ha or 65 hl/ha). The must weight of the grapes (except Merlot) must be at least 189 g/l sugar (instead of 180 g/l). The alcohol content must be at least 11.5% vol (instead of 11% vol). The wine must be aged for at least 14 months before being marketed. For the Grands Crus, the wines must undergo a second, more demanding test before bottling. The quality of the last ten vintages, the reputation of the wine, the market price achieved and the quality of the terroir are assessed.
The best Grands Crus with the addition "Classé" enjoy the status of classified plants. The classification applies exclusively to the Grand Vin (first wine) of the winery and may also be valid only for a defined part of the vineyards. All other wines, such as second wines or white wines, must have a different designation than the first wine on the label as their principal name. For example, the second wine from Château Cheval Blanc bears the name "Petit Cheval Blanc". In rare cases, a winery may also have two first wines, each with a different name (see, for example, Château Faugères).
The classification system is not as rigid as that of Médoc and is regularly revised (see the confusingly different classifications in France under Grand Cru). In contrast to the Médoc, the locations (i.e. the boundaries of the vineyards) of the wines included in the classification may not be freely modified. This provision has also led to declassifications when wineries with different classifications are merged (e.g. Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot). The first classification was made in 1955, followed by 1969, 1985, 1996, 2006 and finally 2012. The total number of classified wineries is limited to a maximum of 90. In 1986, there were 85, in 1996 the number was reduced to 68, in 2006 to only 60 and in 2012 it will rise again to 82.
According to the 2006 classification, however, there were protests from downgraded wineries. The four declassified Château Cadet-Bon, Château Guadet, Château La Marzelle and Château La Tour-du-Pin-Figeac brought a protest or a challenge to the result at the administrative court in Bordeaux (except Château La Tour-du-Pin-Figeac, by the way, the other three were reclassified in 2012). After examining the facts of the case, the court found that it was grossly erroneous to taste first the wines of already classified wineries and then separately the others. All should have been tasted together. As a result, there was a confusing back and forth. First, the 2006 classification was suspended and the 1996 classification put into effect, then it was rejected and the 2006 classification of eight châteaux was confirmed, then it was rejected and finally, on 13 May 2009, a "final" decision was made. Now the 1996 classification was again valid. In a footnote, however, it was noted that the eight chateaux upgraded in 2006 (6 Grand Cru Classé and 2 Premier Grand Cru Classé B) may retain their new rank.
The classification in 2012 was carried out under the supervision of the INAO by a jury of seven professional . In order to guarantee independence, there were no members of the Saint-Émilion Syndicate or the Bordeaux wine trade among them, but experts from Burgundy, , Loire, Provence and Rhône. Wine evaluation was carried out by blind tasting with a 20-point system. At least 14 points were required for the Grand Cru Classé and at least 16 points for the Premier Grand Cru Classé. There was an increase from 60 to 82 establishments, which is attributed to improved standards in winemaking and greater consistency in the evaluation. The shock caused by the many declassifications in 2006 has obviously motivated great efforts. There was only one declassification with Château Corbin-Michotte. This classification will now probably be valid for the next 10 years (until 2022).
The top Premier Grand Cru Classé is divided into two groups, A for the absolute top châteaux, which can be equated to the Premier Cru Classé Châteaux des Médoc in terms of quality (there was no change here until 2012 with the two wineries Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc) and B for the remaining châteaux. This is followed by the Grand Cru Classé, for which there have been changes in the previous classifications each time (declassifications and/or reclassifications). The lowest class is Grand Cru (without Classé), which, in contrast to the other classes, is not a classification that is valid for a longer period of time (see below). The classified wineries (h = upgraded, n = new, w = reclassified after declassification):
Actually, this lowest level is not a classification (because these vineyards were "not classified"), but an additional designation for the simple appellation Saint-Émilion. In 2012, more than 200 producers received this classification. Of course, individual wineries also produce excellent wines. Prime examples include Château Patris, Château Tertre-Rôteboeuf and, before the great leap from "Grand Cru" to "Premier Grand Cru Classé B" in 2012, Château Valandraud.