Village in the vineyards: exploring Saint-Émilion

A small medieval village with narrow cobbled streets, gourmet restaurants and a backdrop of picturesque vineyards, Saint-Émilion is one of the most beautiful wine towns in all of France. It’s also one of the oldest wine producing regions of Bordeaux – Saint-Émilion’s original vineyards were planted by the Romans. However, don’t let its historic look fool you – Saint-Émilion’s wine producers are amongst the most progressive in the region. Due to their smaller size versus their left bank counterparts, wineries are able to more easily innovate and experiment. In fact, there was even a garagiste (garage wine) movement initiated in the region in the 1990s.

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The forward-looking mindset of the region doesn’t stop at the vines. We were blown away that this small town had 5 Michelin Star restaurants – c’est magnifique! While we didn’t dine at any of them (#planningfail), they will definitely be in our plans for our next trip to Bordeaux. 

Our first stop in Saint-Emilion was a tour of Château Troplong Mondot. Located on a hill a few minutes away from the town center, Château Troplong Mondot is one of the premier estates in the area, with Premier Grand Cru Classé B status (the second highest status in the region).

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Similar to the chateaux tours we went on in Medoc, our tour started in the vines. With 28 hectares of vines, Château Troplong Mondot is one of the largest vineyards in the Saint-Emilion appellation. Typical of the region, the bulk of its grapes are merlot (85%), followed by cabernet sauvignon (13%) and cabernet franc (2%).

In recent years, Château Troplong Mondot has adopted a sustainable agriculture approach. Horses work 19 hectares of the land and the château uses an environmentally-friendly approach to fighting the common grapevine moth: sexual confusion. Diffusers on the vines release sexual pheromones which make it difficult for male moths to meet females to fertilize.

During the tour we also learned that due to strict regulations in the region, the château is not allowed to water the vines. Thankfully, the terroir in the region is clay-based, so the 10 m deep vines can usually find water. That being said, you can easily understand see how weather can play a huge role in the success of a particular vintage. In fact, in the weeks prior to our visit in June, like most of Europe, Saint-Emilion received a late frost that will likely lead to a 2017 harvest with fewer grapes. Our guide also mentioned that chateaux in lower-lying areas down the road had lost 90% of their crops in that frost.

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Our tour went from the vines to the vats, to see & understand the aging process of the grapes. From there we went to the tasting room, where we had the opportunity to taste a 2012 Mondot (their second wine). Like many other chateaux in Bordeaux, there is no pressure to purchase a bottle of wine after the tour, as the chateaux sell their wine via negociants (although you can purchase a bottle onsite if you wish). We elected instead to have another glass of wine at Les Belles Perdrix, the onsite restaurant. This was a somewhat embarrassing mistakes on two fronts: firstly, unlike North America, it’s gauche to have a glass of wine (no food) at a restaurant in France; secondly, we realized after the fact that we were at one of Saint-Emilion’s Michelin Star restaurants! The restaurant staff were accommodating, but we will definitely not make that mistake again!

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After our wine tasting we headed into the town of Saint-Emilion to explore. With no firm plan in mind, we wandered the cobbled streets and into the shops. If you are looking to purchase some bottles of wine from the region, I highly recommend stopping at the Maison du Vin Saint-Emilion, which has a good selection of wines from throughout the region. One thing to note: the “best” years in one Bordeaux region may not be the same as others. Chateau Troplong Mondot’s best years were: 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009, 2005 & 2003.

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