Saint Emilion Wine
Located 45 minutes from Bordeaux’s city center was St. Emilion – a beautiful and luscious wine region known for it’s red blends of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Chateaus spread along in between vineyards of every shape and size. I visited Chateau Soutard who literally had cannons posted up for battle surrounding their vineyards ready to shoot ice out of the sky if it attacked and turn it into rain before it could touch the precious vines. Another, Cardinal Villemaurine, located right down the road still used horses to till their soil, expanses of untouched earth below to age their wine, and outdated equipment built into the walls to ferment it.
Chateau Soutard was an expansive and lavishly renovated winery, completed in modern redesign in 2006. Some top French insurance company had purchased it and outdone themselves entirely. I was in an English speaking tour – 2 Ohio residents, a couple from Toronto and a couple from England. The tour guide was young and good-looking – Jacques something or other, but his French accent was thick and his English was quite hard to understand. He would pause awkwardly after each paragraph and just look at us expectantly, like we were supposed to do something. But none of us ever did. I felt for him – it was a tough crowd. After a few very long, silent moments, he would motion us to follow him. Most of what he told us about the wine making process, I already knew, but I jotted down a few differences.
Chateau Soutard grew 80% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc with little Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec scattered sparsely. The earth was made up of limestone with a sandy covered clay overtop. We went through the “old” and “historic” wine cellar, which Jacques claimed had been renovated to look exactly as it had 6 generations ago. I found that hard to believe. By the looks of the place, it was designed as a wedding venue or concert hall (a baby grand piano graced the center) and the 10 by 10 glass elevator that we got into was furnished with glossy benches and satin cushions. We rode the 21st century elevator to the underground cellar which looked entirely too new as well. It was all very wine cave meets 5 star Marriott in Time Square.
The underground limestone tasting cave was too perfect and you could tell it had just been dug out a few years ago, unlike the ancient quarries that ran underneath the rest of the city. Caged rooms held thousands of unlabeled magnum bottles which they used to age the wine because in them, the aging process was more slow and delicate. An oval, translucent table, glowing white from the center of the room, served as a bar and was meant for better inspection of the wine’s color. Jacques said that judging the color with these UV rays would allow us to detect the precise vintage of the wine. We tasted a 2004 and 2007 Grand Cru Classic (tasting notes at the bottom) and here, I did learn some interesting facts new to me about the process.
All of the wine made here was unfiltered and the light from the tables pierced the color in the glass revealing the floating sediment. Jacques said that only in the last 15 years, wineries have started to filter it all out but it was better to allow it to remain in the wine. He told us that the best vintages of Bordeaux in the last 14 years were 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2010. The St. Emilion wines could be aged for 25 to 30 years. But wines from Medoc (a neighboring region) could be held onto as long as 50. As the years went by for one holding onto a particular bottle, some of the wine would escape from the glass. If someone had purchased say, a bottle of 1979 wine and still had it unopened, they could bring the bottle back to the Chateau and have it topped off and re-corked from the Chateau’s stock cellars, which held spares of every vintage.
An American scientist from Ohio asked Jacques about the present cold, wet weather (a question that I was so tired of hearing that I almost answered it myself for the intrigued doctor) and Jacques told him that out of the whole year, these two weeks were the most important of all. The last time they had four very bad years in a row was 1960 and these years usually tend to work in cycles. After 2011, 2012, and 2013 all turned out to be bad years, they were expecting 2014 to unfortunately be bad as well. Saint Emilion had only harvested 40% of a regular season in 2013 and Bordeaux had only yielded 20% - a very bad year, indeed. I started to zone out from the weather conversation until I heard Jacques tell the scientist about their ice cannons. Should any frost decide to fall at an inopportune time, the cannons were aimed and ready to turn it to rain before it could reach the crops. That was it. Where the hell was I?
After the tour, I chatted with Jacques and found out that he had only been at Soutard for a month and was previously a wine maker in Virgina. He, like all Europeans I had met who visited America, seemed desperate to get back. He said that he much preferred the creativity allowed in American wine making because there weren’t nearly as many laws pertaining to the process as there were in France. I gave him my card and told him to go bother Boordy Vineyards if he wanted to move back.
After I left, I drove in circles trying to find Cardinal Villemaurine, which ended up being located right down the street from Soutard. I had just come from a vineyard with it’s own private fleet of cannons and these guys were out in their fields following 2 giant white horses in between the vineyard rows, tilling the soil with their hooves. I glanced behind me and could still see Soutard. This could not be right.
But it was. This 4th generation family Chateau was the real deal. About 1/20th the size of Soutard above ground, its expanses of underground quarries seemed to be never ending. We must have walked under the vines, the streets, and maybe even the city. I wondered if the roots ever broke through the ceilings of these limestone caves or if they just felt their way around them and down into the walls.
This Chateau had two brands: Cardinal Villemaurine – coming from many of their fields throughout the region, and Clos Villemaurine – coming from the clos on the property with the horses. They were Grand Cru, which meant they had to abide by 3 major guidelines. One: the alcohol content of their wine must be between 12.5% and 13.5%. Two: They must only use oak for aging their wines. And three: the wine must be aged for at least 12 months in barrel. Villemaurine aged their wine for 24 months and it was splendid (tasting notes at the bottom). They use small oak barrels to yield stronger oak flavors and large, burgundian barrels to keep more fruity flavors and then blend the two of them after 18 months for an elegant balance. The wine then returns to barrel to complete the remainder of the 24 month aging process. Like all of the French wineries I have visited, all of the bottles remain unlabeled, stored underground. They are "dressed" as needed when shipping orders come in. The tiny Vietnamease, French woman showed me a room containing all of the 2012 wine, still in barrel. The last blending would be next week and it would be in bottle by July, awaiting release in January of 2015.
The city of St. Emilion was amazing and so interesting. An entire city built out of limestone. They had dug into the earth to find it, leaving 200km of quarries under the city abandoned and unused. Many, many years later, the people realized that they had the perfect conditions for aging wine down there. So the beautiful Merlot and Cabernet Franc wines of St. Emilion lie under the earth, hidden from the city above and covered by the present generations of vines, burrowing their roots deep into the limestone below where their ancestor’s lived. I walked through the city and saw all of the negative space in the limestone caves below turned into its positive counterparts in each building. The rain finally stopped and the sun came out with a vengeance. I walked the streets around nooks and crannies of stone and fell in love. I decided that I simply couldn’t leave yet to go to the next region, so I didn’t.
Chateau Soutard ~
2004 Grand Cru Classic~ 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, & 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep purple hue with a lot of sediment. Aromas of vanilla and cherries that later yeilded as more distinctively, white chocolate, raspberry mouse. Fruit bomb flavor.
2007 Grand Cru Classic~ 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, & 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Oddly enough, the aroma of this wine instantly made me think of charcuterie and basil. Almost like parmasean cheese. The taste reminded me of spice and pizza which was surprising and strange. I am told the spice comes from the limestone. This wine has high tannins and a very complex flavor. Later, the aromas open up to more fruit. Jacques tells us that it is best to open this bottle and let it breathe 2 hours prior to drinking. If it is a very old vintage - 30 minutes prior and if a very young vintage - 5 hours prior.
2011 Cardinal Villemaurine ~ 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aroma is reminiscent of Port like chocolate covered raspberries. Dry with red fruity and oaky flavors and light tannins. Very smooth.
2011 Clos Villemaurine ~ 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc. Old vines from Clos behind Chateau. Strawberry and cherry on the nose with stronger tannins. 50% aged in new French oak, and 50% in two year old French oak, which gives the wine more structure. Much more characterisitc of a Cabernet Franc despite being primarily Merlot based.