Discovering Saint-Emilion: history, walks and grands crus

Saint-Emilion is a medieval town located in the heart of the Bordeaux wine region, in the Dordogne. The city is famous for its wines considered to be among the best in the world. You can also discover the history of Saint-Emilion through its many castles and old churches. The town also has many quality restaurants and shops, making it a popular tourist destination for wine lovers looking for an oenological experience. Visits, tastings or tourist walks, each year, nearly a million visitors come to Saint-Emilion. In this article, we detail all the information you will need for a visit to the medieval city.

The history of Saint-Emilion

The medieval town of Saint-Emilion is located in the Gironde department, south of Bordeaux and 15 minutes from Libourne. The city was built on a limestone plateau overlooking the Dordogne valley and it owes its name to Emilion, a Breton monk. The latter, in fact, had chosen Ascumbas, the former name of Saint-Emilion, as a place of retirement. At that time, and for the sake of solitude, the monk had settled in a cliff to dig a troglodyte hermitage there. On his death in 787, the sanctuary was enlarged and it gave way to a monolithic church. This is how the name of Saint-Emilion was born. The city developed during the Middle Ages and ramparts were built at the beginning of the 13th century, transforming Saint-Emilion into a medieval city.

The village of Saint-Emilion
The village of Saint-Emilion

The origins of wine and vineyards

The Jurade, which became a brotherhood in 1948, is closely linked to the development of the wine-growing lands of Saint-Emilion during the Middle Ages. At that time, and under the reign of the King of England, the administration of the medieval city was entrusted to magistrates and notables. In exchange, England can enjoy the privileges of the wines of Saint-Emilion, which will allow the vineyards of the city to develop thanks to the notoriety of the exported wines, under the control of La Jurade. Founded more than 800 years ago, the Jurade maintains the memory of Saint-Émilion wines and ensures their reputation throughout the world.

The historical monuments of Saint-Emilion

Saint-Emilion has retained a rich heritage from its history and its past. With its vineyard listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the medieval city in southwestern France has more than 30 historical monuments, including:

  • The Hermitage of Saint-Emilion : located under the chapel of the Trinity, it is in this place that the Breton monk Emilion came to isolate himself for his retirement.
  • The 3 chapels : the Chapel of the Trinity, the Chapel of the Chapter and the Chapel of the Madeleine, all 3 classified as historical monuments.
  • The monolithic church : entirely dug into the rock, this 11th century church required the extraction of 15,000 m3 of rock! Its bell tower, meanwhile, culminates at 53 meters.
  • The collegiate church : built in a Roman style at the beginning of the 13th century, the collegiate church is today the official place of worship of the commune of Saint-Emilion.
  • The Cloister of the Cordeliers : listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most emblematic sites in Saint-Emilion. Today, the underground cellars of this former convent are used to produce and make sparkling wines. Its 3 km long galleries extend under the village of Saint-Emilion.
  • The vineyards : also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the vineyards of Saint-Emilion encompass the 7 wine-producing towns located on the outskirts of the medieval city. They extend over more than 8000 hectares.
  • The Church of the Dominican Convent
  • The Archbishop’s Palace
  • The catacombs
  • The walls

The Grands Crus and Châteaux

The great wines of Saint-Émilion are red wines with a controlled designation of origin (AOC). They come from the estates and castles that dot the vineyards around the medieval city. These are blended wines from different grape varieties. The Saint-Emilion appellation is made up of 79% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, the wine estates welcome visitors for red wine tastings and offer tours to discover their history and their cellars. Located one hour from Bordeaux, the bottles of wine from grand cru classified châteaux are listed in 2 families:

The wines of châteaux classified as grands crus are evaluated according to the following 4 criteria:

  • Tasting (50%)
  • Notoriety (20%)
  • Soils (20%)
  • Exploitation (10%)

The wines of the châteaux classified as Premier Grands Crus are evaluated according to the following 4 criteria:

  • Tasting (50%)
  • Notoriety (35%)
  • Soils (10%)
  • Exploitation (5%)

The Saint-Emilion vineyard brings together more than 800 properties. 64 of them have wines classified as grand cru and 18 wines classified as premier grand cru. For the classification, each castle is rated according to the methodology defined by the INAO, the National Institute of Appellations of Origin. Among the most famous castles, we can mention:

  • Bellevue Castle
  • Chateau La Tour Figeac
  • Chateau de Pressac
  • Chateau Larmande
  • Chateau Moulin du Cadet
  • White Horse Castle
  • Castle Pavia
  • Chateau Larcis-Ducasse
  • Chateau la Gaffeliere
A castle surrounded by vineyards in Saint-Emilion
A castle surrounded by vineyards in Saint-Emilion

Châteaux to visit for a tasting

The tourist office invites history and wine lovers to visit some of the most beautiful castles in Saint-Emilion. The visits are organized with a guide and last approximately one hour. Several wine estates also offer tastings of their wines. Here are some good places to remember:

  • Château Cantenac : this family property allows you to discover the different stages of the production of a grand cru, from the vine to the glass. At the end of the visit, an educational tasting is offered.
  • Château Laniote : this château produces a Grand Cru Classé and receives visitors throughout the year, by appointment.
  • Château Guadet : located in the heart of the village of Saint-Emilion, this château produces a Grand Cru Classé and offers visits to its cellars dug into the limestone, as well as a tasting by appointment.
  • Château Ambe Tour et Pourret : this property is surrounded by 5 hectares of vines and welcomes wine lovers in a tasting room. The estate also offers cooking classes to accompany the wines from the cellar.
  • Château Coutet: located in the town of Barzac, 45 minutes from Saint-Emilion, this vineyard produces a white wine classified as a grand cru. The 2014 vintage ranks 3rd among the greatest wines in the world, according to Wine Spectator magazine.
  • The Soutard castle : this magnificent castle is ideal for organizing a stay combining tourism and tasting. It offers a fun cycle route to discover the environment and the biodiversity of the wine estate. Conference rooms are also available for companies wishing to organize a seminar.

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