Episode 40 Saint-Émilion

Saint-Émilion photo JLPC


There is more to Saint_Émilion than wonderful wine. This charming village near Bordeaux is amazingly scenic, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a mostly underground church, and the wine is indeed lovely!

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Saint-Émilion seen from the King’s tower, photo Didier Descouens.

Saint-Émilion is in the region of the southwest of France in the Province of Aquitaine. It is famous for being a part of the wine-producing area of the greater Bordeaux and is also famous for its underground church and its architecture.

It is also a small town, of great historic interest, situated in the heart of the wine-producing area labelled AOC St Emilion, one of the great Bordeaux wine areas. St Emilion is about 40 km or 26 miles from Bordeaux and only a few km from Libourne which makes it an easy place to visit or stop when in the Bordeaux area.

Nonolithic Churc, photo Fabien1309

In 1999 it was put on the Unesco list of World Heritage sites – a great privilege.

Thanks to that, its year round population goes from about 2000 to over 25000 every day in the summertime and it is estimated that over a million people visit the town and the region of St Emilion every year.

The town of St Emilion can be reached by bus, car or train. The nearest city is Libourne, and the bigger city of Bordeaux is to the southwest of St Emilion.   St Emilion is about 40 km or 26 miles from Bordeaux and only a few km from Libourne which makes it an easy place to visit or stop when in the Bordeaux area.

Ancien Palais Cardinal Saint-Emilion photo Didier Descouens

The town is located on a limestone plateau, and most of the old medieval part is down below, under the entrance to the area with its parking spots and city hall. The tourist office is on the area up above, near the large steps carved centuries ago out of the local limestone. A good idea is to stop at the tourist office and get a map of the town and a map of the circuit of cavistes in town. The cavistes are shops where you have a great selection of the different chateaux, the vineyards that produce all of the famous wines. You can also pick up a road map that gives you the roads to take to do a wine route and wander through the beautiful rolling green land around St Emilion.

 What makes St Emilion so special?

Cloister Saint Emilion photo Monster1000

It is an area that has been inhabited since the prehistorical times – many of the limestone caves an outcroppings in this region, and close by in Dordogne, are filled with evidence of activity and artistic creation dating back as far as almost 18000 years ago. Here in the St Emilion area there are caves that show that people were using them as shelter during the centuries when it was a Celtic region, before the arrival of the Romans.

When the Romans came through here and made the city of Bordeaux (called Burdigala) their main port on the Atlantic – the region around St Emilion was recognized as being perfect for growing grapes to make their daily drink – wine!

This area became a prestigious Roman villa – that is a plantation or a large vineyard, with a massive production – the soil, land, weather and cliffs were perfect.

Later on after this area was more or less Christianized, many hermits and monks came to live in the natural shelters created by the caves. In the 700’s, a monk named Emilion, from Brittany, left his monastery and came to live the contemplative life alone in the cave that is now the center of St Emilion. All by himself he began digging out the soft stone to create a chapel underground, this was the beginning of the fabulous underground church that is now the pride of St Emilion.

Eventually other monks came, they created a Benedictine monastery and made a huge underground church with a nave, side aisles, columns and decoration, all carved out of the lovely beige limestone. This remarkable structure is still visitable. The monks much later on added a magnificent entranceway and then eventually a Gothic church tower on the outside. When you go to St Emilion, you should not miss going in to see this incredible structure.

Not only is there this church, there are many well-kept up narrow streets with ancient houses. There is another Gothic era church and a small catacomb actually used by the early Christians.

And the town is gorgeous – sunny most of the year, with lovely little gardens, small places to eat lunch or dinner and a feeling of a well-kept up and well-regarded past permeates the whole town.

Photo DarkoNeko

Nearby, you can visit one or many of the chateau that produce this famous wine. Considered to be one of the best of the many red wines produced in the whole region around Bordeaux, included in the category of St Emilions are the Lussac, the Pomerol and the very famous White Horse winery. All the wines here are reds. Made largely with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (in somewhat different proportions from other Bordeaux area wines, a St Emilion is a relatively expensive wine°°

(Please note that a “cheap” bottle of St Emilion is not worth buying because it will not be good, or aged and that if you do not want to spend at least 35 euros, you will most likely not get a good bottle. In that case it is better to buy another kind of wine and get a top bottle)

The region had 5,400 hectares of vineyard with 12 Premier Grand Crus (the best of the best) and 63 Grand Crus Classés – still a very good rating for the wines.

Saint-Émilion Clos Fourtet photo Ernmuhl

The fame of these wines goes back to the early middle ages when the King of England and of Aquitaine by his marriage, Henry II, gave the merchants and wine producers of this small region special rights and privileges, and the ability to govern and tax themselves, IN EXCHANGE for having huge amounts of the wonderful wine of St Emilion shipped to England. This was the beginning of the vast wine trade and the riches of Bordeaux as all the wine was shipped out from there. This arrangement was called the Jurade, an it lasted until the Revolution. In 1884 St Emilion was the first of the wine towns and areas to create a kind of union of wine makers, designed to control the quality and the output of the wine to not have their reputation damaged by cheaters and those whose wine was of lesser quality.

There is a feeling of well-being about this town – its beauty, its architecture and its wine heritage make it a wonderful place to visit and why not, even spend a night before moving on to discover the rest of the Bordeaux area or the Dordogne region near by.

Hotel de Ville de Saint-Émilion photo Didier Descouens



2 thoughts on “Episode 40 Saint-Émilion”

  1. A friend of mine pointed me to this site. I listened with great interest to your 40th podcast. Years ago when I was doing research in Bordeaux on Michel de Montaigne, friends took me St Emilion. It was as gorgeous as you described. Thanks for reminding me of a wonderful trip.

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