As with all the most significant appellations in France, the regulations for St Emilion were laid down very soon after Baron Le Roy’s initial work in Châteauneuf du Pape, work which paved the way for the creation of the Appellation Contrôlée system. The St Emilion appellation dates from 1938, when the committee met to draw up the boundaries for the eligible vineyards, which are the town of Libourne and the Pomerol vineyards to the west, route nationale 10 to the north, where the the adjoining communes of St Emilion and Pomerol, such as St-Georges-St-Emilion and Lalande-de-Pomerol, may be found, the Ruisseau la Capelle and the Dordogne to the south, and to the east the vineyards of the Côtes de Castillon.
The permitted varieties match those allowed elsewhere in Bordeaux, namely the Cabernets Franc & Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère and Malbec. Naturally it is the first three that dominate, but the lead role goes to Merlot, which copes much better with the limestone and clay soils, as opposed to Cabernet Sauvignon which is better suited to gravel. One or two estates, with Cheval Blanc being perhaps the prime example, feature Cabernet Franc ahead of all the other varieties.
The appellation regulations also allow for a Grand Cru designation, although the term is misleading. In Burgundy it is the highest honour for any plot of land, a designation intrinsically intertwined with the terroir of the region; here in St Emilion, where terroir is also so vital, a wine qualifies for Grand Cru status based on little more than a few details of the harvest - a maximum of 40 hl/ha rather than 45 hl/ha for basic St Emilion - and a minimum alcoholic strength of 11%, hardly a pressing requirement considering what I have already written of the New Bordeaux in my piece on climate change and new technologies. Thus the distinctions between St Emilion and St Emilion Grand Cru are very minor, rather akin to the difference between basic Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur. As such, the Grand Cru designation is effectively meaningless to the consumer. The appellation regulations make mention of the more interesting tiers of the St Emilion classification, Grand Cru Classé and Premier Grand Cru Classé, but is clear that these designations are awarded by - or at least on behalf of - the Minister for Agriculture and the Secretary of State. Both rankings are determined by committee, who make their judgements based on visits to the domaines in question and on tasting ten vintages. For the 2006 classification, the decision was made on the strength of the 1993-2002 vintages.
A listing of the most notable estates is given here on the right, but rather than using the regional classification as a framework for the list, as I have done with other communes and appellations, here I have summarised the top properties according to the predominant terroir. It is not an unquestionable or hugely robust method (but then neither are any of the Bordeaux classifications in my opinion), especially as many properties possess vineyards that encompass several (or indeed all) of the St Emilion terroirs. It is not uncommon for properties on the plateau to have some vineyards on the côtes, and for some at the pieds de côtes where the limestone gives way to clay to also have some vineyards on the sandy plains to the west and south of the town. Where one terroir seems more significant for a particular property I have listed it appropriately; hence Cheval-Blanc and Figeac are both listed under gravel, although there is a component of sand in the vineyards. Likewise La Tour-Figeac is listed under sand, although there is a gravel component here. Naturally not all estates are listed, merely those that seem most significant for the St Emilion appellation.
Of these estates, which you favour most will naturally depend on personal preferences. There are some wines which tend towards a dark colour, rich texture, plentiful extract, low acidity and high points. It is easy to be swayed by such a style, especially when tasted among a line up of comparable wines. But taken to an extreme, as seems to be the case in St Emilion more than any other Bordeaux appellation, it is not a style I favour. Without sufficient acidity there is no freshness, and when extraction goes too far the wines must carry a heavy burden of tannin for the rest of their lives, and will never possess a balanced composition on the palate. Over-extraction, something I have already discussed in my osmosis and extraction chapter of this guide, is very much a right bank disease, with St Emilion being the more afflicted of the Libournais communes.
Despite my preferences for fresher, more balanced wines, however, I have no problem with the more opulent style per se; I do not think of it as inherently ‘wrong’. Also I have nothing against the garariste movement - a trend for opulent, low yield, microvinifications - which was born in St Emilion and which is typified by estates such as La Mondotte, Le Dôme and of course, the archetype, Valandraud - as some of these wines can be delicious. Interestingly, however, it seems to me that many of those who do enjoy this style of wine - or at least a vocal minority - do not hold a corresponding view. They view the less opulent, less extracted wines - read fresh and balanced - as underperforming, underachieving, insults to their palate, which they must regard, I suppose, as being the universal palate. They send the wines packing with ‘could do better’ scrawled on their reports, as if they were teachers judging miscreant pupils. Fortunately for me, the influence of these self-appointed teachers has not spread across the whole commune, and there are many wines produced in St Emilion which still suit my palate. To enjoy the wines of this region - which yields more bottles of wine than all four of the Médoc’s most famous communes combined - all that is necessary is a little exploration, and perhaps an open mind, open to the thought that high-scoring, hedonistic, low acid, over-extracted wines might not be the best - to your palate - that the commune has to offer.