Saint Emilion Chronicles #5: Saint Emilion and its Wine Appellations

Saint Emilion: 
Clos La Madeleine and its vineyards

Now, on previous posts we have talked about the town of Saint Emilion; one of its churchesSaint Emilion sweet treats (macarons and cannelés); and the place we stayed at during our Saint Emilion visit – it is about time that we start talking about wine. This post will provide a general overview of the area from a wine standpoint, while future posts will focus on a few chateaux.

Saint Emilion: old grape press and vineyards of Chateau Canon

As we said in the introductory post of this series, Saint Emilion is a town that is located in the Libournais area, on the right bank of the Dordogne River, not far from Bordeaux. From a wine standpoint, the area surrounding the town of Saint Emilion is divided into several different appellations (known as “AOC” – in French, “Appelation d’Origine Controléè“).

One slightly confusing thing to bear in mind is that Saint Emilion AOC and Saint Emilion Grand Cru AOC are two different appellations that for the most part comprise the same territory. However, the regulations of the latter are stricter than the former as they require lower production yields and a 12-month minimum aging period.

Map of the Libournais Area and Main Appellations - Courtesy of Janoueix Clos du Roy (click on map to visit website)

Map of the Libournais Area and Main Appellations – Courtesy of Janoueix Clos du Roy (click on map to visit website)

So, a bottle that is labeled “Saint Emilion Grand Cru” only indicates that it has been produced under the rules of that AOC, but not necessarily that it is one of the Grands Crus that are part of the Saint Emilion wine classification (more on this later), which instead are identified as Grands Crus Classés or Premiers Grands Crus Classés, depending on their ranking.

Saint Emilion: Chateau La Gaffeliere and its vineyards

The two largely overlapping appellations of Saint Emilion AOC and Saint Emilion Grand Cru AOC encompass a territory of, respectively, 5,600 and over 4,000 HA where the dominating grape variety is Merlot, beside Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The average annual production is in the ballpark of 235,000 HL for Saint Emilion AOC and 150,000 HL for Saint Emilion Grand Cru AOC.

Saint Emilion
: Chateau Lassegue and its vineyards

As we alluded to above, in 1954 the  Winemaking Syndicate of Saint Emilion decided to compile a classification of the best estates (or Chateaux) in the Saint Emilion Grand Cru AOC based on criteria such as quality, sales and renown: this classification was published in 1955 (which is why it is often referred to as the “1955 Classification“) and is supposed to be revised and updated every 10 years, although in fact the updates have been more frequent (since inception, it has been updated in 1959, 1969, 1986, 1996 and 2012).

Saint Emilion: 
Chateau Cheval Blanc and its vineyards

The 1955 Classification divided the estates that made the cut into the following three tiers (in parentheses you can find the number of chateaux in each tier, based on the 2012 revision of the 1955 Classification):

  1. Premier Grand Cru Classé A (4)
  2. Premier Grand Cru Classé B (14)
  3. Grand Cru Classé (64)

Originally, there were only two Chateaux in the first tier of the 1955 Classification: Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc, while two more estates have been promoted to the Olympus of the Saint Emilion wines in the context of the 2012 revision of the 1955 Classification: Chateau Angelus and Chateau Pavie.

Saint Emilion: Chateau Pavie and its vineyards

If you are interested in finding out more about the 1955 Classification, on this Website you can find the complete list of the estates comprised in each of the three tiers of the classification.

For completeness, bear in mind that in the Saint Emilion area there are also four satellite appellations, as follows: Saint-Georges-Saint-Emilion AOCMontagne-Saint-Emilion AOCPuisseguin-Saint-Emilion AOC and Lussac-Saint-Emilion AOC.

Saint Emilion: church emerging from the vineyards in Pomerol

Another famous appellation in the greater Saint Emilion area is the adjacent Pomerol AOC, a small 770 HA Merlot-centric appellation which is home (among other premium estates) of the world-famous, super-exclusive, very rare and über-pricey Petrus. The estates in the Pomerol AOC were not considered for the purposes of the 1955 Classification (which, as we said, was limited to those in the Saint Emilion Grand Cru AOC): this explains why Petrus is not part of it.

Chateau de Ferrand (Grand Cru Classé)

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About Stefano

I am a photographer and an ISA certified sommelier. I contribute to two blogs, Flora's Table (the fine cooking and wine blog - www.florastable.com) and Clicks & Corks (my photography and wine blog - www.clicksandcorks.com). My photography Web site is at www.LightQuill.com
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8 Responses to Saint Emilion Chronicles #5: Saint Emilion and its Wine Appellations

  1. Great post Stefano – there is a huge about of information in it and yet it is very,very easy to read. As always your images are excellent and it is lovely to see pictures of summer warmth on the vines. All the best from B. 😉

    • Stefano says:

      Thank you so much, B: I am glad you found it clear enough. As you mentioned, wine stuff can get convoluted and confusing at times – especially when French or Italians are involved! 😉 and I strive to simplify and explain it as much as possible. Your comment makes me very happy! 🙂 I am also glad that you enjoyed this warm, summery glimpse of the vineyards!
      All the best,
      Stefano

  2. When I finish reading your posts it leaves me wanting more, you are very very good not just with the camera but at writing, this is so interesting, I love reading about St. Emillion and can’t wait for the next installment.

    • Stefano says:

      Thank you so much, dear Suzanne, for so nice and kind a comment – you really made my day: I am glad to hear that you enjoy reading my stories and looking at the accompanying images. Your friendship and support are enormously appreciated. 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Saint Emilion Chronicles #6: Chateau de Ferrand, a Visit and a Wine Review | Flora's Table

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