10 Things to Know About Saint Emilion Wines
A Horse of A Different Color: Saint-Emilion Grands Crus Classes By: Laura Ness
When I was a teenager, I finally convinced my Mother to pay for horseback riding lessons: something I’d wanted to do since I was able to walk. My instructor, who lived even farther out in the boonies of the Hudson Valley than we did, boarded three horses, two of which I got to ride. The third, an impressively enormous black stallion with a white star on his face, was a bit too out of control for a beginner like me. At 18.5 hands high, Danny Boy was stunning, high-spirited and slightly evil. He was constantly grabbing hold of the rope handle to the barn door, which swung at least 20 feet over my head, pulling it down with a thud. If you turned your back to him, he was nipping on your hair band, trying to steal your sweater or biting your butt. I wanted nothing more in the world than to ride this magnificent, forbidden beast: I knew he had to be the smoothest, most amazingly powerful example of horseflesh I’d ever get close to. But, alas, it was not to be.
I’ve always looked at Right Bank Bordeaux with the same amount of admiration and lust. But I’ve never had the opportunity to taste enough of them to cement my fantasy. Fortunately, a lovely stable of Right Bank Bordeaux from the Saint-Emilion region came galloping our way to visit these United States last week, and one stop was in San Francisco at the beautiful SF Terra event center on Harrison Street. Some 35 French producers brought their 2009 and 2010 vintages and let’s just say, that’s a whole lotta RBBs.
Organizer Paul Wagner from Balzac Communications wryly noted that this event offered way more Saint-Emilions than most people would get to taste in a lifetime. He also observed that 2009 was supposed to be a “killer vintage” from this region, but that to his palate, the 2010 crop is certainly a superb standout.
Saint-Emilion, small as it is, happens to be a mighty heavyweight when it comes to world renown and acclaim. In fact, three of the world’s top ten most influential brands for 2013, according to Wine Searcher, came from Saint-Emilion, including Château Pavie and Chateau Angélus, along with perennial darling, Petrus. Petrus is located in the Pomerol appellation near its eastern border to Saint-Émilion.
I asked President of the association, Alain Moueix, why his group of wineries chose a uniformed regal figure astride a galloping horse as their symbol: it floats in a bright pink background. He replied, “It is because Louis XIV revered Saint-Emilion. This is the statue that is in front of Versailles.” In fact Louis XIV praised this region’s wines, saying “Saint-Emilion: the nectar of the Gods.” Moueix says on the association’s website that the horse is an ideal symbol to embody the power, elegance and nobility of Saint-Emilion wines.
TOP TEN THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SAINT-EMILION
- The Saint-Emilion appellation was established in 1982 by chateaux eager to promote their own wines and to strive for improved quality in the region overall.
- The Saint-Emilion portion of Bordeaux is planted to about 13,500 acres of vines, and is responsible for only about 6% of the total production of red wines from Bordeaux.
- There are two appellations, one being simply called “Saint-Emilion,” while the other is “Saint-Emilion Grand Cru.” This latter group is further divided into the Grand Crus Classe and Premier Grand Crus Classe, which is reviewed every ten years.
- In order to sport the Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Cru badge on your label, you have to submit 10 consecutive vintages of your wine to an independent tasting panel composed of St Emilion producers: a strict peer review. One has to pass muster for all 10 vintages in order to achieve this honor.
- The average production of the 58 chateaux in the region is under 5k cases.
- Most of the vines are at least 20 years old, with many of them being 35 or more, and are predominantly Merlot with a nod to more Cabernet Franc than Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is the Queen Crop here, without a doubt.
- Vinification vessels range from concrete tanks to stainless to wooden tanks
- Ageing is done in primarily French oak, with upwards of 40% new
- Alcohol levels for the 2009 vintage are by and large a bit lower than those of 2010, ranging from the mid 13’s to 14.5%. The 2010’s are almost universally pushing 15%.
- Flavors from the 2009 vintage are mostly dark and black fruits with savory notes, while the 2010 veers more to red fruits, higher acid and overall punchier structure
Interestingly, many of the wineries who participated in the tasting employ the consulting services of Michel Rolland or one of his associates. Hmmm. Is that good or bad?
Of the wines I tasted with my companion, Tracey Hoff of Steven Kent, we quickly identified a few that simply stunned us with their brilliance. We both rated these producers as our top three, and we had similar tasting notes.
#1. 2009 Chateau Moulin Du Cadet, 100% Merlot, 14%
Aromas: Arresting aromas of a riding stable, oozing tack and leather, with hints of Comte cheese. Classic French barnyard and stacked firewood.
Flavors: Rich, round expressive tannins, with lots of coffee. Silky smooth as a canter through a forest on a fall day. Fantastic!
2010 Chateau Moulin Du Cadet, 100% Merlot, 14%
Aromas: Less horsey, wintergreen, like birch branches
Flavors: Intense coffee, red plum, vanilla, pomegranate and birch beer flavors. Very well integrated for its youth: works like a well worn gear shift.
Tracey’s notes say:
2009, barny, forest, autumn leaves, round tannin, espresso, red plum, beautiful structure.
2010, similar nose/palate, herb note, eucalyptus, mint, vanilla, birch
#2. 2009 Chateau Dassault, 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.5%
Aromas: Earthy and smokey, like a bonfire on a cool fall day.
Flavors: Amazing texture and structure, raw silk tannins, perfectly integrated acidity, awesome leather, with intriguing citrus note of orange and grapefruit on the finish. Like riding a Tennessee walking horse: brilliant!
2010 Chateau Dassault, 83% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15%
Aromas: More perfumey than the 2009. Filled with sandalwood and juniper incense.
Flavors: Roasted pine nuts, chestnut puree with parsnips. Delicious texture and fabulous tannins.
Tracey’s notes say:
2009, I’m in love…dark, leather, high tannin, med plus acid, long finish, citrus note at end, orange peel, beautiful.
2010, Pretty sister, juniper, roasted chestnut, gorgeous.
#3. 2009 Chateau Fombrauge, 77% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon
Aromas: Absolutely yummy-spicy nose, with Worcestershire, roasted pecans and coffee
Flavors: Espresso with cocoa, truffles, hard salami, ginger beer, cardamom. Perfectly integrated acid and tannin, like a gymnast on a balance beam. Extraordinary!
#4. 2009 Chateau La Tour Figeac, 78% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Franc, 14%
Aromas: Now, this is Bordeaux! Tar, earth, autumn leaves after a first rain.
Flavors: Great texture, roasted tomatoes with garlic and shallots. Grippy tannins, short middle.
2010 Chateau La Tour Figeac, 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 14%
Aromas: The Franc really shines through. More pine aromas.
Flavors: Pretty raspberry dark chocolate chile brittle with great tannins and a forever finish. I prefer this to the 09.
#5. 2009 Chateau Le Prieure, 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 14.5%
Aromas: Savory incense, leather and green pepper
Flavors: Grippy and savory, with a great bite. Very taut through the middle, with excellent balance and a lovely sandalwood finish. Like a cool breeze in a pine forest.
It should come as no surprise that my #1 top fave reminded me of a stable full of horses. And I still can’t get Danny Boy out of my head.
BY: LAURA NESS, WINE JUDGE & WINE WRITER
Laura Ness, aka “Her VineNess,” is an accomplished wine journalist and wine critic whose passion for wine was ignited by a visit to France, where she had the unmatched pleasure of tasting Sancerre in the medieval town of Sancerre – splendid!— and then a Saumur, after visiting the Chateau de Saumur in Chinon. The concept of terroir came alive in those incandescent moments. She regularly judges wine competitions and serves on the tasting panels of the Pinot, Cabernet and Chardonnay Shootouts. She was instrumental in helping define the unique sub-regions of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA in concert with Appellation America. You can usually find her sipping and smiling in Mendocino, Livermore, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains and Paso Robles. Laura writes extensively for many industry and consumer publications, and has weekly wine columns in several Bay Area newspapers. She blogs, irreverently and sporadically, at myvinespace.com.