A highlight of our Bordeaux wine tour is a stroll around the small town of Saint-Émilion. A picturesque town, it features steep cobblestone streets, cafés, wine bars, characterful period houses and stunning vineyard views.
In the 8th century a monk from Brittany – whose name was Émilion – settled in the place that was later to become known as Saint-Émilion. Life and people often treated the monk unfairly but he did not let this bother him. He created a hermitage and devoted himself to God, shunning contact with people.
Ironically, if you want to avoid people, Saint-Émilion no longer the place to be. On the contrary, the town is one of France’s most popular excursion destinations. Naturally there are wine lovers but history buffs and culture vultures make a bee line here too, attracted by the town’s unspoiled medieval character. Happily, hordes of tourists cannot ruin the peace and harmony of Saint-Émilion.
Aesthetics are key here. The whole town is built on (and of) a lustrous, pale limestone, and all the houses have the same bright red roof-tiles, creating a harmonious whole. “It is the same limestone that was used to build Bordeaux,” says Christophe Dussutour, winemaker at well-known Château Trottevieille. “It’s a stone that is easy to mine and the area is full of quarries.” In France, there are people who call themselves amateurs des vieilles pierres – “lovers of old stones” – and in Saint Emilion they get as much of it as they can ever hope for. The whole of Saint Emilion is built on and of this stone.
One of the most exceptional sites in Saint-Émilion is the impressive monolith church. A cathedral, its tower rises high above all other buildings while the body of the church is under the ground. The church was dug out of the rock between the 8th and 12th century by expanding existing caves and quarries. It is the largest monolith church in France, and its sheer scale and perfect vaults are impressive.
There are so many kilometres of underground passages beneath Saint-Émilion that car traffic is restricted within the town, and in any case it is better to explore the narrow streets by foot.
The town has 2,000 inhabitants but I sometimes wonder where they go shopping for food. I have never seen as much as a baker. But that is not quite true, there are the macarons everywhere. “Les Véritables Macarons de Saint-Émilion” is written on signs everywhere, and a seductive scent of freshly-baked almond cakes floats in the air. The most authentic are said to be made by Madame Blanchez on Rue Gaudet, using the original recipe dating back to 1620. These little round cakes contain nothing but sweet and bitter almonds, fresh egg whites and sugar, but absolutely no preservatives or colourants.
However, there are shops a-plenty, and most of them are wine shops. Tourist traps? Yes, some of them, but not all. Those offering triple-packs standing in the sunshine should be avoided.
Amongst the more serious wine shops is l’Essentiel on rue Guadet. This combined shop and wine bar is owned by Jean-Luc Thunevin, a major player in the wine world and owner of Château Valandraud. Bordeaux-based designer Bruno Dolis has created a modern, colourful interior which creates a striking contrast to the bright stone exterior. Some 300 wines are stocked here: big Bordeaux names like Yquem and Cheval Blanc along with Thunevin’s own wines, but also some excellent, less famous local growers and a choice of quality, non-French bottles. At the bar there are tasty cheeses available for pairing with the tipple of your choice, while a lounge offers a more relaxed tasting space.
Another good tip for wine shoppers is to head over to the Maison du Vin de Saint-Émilion on place Pierre Meyrat, next to the tourist office. Here you’ll find La Boutique, a shop offering 250 different wines at cellar-door prices (not that you can buy many Bordeaux wines direct, although things are slowly changing). There is also a large collection of books about wine and (surprise, surprise) Saint-Émilion.
A pleasant wine bar where you can also enjoy some rather good food is Chai Pascal (the name is a play on words: chai, meaning wine cellar, is pronounced almost the same way as chez, meaning at someone’s place). It opened a few years ago, with Pascal himself behind the counter. He used to work in one of Paris’s best wine shops but got tired of the big city and moved down to Bordeaux. The wine offering is superb (there’s even a good dry sherry from Lustau, which is a rarity in France), and the cheeses and Basque charcuterie are highly recommended.
L’Envers du Decor is another address featuring good food and fine wines. Situated only 20 meters from the tourist office, this somewhat rustic restaurant boasts a large yet tranquil courtyard for outdoor dining on warm summer days (or nights), with friendly, knowledgeable staff and quality wines by the glass, including some older vintages. A set menu for around 30 euros night include Arcachon oysters, grilled duck breast (magret de canard) or entrecôte with red wine sauce and shallots, and a smooth crème brûlée. The restaurant has recently changed hands (it is now owned by Gérard Perse of Château Pavie) but so far it seems to be true to its former style.
One major advantage of Saint-Émilion is that it is surrounded by vineyards; just a short stroll from the city centre will take you out into the vines. In one direction lies Clos Saint Julien, in another are Ausone, Clos Fourtet, Grandes Murailles…and many others.
For a pleasant walk, start at the top of the village, at the beginning of rue Guadet. Head down towards the town centre, turning right on rue des Girondins to arrive at place du Clocher with its stunning views of the city’s rooftops, the Château du Roy tower and the vineyards.
Retrace your steps a little and take the steep cobblestone street rue du Tertre de la Tente down to the main square, place de l’Eglise Monolithe. Alternatively, having admired the view from the square, take the road bordered by vines on the western side of town and get a glimpse of Clos Fourtet and Chateau Ausone’s vineyards. Or perhaps best of all is to simply stroll through the winding alleyways and soak up the atmosphere that seeps out of the characterful old stone buildings.
Named in the text:
- Chai Pascal, 37 rue Guadet
- L’Envers du Decor, 11 rue du Clocher
- Essentiel, 6 rue Guadet
- Maison du Vin de Saint-Emilion, place Pierre Meyrat
- Les Veritables Macarons de Mme Blanchez, 9, rue Guadet
More restaurants in Saint Emilion
In our experience restaurants and wine shops come and go rather quickly. If someone on the list has disappeared, or if you have a suggestion of a new name, do please let us know.
In addition to those mentioned above:
Logis de la Cadène, 3 place du Marché au Bois: a very good quality classic recently acquired by Hubert de Boüard (Château Angélus), who will probably move it up to luxury level.
Hostellerie de Plaisance, 5 rue du Clocher: very luxurious, Michelin-starred address, also owned by Gérard Perse. Not cheap.
Le Clos du Roy, 12 rue de la Petite Fontaine: a French classic. Good quality, medium priced, with outdoor seating.
Le Tertre, 5 rue du Tertre de la Tente: Classic French food with a touch of elegance. Medium priced.
And of course, there are many, many others…
Now that you’re fully briefed on the key points for visitors to Saint-Émilion, the only thing left to do is to actually go there. And what better way to do that than a fantastic wine tour to Bordeaux with BKWine? [CHECK THIS LINK URL]
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