Though they are amongst the most expensive toll roads in Europe, France’s Autoroutes are a fast and efficient way of traveling between points in the country. Between St. Malo and St. Emilion, the 340 miles or so of road passed quickly. When we reached the edge of St. Emilion a distinctive wine country feel replaced Brittany’s costal air and scenery.
“Turn right,” Homer, the voice of our TomTom GPS commanded when the country road reached St. Emilion.
There was a slight problem. Homer was directing us up the wrong way on a one-way street. He does this some time. Fortunately St. Emilion is a small village and we couldn’t get very lost. We took the next turn and found a back way into the village. Soon our hotel’s small remote lot appeared and we parked. The car park was still several blocks from the hotel. But in St. Emilion it is easier to walk than drive.
St. Emilion is the type of place you visit and never want leave. A small village with steep cobbled streets, St. Emilion hides its businesses behind dissolving sandstone facades. There is a beauty in its yellow monochromatic decay. Unlike St. Malo, St. Emilion has survived the modern wars largely intact. It is a tourist town that somehow avoids a touristy feel despite a plethora of restaurants and maybe highest density of wine shops anywhere.
Wine is the main invent in St. Emilion. Indeed, UNESCO designates the “Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion” as a World Heritage site in large part to its viticultural history.
With the many stores offering the very best of the rare and expensive wines of the region, it is the type of place where wine snobs dream of a period of civil unrest. Just imagine the feverish looting of the wine shops after some future disaster. One well-appointed looter shouts to another: “Leave the ’97 Chateau Margaux and take the ’47 Cheval Blanc” as they pillage a store.
In St. Emilion, viticulture is the major attraction but there are things to see and do that are not wine and food related. One of the more notable sites is the large monolithic church located near the center of the village. By definition a monolithic church is hewn from a single block of stone. A tour took us through carved out rooms and into the massive nave hollowed from the rock. Somehow a cave and a basilica had been morphed together.
With the stomach in charge, food and wine activities dominated our daily agenda. A day trip along the 2010 Tour de France time trial route took us to Paulliac. In Paulliac we visited and tasted wine at Chateau Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville (Pichon-Baron for short) and Chateau Lynch-Bages. (Our choices of Chateaus to visit arbitrarily reflected our collection back home.)
On another day we searched the vineyards around St. Emilion for Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Petrus. It’s not as if we had a hope of visiting the wineries or even purchasing these expensive, exclusive wines. It was a simple pilgrimage to touch the soil and experience the terroir.
Around the world wine country is synonymous with gastronomic pleasures. And so it is in Bordeaux. We had many memorable meals in St. Emilion but the best meal was at Hostellerie de Plaisance. Hostellerie de Plaisance has two Michelin stars. It could easily have three. Our meal ranked with the best of our trip.
With all the meals, we had exceptional wine. The 2005 vintage is excellent for both St. Emilion and nearby Pomerol. We were told that the St. Emilion viniculture region has over 1,000 producers. Sorting through the wines on our short visit was impossible. There are so many wines and there is so little time. Fortunately ordering good wine in the restaurants was easy. The restaurants made the selections for their wine lists and we’d choose a 2005 and it would be outstanding. This strategy worked out well for us.
Still we only had a glimpse of the great wines available in St. Emilion. We vow to come better prepared on any future visit. And we may not wait that long to return. Early tastings have suggested that 2009 will be another classic vintage in St. Emilion. If we return will we be tourists or pilgrims?
There are more pictures from St. Emilion posted on Picasa.