A peaceful night’s sleep was had after the River Royale docked last night on the Avenue du General de Gaulle in Libourne, the Bastide town founded by the English Lord Roger de Leybourne of Kent and built to protect the citizens of the town during the “100 Years” wars. Libourne hosts one of the largest weekly food markets in the region and is the wine-making capital of the Northern Gironde.After another foray into the extensive selection of breakfast goodies, we are visiting one of the “holy grail” wine areas of Bordeaux, where serious wine lovers, snobs, aficionados and just plain guzzlers like us all want to have visited – yes it’s the appellation and town of St Emilion, a commune in the South West Gironde and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Full of steep, narrow cobbled streets, Romanesque churches and ruins from various periods in history, it has more wine shops that you could shake a stick at. Growing some of the finest Bordeaux red wines, the main grape varieties grown are Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from which most St Emilion wines are typically blended.This area was the site of the first vines introduced to France by the Romans as early as the 2nd century and the limestone slopes surrounding the village and making up the St Emilion appellation, sit on the slopes of the Dordogne river and cover an approximate area of 5,400 hectares. Amazingly, St Emilion appellation only represents around 6% of the total Bordeaux wine production.Land prices in the St Emilion region of France appear to be some of the most valuable vineyard lands per hectare and most of it is tightly held in large Chateaux or estates so rarely changes hands. Saint Émilion wines were not included in the 1855 Bordeaux classification but rather have their own formal classification system which was begun in 1955 and is regularly reviewed for quality, unlike the 1855 classification. Because of this prestige, the land and Chateaux are grand and most often pristine. The village itself is definitely worth visiting but I warn you – it’s very popular with the tour buses and so you need to get there early or be on an escorted tour because you won’t have a show of seeing anything worthwhile without a guide – except of course the sweeping views across hectares of vineyards. The village is largely uninhabited now that it has become such a tourist mecca. Some of the cobbles in the streets are round and quite hard to walk on but the French describe this process as “walking on the heads of the English”. Nothing sinister, but apparently when the old wine ships came back empty from an English trade run, they had to fill their holds with ballast. That ballast was often stone from the English coast, so it was an enterprising and sensible use of unwanted stone.
One of those very special things you can only enjoy with a formal guide (and with Uniworld it is one of the many all-inclusive excursions on your cruise) is a visit to the catacombs and original hermitage of Emilion, the 8th-century monk who dedicated himself to a life of poverty and whose first church was carved from the rock. The guide needs a special key from the Tourism office and entry is strictly controlled.
The first stop on the tour is the only part that is above ground – the Holy Trinity Chapel. Built by Benedictine monks on top of the hermitage to protect it, the wall and ceiling frescoes in here date from the 13th century and are only relatively vivid because the building was used for a number of years post Revolution, by a cooper. The soot from the fires used in the making of barrels formed a protective layer and preserved the paintings so that when they were cleaned a little over a decade ago, conservators were able to reveal something of their original splendour. Unfortunately, no photos allowed.
Directly below the chapel is the hermitage, the original cave where the young Emilion, made his home after fleeing the notoriety that accompanied miracles he had performed in Brittany, lived twelve hundred years ago. The cave is small, but a crude bed and chair were carved into the wall and a small spring that flows through the cave and is said to hold magical powers.
Across from the hermitage is the entrance to the catacombs and the monolithic church, which was apparently built because the hermitage had become a major pilgrimage site on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrims walk. According to folklore, Emilion’s body was laid there, underneath a dome that was carved to replicate the dome above Jesus tomb and once open to the sky for Pilgrims to peer down into, but now sealed. We made our way in the semi-darkness along passages lined with openings where bodies were once laid and then into the massive church space – entirely carved from limestone and the largest of its kind in Europe. Two enormous original rows of columns support the ceiling; are now surrounded by metal bars, put in place to support the compromised limestone and the weight of the bell tower above. Originally, the walls would have been decorated with colourful frescoes, but since the church was used as a saltpetre factory during the French Revolution (saltpetre occurs naturally on damp dark walls and is harvested literally by scraping it off), only faint traces of painting and carved decoration remain. Interestingly, many of the carvings were quite pagan, including signs of the zodiac which are rarely found in churches.
Our tour guide informed us that some believe the “Holy Grail” may, in fact, be hidden somewhere in St Emilion – but we didn’t find it on this visit!
Our tasting programme began with a visit to Chateau Fonroque, a Grand Cru Classé estate now operated under strictly organic and biodynamic principles – and the first Grand Cru Classé vineyard to gain certified biodynamic status. Our very interesting guide was Caroline and she showed us first the vines and then some of the equipment used in brewing the many natural insect and disease control methods that they are trialling, including infusions of herbs such as mint and chamomile.
After a brief tour of the working winery, it was off to the tasting room to sample their 2011 vintage which was very good and a nice end to the day’s touring.
All on the tour agreed that the St Emilion visit was a not to be missed experience and that a visit to Bordeaux would not be complete without it.
Back to the River Royale for another tough cocktail hour followed by another delicious 4-course dinner!