It’s a general rule of thumb that anywhere that UNESCO has deigned to classify as a World Heritage Site is usually worth a visit. There are currently 981 of these places in the world, and a quick calculation has shown that so far in 2013 Allison and I have visited seven of them.
One such place is Saint-Émilion, a small town in France located just over 20 miles north-east of Bordeaux which we visited while staying with friends in that part of the world a couple of weeks ago. It boasts narrow cobbled streets leading up to a Romanesque church which dominates the skyline of the town, which is all very picturesque but what draws people to the place is what’s produced in the vineyards around the town. For Saint-Émilion is, along with Graves, Pomerol and the Médoc, one of the principal vin rouge-producing areas of Bordeaux, itself one of the most famous wine-producing regions in a country renowned for its wine.
It’s been its own appelation d'origine controlée (AOC) – meaning that the wine produced there can be labelled as being from Saint-Émilion in particular rather than the Bordeaux region in general, and that any wine produced elsewhere cannot have the words ‘Saint-Émilion’ on the label – for decades, it has even had its own distinct system of classifying its wine (of which more later).
On a scorching hot day, we had lunch and then walked around the town, dropping in on a couple of wine shops to sample what it is that makes Saint-Émilion so famous. Wine shops in these places, easily spotted by their displays of oversize wine bottles, boxes and the occasional barrel by the door, tend to offer free samples of the local product, but only to people who give off the impression that they’re actually considering buying the wine. Or, more likely, ones that have no other customers when you walk in; there’s nothing worse than going into one of these places and finding that the only shop assistant is concentrating all of his efforts on a couple who can’t decide which wine to buy (by the case, if you please). If you want to sample the wine and find out a bit about it, an empty wine shop is what you want.
We eventually found such an outlet located just down from the main square (the one with the church) and persuaded the shop assistant, who introduced himself as Benoit, that we were interested in sampling his wares.
The château in question was called Petit-Gravet, and it wasn’t long before Benoit was pouring us each a glass of the 2010 vintage to sample.
Benoit proved to be highly informative about the vineyard, and also gave us some pointers about which vintage we should buy. This, apparently, was dependent on what we wanted to do with the wine as each year’s vintage is different (all down to how the weather affected the grapes and the terroir). If we were after a wine to lay down for a few years, then the 2010 which we’d just sampled was recommended; 2010 was, it seems, a very good year and the best wines of that vintage need to be laid down for up to 15 years in order to be fully appreciated! The same, it seems, is true of the 2005 vintage.
The long-term potential of these will only be realised in a couple of decades. In the shop, evidence of the potential could be seen on a shelf bearing wines from great Bordeaux vintages of the past, retailing for hundreds of euros. I gingerly touched one of the bottles, but was afraid to lift it up for fear of dropping it. Such things are best left alone.
I suspect that Benoit must have realised that we weren’t there for a wine that we could lay down in a cellar that we don’t have. However, if we were after a wine to drink now, then the 2007 would be more to our liking – the wine of that year being an early drinking vintage; evidently, the château’s people had decided, presumably after a couple of tasting sessions, that this was not a vintage that was expected to improve much with any more age (what criteria do they use to decide this, I wonder – and, more to the point, how do I get that job?!).
As it happens, a wine that we could drink with our dinner that evening was exactly what we were looking for, so I bought a bottle of the ’07.
The fact that the bottles for Château Petit-Gravet bear the words grand cru (‘great growth’) was very encouraging, as even I know that this is meant to designate the superiority of a particular vineyard and/or terroir and that the wines from said vineyard have to have been properly assessed before those words can go on the label. But alas, or even zut alors! In the Saint-Émilion AOC it’s the lowest on the classification system, which rather confusingly is different from the classification systems for everywhere else (including the rest of Bordeaux). Controversy over recent Saint-Émilion classifications – complete with accusations of skulduggery on the part of the people chosen to do the tasting – hasn’t helped either.
But this is mere detail. At the end of the day, wine from a place like Saint-Émilion that hasn’t been deemed to be of the highest quality is still going to be pretty damned good at the very least. Rather than get bogged down in details, I decided to just enjoy the wine – which was full of flavour, smooth and above all delicious.