I Left My Heart in Saint-Émilion
by Michel Thibault, Owner of Michel Thibault Wine and Vice President & Director of Sales for Wine World
The right bank is perhaps the best place for a wine aficionado to visit. Saint-Émilion is located a few kilometers from Libourne, which is a mid-size town with major grocery stores, cheese shops and a wonderful open-air market. The lovely village sits on top of a hill and begs for your visit. Personally, I have fallen in love with it!
As you drive away from Libourne, you start climbing a steep hill and soon see the magical names of châteaux whose wines you have partaken of or are dreaming to sample: Canon, Beau-Séjour Bécot, Ausone, Pavie-Macquin, Pavie, Angélus, Barde-Haut, Tertre Roteboeuf and so many others.
Whatever side of the mountain you are driving from, there are beautiful properties to lure you even before you reach the village with its majestic tower and tall church reaching for the firmament. Since the landscape is dotted with so many wineries and so little else, you get a sense that vineyards, land and people all belong to this area in a very special way. The village, with its old center, its troglodyte caves and its quarries, the narrow paths behind Ausone where you can imagine the Roman soldiers guarding the property almost 2,000 years ago, the drive atop the village along the stone wall, all make you wonder why you would ever want to leave.
It is quite simple to see the layout of the vineyards. Below the city and along the main road to Libourne are nice properties making solid wines. This is where you see the Saint-Émilion Grands Crus (second in classification over basic Saint-Émilion and bettered by Grands Crus Classés and Premiers Grands Crus Classés B and A – A being on the very top). There are about 600 or so Grands Crus in the area around Saint-Émilion and a little over 60 Grands Crus Classés while only 14 Premiers Grands Crus Classés B and just 4 Premiers Grands Crus Classés A.
Unlike the Left Bank, the classification here is updated every ten years, giving a chance to the excellent newcomers to prove themselves and keeping the others on their toes! The better vineyards are very much on the hillsides leading to the village: Canon, Ausone, Pavie, Pavie-Macquin, Angélus, and Tertre Roteboeuf all have a privileged location, only bettered by Troplong Mondot, which sits on the very top of the plateau. If you ride your bike or are walking in the countryside and lose your way, just look for the water tower and Troplong Mondot. Properties that are located on the upper plateau such as Troplong Mondot benefit from great drainage and I have to say that it is a feat for wineries like Monbousquet, located in the valley within the village of Saint-Sulpice-de-Faleyrens to produce such high quality wine.
Let us take a look at some of the better wines and start with the Premiers Crus:
The granddaddy of them all boasts of one of the three best locations in town, atop the main hill, with excellent sun exposure and great drainage on a sand and clay soil with limestone. Vineyards have been planted there since the 3rd century but major improvements came with the property purchase by the Vauthier family in the mid-1990s and the help of Michel Rolland, from 1995 on until 2013. Parker ratings since 2000 are the following through 2011: 98, 99, 95, 100, 94, 100, 98, 94, 98, 98-100 and 96-100 Kinda hard to do much better! The wines are 50% Merlot and Cabernet Franc grown on the property. Ripe tannins, immense concentration and beautiful purity are the trademarks of the wine. If you cannot fork out the $800 a bottle it usually costs, try their second wine “ La Chapelle d’Ausone”. The drive to Ausone is one of the most hair-raising things to do in Saint-Émilion. From the lower town, grab the narrow street with a 15% incline, pray for your life and you will be there in a minute…then pray for your life on the drive down! (Sorry – Visits are extended to professionals only. So don’t risk your life unless you have an appointment.)
By far the most talked about property in the area. Why? Much controversy surrounds it since the 2003 vintage was the cause of a huge argument between wine gurus Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, the latter thinking the wine was truly terrible (way too concentrated with a style reminiscent of port.) It is true that much change happened on this property owned by former grocery magnate Gerard Perse, who after purchasing the winery in the late 1990’s from the Valette family, hired on Michel Rolland as consultant and the style of wine produced changed radically, becoming super concentrated (as a result of serious green harvest) and very ripe, reminiscent of some of the cult California wines that have been popular as of late. Mr Perse also owns Château Pavie-Macquin, another Premier Cru (B) and Château Monbousquet among other holdings. Whatever the controversy is, one thing is for certain, the winery is beautiful, with a gorgeous tasting room overlooking the vineyard, and quite a location. (For visits, contact: email@example.com)
The third of the four First Growth A in Saint-Émilion is another much talked about estate. The property is owned by Hubert de Bouard and it certainly is beautiful! Its vineyards lay right below the winery, sprawling in the sun. The “angélus” name comes from the Mazerat Chapel bells which you can hear at the property. But these days, you can hear the bells ring your very own Star Spangled Banner if you are an American visitor or a Marseillaise for the French guys. In fact, I understand, they can play over a hundred national anthems if necessary.
Like Pavie, Angélus received the assistance of Michel Rolland and like it, through the use of modern techniques (extended oak barrel aging for instance) the wines have become very concentrated. Like Pavie, Angélus received in 2012 the highest honor for a Saint-Émilion wine and joined Ausone and Cheval Blanc in the rarefied group of First Growth A. As an extra honor, a bottle of Angélus is also present in two of the recent James Bond films: Casino Royale and Spectre. (For visits, contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
Château Cheval Blanc
The only First Growth not located on the Saint-Émilion hillside. Instead, it is across from Château Figeac, the last property before you cross into Pomerol. Indeed, on the Pomerol side of the street, several hundred yards away, you can see Châteaux La Conseillante and Evangile, two magnificent Pomerol producers and Petrus is down the street. The very graveled soil of Cheval Blanc adds to the complexity of this half-Saint-Émilion and half-Pomerol wine. The blend is usually a little more Cabernet Franc than Merlot with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon. The estate was co-owned by Bernard Arnault (chairman of famous LVMH/Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) as is another Bordeaux icon, Château Yquem but LVMH recently purchased the Château from Mr Arnault and Mr Lurton manages the estate.
The winery had its share of controversy, with the construction of a new cellar in 2011 – a building that looks like the combination of two gigantic waves landing on the ground. Quite a sight I can say, that many Saint-Émilion producers are still talking about! One thing you cannot deny though is that the view to Pomerol and Saint-Émilion from the roof of the cellar is incomparable.
Inside the cellar, the vats are beautiful and you are struck by the natural light filtering all about. Although not as high as Ausone’s, ratings for Cheval Blanc always seem to hover around the high 90’s. Its second wine is called Petit Cheval. The wines of Cheval Blanc always give you the feel of a blend of elegant sexiness and deeper, more Saint-Émilion-like aromas. Of note, the most famous Cheval Blanc is the 1947 vintage, considered by many as one of the three best wines produced ever…and a six liter bottle of it sold at auction for the sum of $304,000+. Extraordinary! (For visits see www.chateau-cheval-blanc.com)
OTHER NOTABLE FAVORITES
Château Tertre Roteboeuf
Remember earlier, I mentioned that Ausone and Troplong Mondot have the benefit of two of the three best locations in the village? Well, the other property ideally situated is Tertre Roteboeuf. As you drive toward Saint-Laurent-des-Combes, you can see the château’s vineyards diving into the valley with their south-southeastern exposure. I spent an afternoon gazing at the estate from the neighbouring (and excellent) restaurant Atelier de Candale and all I could observe was the sun radiating on the mostly Merlot vineyards.
Close to the road is a parcel of Cabernet Franc, which owner François Mitjavile blends to the tune of 20%, the rest being 80% Merlot. Mr Mitjavile’s harvest is completed in one day (his estate is tiny) but the wines are always harvested to full maturity, giving hedonistic wines that are very sought-after worldwide. This winery enjoys somewhat of a cult status even with Saint-Émilion wine shops. What really convinced me of the quality of this wine is sampling the 2013 vintage, often talked down by media and pros alike. That wine was incredibly pleasant to me, marrying depth, roundness and elegance. A real tour de force! (Professional visits only.)
Château Troplong Mondot
Like a king, Troplong Mondot (named after the hamlet where the winery is located) sits at the very top of Saint-Émilion and looks down at all the other estates. The château also offers a fabulous restaurant (Belles Perdrix de Troplong Mondot) with a beautiful outdoor terrace, where you can gaze at the entire valley below while sipping on a glass of the Premier or 2nd wine.
Under the leadership of Xavier Parente, who led Troplong Mondot to the Grand Cru Classification in 2006, and his wife, Christine Valette, a visionary who sadly passed away a few years ago, Troplong Mondot has become one of the elite properties in Saint-Émilion. In 2005, its wine not only earned a 100-point rating but is often considered one of the very best. If you want to understand Saint-Émilion, its soils, its structure, its spirit, you have to climb the narrow road to Troplong Mondot and spend awhile looking around. (For more information see HOTEL FINDS or write directly at: email@example.com)
One of my personal favorites, Barde-Haut was recently promoted to Grand Cru Classé. I believe it to be worthy of Premier Grand Cru Classé status. The estate is gorgeous, set up in an bowl right below Troplong Mondot. But what makes it special are the care, vision and hard work of the Garcin-Lévêque Family. Hélène, whose family also owns Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac, handles all sales, marketing and the development of new properties (Their latest purchase, Château Poesia, located at the edge of the Castillon appellation, looks like a sure bet to become a superstar.)
Patrice Lévêque is one of the most focused winemakers I have been privy to meet and to watch work. I will always recall one of his statements: “While many winemakers don’t mind seeing the fruit in their wine disappear, I want my wines to retain their fruit. Wine is made from grapes, grapes are fruit and my wines will always have that definition.” Indeed, his wines so please me with beautiful roundness, nice intensity and richness of fruit, without being over the top. (For more information, read an interview with Patrice and Hélène Garcin-Lévêque or visit the web site: vignoblesgarcin.com)
Château Ambe Tour Pourret
Located a half mile from the village of Saint-Émilion, this property, purchased by the Lannoye Family from northern France, has seen great improvements. A new cellar, somewhat reminiscent of a (very) small Opus One, offers a nice tasting room with cheeses and other foods as well as wines from the four family properties in and around Saint-Émilion. The wines are voluptuous without being too sweet and they all cost $25 or less! Not bad for a Grand Cru Classé. Additionally, cooking lessons are available – fun and tasty. (Read more about the cooking classes in FOOD QUEST. To visit, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Château du Parc
Another beautiful property located in the small village of Saint-Sulpice de Faleyrens is Château du Parc. Owned by world-renowned consultant Dr. Alain Raynaud (responsible for seven 100 PT wines at Colgin Winery in Napa), the vineyard is planted with Merlot primarily and a bit of Cabernet Franc. What makes it special is Dr. Raynaud’s New World style: the Château du Parc wines offer more fruit and concentration, than most Saint-Émilion Grands Crus.
Michel Thibault comes from a family of hoteliers in the French Alps. He has worked in Los Angeles at Ma Maison under Wolfgang Puck, and La Bella Fontana, inside the beautiful Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Eventually, Michel moved to New Orleans and worked at famed Louisiana eateries Lafitte’s Landing and Commander’s Palace. Johnny Earles, of the eponymous Criolla’s restaurant brought Michel to Grayton Beach, where he later joined Chan Cox at Wine World.
Recently, Michel launched a new web site that offers an extensive wine list and a blog, with tasting notes, about his travels through wine regions across Europe. Follow him at Michel Thibault Wine.