Accessible elitism on the right bank.
Sometimes it helps having a famous big brother and sometimes you live in their shadow. Which one is it for the satellite appellations of Saint Emilion?
There are a total of ten appellations on the right bank or Libournais region of Bordeaux, Saint Emilion is the largest, accounting for almost 45% of the total area. Since 1984 there are two Saint Emilion appellations: Saint Emilion and Saint Emilion Grand Cru, the later being the majority. Only properties in the Saint Emilion Grand Cru appellation can apply to become Grand Cru Classé as part of the classification established in 1954 that is revised, more or less, every 10 years. The size of Saint Emilion and its long history go a long way to explain its dominance.
The map of the region shows the Barbanne River running to the north of Saint Emilion and Pomerol, separating them from the satellite appellations and Lalande de Pomerol. Fronsac and Canon Fronsac lay to the North West, on the opposite bank of the Isle River, a tributary of the Dordogne.
What differentiates the satellite appellations from Saint Emilion and does adding on a village name bring anything to the party
In the Medoc, a village appellation is considered a good thing. Alongside the two regional appellations of Medoc and Haut Medoc there are the six village appellations of Moulis, Listrac, Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauilac and Saint Estephe. The satellites of Saint Emilion also carry a specific name of a place: Lussac, Puisseguin, Montagne and Saint Georges and could they also be considered as regional appellations?
These appellations all have a similar blend; Merlot dominated with some complimentary Cabernet Franc, occasionally some Cabernet Sauvignon and now and again a little Malbec. This is due to a similarity in the terroir of clay and limestone and their hilly topography. The mosaic of terroirs is reinforced by a much greater variation in elevation compared to the left bank; from almost sea level up to 100 m compared to the high point of Listrac of 47m. It really is very beautiful, well worth going off the Saint Emilion-Pomerol beaten track to discover.
Montagne Saint-Emilion is the largest of these appellations at just over 1500 ha (the two appellations of Saint Emilion and Saint Emilion grand Cru total over 5 000 ha), located to the north of Saint-Emilion it is surrounded by two small tributaries of the Isle: the Barbanne and the Lavié bringing more sandy-claysoils to the west.
Only slightly smaller, Lussac Saint-Emilion consists of terraces of plateaux and valleys that form a natural southern facing amphitheatre. The south of the appellation has clay and limestone slopes with moresilt deposits in the North left by the receding Isle River.
The Puisseguin Saint-Emilion appellation is smaller, just over 700 ha to the East of Lussac and Montagne. It has a more homogeneous terroir of some of the hardestlimestone in the region, known as asteride due to the fossilised starfish often found in the rock. This limestoneretains moisture giving a cool subsoil that lends elegance and freshness to the wines.
Saint Georges Saint Emilion is the smallest appellation, just under 200 hectares. It is tucked in between Saint-Emilion and Montagne Saint-Emilion on an almost entirely clay-limestone soil promontory.
Given the underlying similarity between these appellations, the role of the individual wine makers really makes a difference. The right bank has always had an innovative approach to wine making, grape growing and marketing. The first French winegrower’s union was established here in Saint-Emilion as early as 1884.
The small size of the properties (average 8ha, compared to 17ha for the whole of the Bordeaux region) and the fact that the vast majority are family owned, contributes to the freedom to be more experimental. Or does Merlot lend itself to more experimentation? After all, the garage wine movement of the 1980s started here on the right bank.
There is a feeling here of working together, rather than seeing their neighbours as competition. Montagne and Saint Georges have their own ‘syndicat’ or wine bureau, but since 2007 Saint-Emilion and Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Lussac Saint-Emilion and Puisseguin Saint-Emilion have joined forces to create ‘Le Conseil des Vins de Saint-Emilion’.
In 2016, a group of nine family run, independent properties from the satellite appellations decided to group themselves together under the inspired name of Saint Elite.Their idea was to raise the profile of both their wines and their appellations by working together. They share similar soils, blends and a philosophy that protects their natural (and very picturesque) environment. As family vineyards what also unites them is their passion for leaving a healthy (financially and environmentally) vineyard to future generations, hence their engagement with sustainable practises organic, biodynamic and other sustainable initiatives.
Although sharing many similarities, the range of wines Saint Elite offers illustrates perfectly the importance of the role of the individual winemaker mentioned above. Many have vines over two or more appellations. They aim to make wines that are approachable, in style and price point, each with there own signature. The wines include classic Bordeaux blends, but also a 100% Merlot, a 95% Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend (unusual for the right bank). Some are ancient properties but that doesn’t stop them embracing modern and experimental wine techniques.
Rather than reiterate a list of all the wines take a look at the web site or the web sites of the individual producers for the details. There are three vineyards in Lussac-Saint-Emilion (Château Bel Air, Château de la Grenière and Château La Rose Perrière),three in Montagne-Saint Emilion (Château Vieux Bonneau, Château La Couronne and Château Tour Bayard),two in Puisseguin-Saint Emilion (Château Guibot La Fourvielle – who also produce a Castillon-Côtes de Bordeaux) and Pierre Taix vineyards with his two labels Château La Mauriane and Château Rigaud).
As benefits the smallest appellation, Saint Georges Saint Emilion is represented by just one, Clos Albertuson a tiny 1,5 ha plot of land, alongside the family’s larger Montagne – Saint Emilion property, Château Corbin.
So much in common but so many variations on a theme make this collection of producers the perfect ambassadors for these lesser-known appellations, wines that should be on the radar of any Saint Emilion lovers.