Travel to Bordeaux: Day Trip to Saint-Émilion

Winter may be fast approaching and it may not seem like the ideal season to visit a vineyard for winetasting. However, if you are visiting Bordeaux for the Christmas period, as we were, it may be the apt moment to visit Saint-Émilion. There are tours to Saint-Émilion during this period, and other times of the year, operated by the tourism board, Visit Bordeaux. You can book tickets to such tours in advance here. If you are already in possession of a City Pass, you could receive discounts or may already have Saint-Émilion guided tours included.

Tours to Saint-Émilion are available as full day or half day tours. As we were booked on an afternoon tour, there was also the opportunity to sightsee beforehand. As Bordeaux’s centre is quite compact, it is ideal for wandering through the streets admiring the sights. I certainly used the occasion to walk past Cathedrale St André which is a must see spot for those photos! Its architecture reflects the gothic period and it is rather imposing.

Cathedrale Saint André in Bordeaux
Cathedrale Saint André in Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a region renowned for its wines and it was mentioned on the tour that more than 500 million bottles of wine per year are produced from Bordeaux. In Saint-Émilion there are only red wines produced under the appellation, which is certainly a bonus for red wine drinkers like me! One aspect that I was not aware of was that that macarons are also produced in the Saint-Émilion region. Such macarons are of the traditional variety, with no added cream, and are baked according to a different recipe from the 17th century. I was certainly intrigued and knew that they would be a good souvenir for me from Saint-Émilion!

En route to Saint-Émilion

En route to Saint-Émilion is the wine district of Chartrons. Historically, its wines were produced in the city but, in these times, they are typically made within the villages. There are wine houses along the route which were built with a specific type of architecture with quite high roofs for such purposes.

As you may know, the vineyards and the village of Saint-Émilion are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historically, vineyards had been found in Saint-Émilion during the pre-historic period (approximately around 56 BC). Saint-Émilion is apparently the oldest vineyard without interruption and is recognised as such by virtue of the UNESCO classification.

Views across Saint-Émilion
Views across Saint-Émilion

Given the various historical wars, it is surprising to learn that there was no interruption within the region’s wine production however the wines were maintained for religious reasons. Monks were highly involved in the wine production after the second world war as the wines were used within the church masses. Therefore from the middle ages, it was the churches that ensured that the vineyards were maintained.

It seems that during the 18th century, the Bordeaux region discovered a process to avoid the oxidation of wine thereby preventing the production of acidic wines. Thus, the addition of sulphites to wines commenced to safeguard the wines and was a process unique to Bordeaux wines. As a result of this process, the wine itself changed and more complex aromas developed. In fact, the vins de garde area was the first to implement such measures designing wines that were intended to age. These types of wines can be kept for approximately 5 years.

Arrival at Saint-Émilion

On entering Saint-Émilion a number of châteaux can be seen. Some of the châteaux mentioned were Grace Dieux and Ambe Tour Pourret, which were owned by monks and a mother-daughter team respectively.

Apparently, Saint-Émilion was historically surrounded by approximately 2 kilometres of ramparts which may have been remnants from the Roman period. One of the sights that can therefore be explored is that of the Tower of the Underground church. This sight is particularly unique as the church is literally underground and therefore cannot be seen!

Saint-Émilion is very picturesque with lots of tiny passageways to explore which can be quite slippery in the rain. Good walking shoes are definitely recommended when visiting Saint-Émilion! It is a rather hilly area and therefore may not be accessible for all.

The tour included moments of free time and so I was certainly macaron hunting! We were left to our own devices to explore the central area which had many smaller restaurants offering wine tasting. If, the macarons also sound appealing, there is the Saint-Émilion macaron shop, Macarons Mouliérac, from which these can be purchased. These macarons are larger and flatter in size compared to the Parisian variety and for me, the taste was similar to almond cookies and therefore very delicious!

Views of Château Bernateau in Saint-Émilion
Views of Château Bernateau in Saint-Émilion

The wine tasting itself had been scheduled for 4pm and the tasting occurred at Château Bernateau, which is a family property with Grand Cru organic wines. The history of the château originates from the middle of the 17th century. Within the estate are two different châteaux. It was explained during the tour that the châteaux’s grapes tend to be picked at the end of September and as there is a lot of limestone in the soil, the grapes are quite small and provide a concentrated flavour.

There are a variety of steps involved in the winemaking at Château Bernateau. The grapes are separated from the stem and subsequently sorted within a sorting machine. From that stage, the grapes are transferred to the vats for 3-6 weeks. A lengthy process ensues with the laceration of the skin with the grapes. However, 1- 2 days following the mixing of the skin, the next step is that of the fermentation. Generally within the process, the liquid will stay at the bottom and the skin and the seeds of the grapes would float to the top. Thereafter commences the extraction process of which we were told there are 3 methods used: i) pumping ii) vat transfer and iii) pushing the mixture within the vat.

The château tends to produce dry red wines and as such there is no requirement for all of the sugar in the process to be transferred into alcohol. The château does use sulphites within its wines but confirmed that a lower amount of sulphites were used in the production of the organic wines. However, there are no chemicals used in the process and so natural fertilisers are in effect. Natural products are also utilised for sprays which tend to be mixed with metals, such as copper.

Wet conditions are not ideal for the production process and therefore December to March are the quiet months when pruning typically occurs instead.

Inside Château Bernateau in Saint-Émilion
Inside Château Bernateau in Saint-Émilion

Most of the wines produced by the château are a blend of 2-3 varieties and not all of the wines are aged to ensure that the wines will not be too sweet. The château solely uses French oak barrels for such purposes and work with 3-4 barrel makers. However, it was the 2016 bottle that had been recently bottled at the time of our visit.

It had been mentioned that the château produces approximately 80-100 million bottles a year and only re-use their barrels twice. It seems that there was a lower amount of production for the château in 2017 and 2018 due to weather conditions. However, 2019 produced a good quantity of wines.

After such background, it was certainly time to start the wine tasting!

Wine Tasting

Two of the château’s wines were sampled during the wine tasting session. The first was that of the Baies de Bernateau from 2017. This wine has a Merlot base and it is a lighter wine and therefore very drinkable. We were told that the wine did not contain many tannins and as such it would be perfect to drink with an aperitif. However, this does mean that the wine would not be suitable for ageing and so would not be ideal to store for several years. It is reasonably priced (EUR 9 at the time of writing) and a winner of the Silver Medal Concours Général de Bordeaux.

Sampling Baies de Bernateau in Saint-Émilion
Sampling Baies de Bernateau in Saint-Émilion

The second wine was simply called Château Bernateau and was a stronger blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It is a wine designed to age and whilst to me it did not seem to be as fruity as the first, it was certainly more complex. It is a heavy bodied wine and so it would be ideal to pair with food and stronger tasting cheeses.

I opted to buy a bottle of the first wine sampled, the Baies, as it is quite a versatile wine for all occasions. Unfortunately, due to the season there wasn’t a good opportunity to visit the vineyards but I would be keen to return in the spring or in June when there is an abundance of wine festivals in the area.

Sampling Château Bernateau in Saint-Émilion
Sampling Château Bernateau in Saint-Émilion

Within the Saint-Émilion village, there are numerous churches in Gothic style which would equally be good to explore in a warmer different season. Visiting during winter, however, meant that it was the ideal occasion to indulge in some local specialties in the Christmas market on the return to Bordeaux.

Truffette is a local dish consisting of potatoes with cheese, garlic and parsley. It is a hearty dish and was therefore apt after the wine tasting session. A special type of cheese called truffette, I believe, is also utilised in making this dish and it is scrumptious and so I would recommend trying some with mulled wine or one of the full bodied Saint-Émilion wines. It was the perfect end to the day trip to Saint-Émilion!

There are many wine making tours that can also be booked through Visit Bordeaux here.

* A complimentary press ticket was received for this wine tour

Have you ever visited Saint-Émilion before or would you now like to visit?

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