Saint Emilion

by: Amber Cantella

Recently, a friend and fellow oenophile said to me, “Two out of three Frenchmen drink Bordeaux. That’s a fact!” This was his pleasant way of telling me that I need to stop ignoring the appellation as I am known for obsessively promoting just about every other wine region in France.

The fact that the 15th annual Nantucket Wine Festival will be featuring the wines of Saint-Émilion, a sub-region of Bordeaux, solidified this wake-up call. Thankfully, the wines from St. Émilion are a great place to dive into Bordeaux, whether you are a novice or a connoisseur needing to be reacquainted. To top it off, the newly-released 2009 vintage is being reviewed as one of the best ever.

Here is some basic information that is helpful in understanding the complexities of Bordeaux, which is often tagged as the most important wine region in France, if not the world.

  •  THE BORDEAUX WINE REGION surrounds the city of the same name in the southwest of France near the Atlantic coast, about 300 miles south- west of Paris. Wine has been produced there since the eighth century and currently is made by over 8,000 different producers. The average yearly output is 850 million bottles of wine.
  • TYPICALLY SPEAKING, red Bordeaux wines are a blend of two or more of the following: Cabernet Sauvignon (prominent in the “Left Bank” which has more gravely soil), Merlot (prominent in the “Right Bank” and particularly Saint-Émilion, which has a larger variety of soils: gravel, limestone, clay and sand), Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and rarely Malbec and Carménère.
  • THE “RIGHT BANK” and the “LEFT BANK” are geographical areas referring to which side of the Dordogne River the region is located upon. St. Émilion is “Right Bank” in the sub-region of Libourne.
  • WINES FROM SAINT-ÉMILION have been classified since 1955, with its last update in 2006. Therefore, the region is not part of Napoleon’s infamous 1855 classifications, which created the first-growth category. St. Émilion’s equiva- lent is Premier Grand Cru Classé A, which currently has two members: Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc. The Classé B wines are very high quality, with pricing that is usually more accessible.
  • THERE IS A SMALL AMOUNT of white wine made in St. Émilion from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle.

Because of the variety of terroir in St. Émilion, there is great diversity in its wines. Many people have the misconception that a Bordeaux needs to be aged 10 to 20 years before it is in prime drinking condition. This can often be the case for a “Left Bank” Bordeaux, as Cabernet Sauvignon has more tannin that takes longer to soften. St. Émilion wines, however, often mature more quickly even though they are still considered robust, full-bodied wines. Consistent aromas of baked and stewed red fruits and truffles make these wines the perfect accompaniment to roasted meats, game, mushrooms, cheese and salmon.

My first experience with sampling the wines of Saint-Émilion was in 1999 at 21 Federal, when the late Chick Walsh said, “If you think you like California Merlot, you have to try this.” It was a bottle of 1989 Château Canon that a customer left a few drops in. It will be such a treat at this year’s Nantucket Wine Festival to taste and discuss the new vintage with Château Canon’s winemaker himself, John Kolasa.

Kolasa came to Château Canon via the Wertheimer family, of Chanel fame, who bought the winery in 1996. Although the vineyards had a tremendous history dating back to the early 18th century, Château Canon had gone through a series of unfortunate events, from a fungus that destroyed vines to accidental chemical taint in its wine cellars. In recent years, under Kolasa’s direction, the château has rebounded and is gaining much critical acclaim, particularly for the 2009 vintage.

I always say that if you can’t travel to the vineyard itself, the next best thing is to taste the wines with the winemaker or winery owner. In all, 12 different châteaux from Saint-Émilion will be represented at this year’s Nantucket Wine Festival, all of which are Premier Grand Cru Classé B, an indicator of quality and an opportunity not to be missed. I look forward to discovering how these 12 wines are tied together by history, region and grape varieties, and yet will be distinctly different in character.

Note: In the movie “Sideways,” Paul Giamatti’s character refuses to drink ‘*&%! Merlot’ and only wants Pinot Noir. The irony is that if you know Bordeaux, you realize that the wine he covets the most and drinks near the end of the movie is a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, which is a Merlot-based blend and arguably the best wine from Saint-Émilion. Since most Americans did not know this, they stopped purchasing Merlot and the demand for Pinot Noir was off the charts. The wine industry coined the term the “Sideways Effect” for single-handedly driving up the price of Pinot Noir