I dined and dashed yesterday.  It was a strange experience for someone who is typically physically uncomfortable with leaving less than a 20% tip. (Yes; if you see me ill outside of a KFC, it’s because I couldn’t tip.  No follow up questions, please.)  In my defense, it was less dash and more saunter, but let me backtrack: I had ordered oysters and a glass of wine, which took half an hour to arrive.  I didn’t mind it because it was a lazy afternoon, and one is supposed to enjoy a slower pace of life over here, one hears, and one was also catching up on writing and email correspondence (not to mention studying up on how to refer to oneself in the third person).

you'd have to be a monster to deny THIS cat a sip of wine...

You’d have to be a monster to deny THIS cat a glass of wine

Sometime later I’d ordered a second glass of wine and escargots to follow the first snack, which did not materialize despite numerous plaintive reproaches to my lackluster waiter.  An hour later, even my hidden depths of Canadian courtesy had been depleted, so I asked for the bill.  My waiter promptly passed the task off to someone else, who carried on minding her own section, and within ten minutes it was clear that neither wine nor bill was in my immediate future. By this time, my waiter was nowhere to be seen and the wells of politeness had run completely dry.  Thus, exeunt stage left.  (Now using the third person plural. Why not?  If I can’t get wine in France, ALL THE RULES ARE BROKEN.)

You know where you can get lots of good wine, and quickly?  St Emilion.  As it happens, this village, also a UNESCO world heritage site, is an easy day trip from Bordeaux.  It’s only 40 minutes away by train, and food, drink, wine tours, and religious and historical monuments are all walking distance from the city centre.  This village is well known for a few things: wine – of course! – but the wine history is very closely intertwined with the geology and the religious/socio-economic importance of the town.

View from the top of the hill; old medieval town walls and a WWI monument (top of mind as I’m currently reading Guns of August. Great read, by the way).

The village of St Emilion is built on a vast limestone plateau.  At its centre is a massive monolithic church, which was carved out of the plateau, while the bricks were carted off for building use elsewhere (spoiler alert: a lot of it ends up in Bordeaux).

The Cloisters. The outside of the monolithic church, second tallest steeple in the Gironde. The interior (not my photo, as cameras are not permitted). It is massive.

The Cloisters. The exterior of the monolithic church, second tallest steeple in the Gironde. The interior (not my photo, as cameras are not permitted). It is huge; carved out of one rock (yes, I get that’s what monolithic means, but it’s still pretty mindblowing), and only reminds me a little of the Balrog scene from Lord of the Rings.

Ah. Found a better picture. Look out for the Balrog!!

Ah. Found a better picture. Ooh.. what’s that light around the corner?  Whatever it is, I’m sure it will pass.  …WAIT.

The man himself – St Emilion – relocated to this area from Bretagne and became a hermit to escape from the fame he was receiving at home for performing miracles.  He lived in a little cave located next to the current location of the monolithic church, although the church wasn’t completed until several hundred years later.  It was this church and St Emilion’s resting place that attracted pilgrims along one of the many Rues de Compostelle/Camino de Santiago routes (this one is on the modern Chemin de Paris).

St Emilion was a sort of Robin Hood – he had firewood privileges from the earl of the estate, but stole bread from the earl’s kitchens to feed the poor.  The story goes that the bread he stole took on the appearance of firewood while he was taking it from the property, thus protecting him from getting caught. Today, there are only two decorative elements in St Emilion’s cave, if you don’t include the rock that passes for his bed.  A spring, said to heal those with blind or poor vision, and a chair, said to imbue insta-fertility in any woman who sits in it; results to be expected within 6 months.  I should be safe, but just in case, I gave the chair a wide birth.  Errr.. berth!  I meant berth. (Darnit Freud!)

Despite all this, St Emilion’s world heritage status is actually owing to the wine.  The history of wine-growing dates back to the Romans, and is ever present to this day; several Châteaus bump up against the old town walls, and driving or taking the train in, there are vineyards as far as the eye can see.  Most of the vineyards immediately surrounding the village grow Merlot grapes, as these typically make up 60% of the blend in the St Emilion (red) wines, although most of what I tried contained upwards of 85%.

Many of the Grand Crus Classés owe their high quality to their location on the same limestone plateau as the village.  Like that of the monolithic church, the limestone below the vineyards has also been mined for building materials, and what’s left forms vast underground networks where the Châteaus age the wine in barrels.  That said, the cellar space requirements at Château Villemaurine, for example, take up just 10% of the 200km of limestone network under their vineyard, so the majority of the quarry sits empty.  Hide and seek, anyone?

This merlot is just begging to be picked. Apparently 90% of these underground cellars aren't used anymore. I have some ideas: #1. Escape Room. #2. Laser Tag (I'd say paintball, but it would be awful to clean up) #3. Dial-a-Tryst...

This merlot is just begging to be picked; harvest is a few days away!  And right below…180km of unused limestone dungeon. My top 5 ideas: #1. Escape Room. #2. Laser Tag (I’d say paintball, but it would be awful to clean up.  I am, above all things, practical.) #3. Home for your pet minotaur.  #4. Corporate teambuilding exercises.  #5. Survival games (not so different from #4, methinks)

I came away with a few nice bottles of wine including a sparkling demi-sec, which the winemaker promises tastes like Lambrusco (intriguing, to say the least), and a new appreciation for Merlot.

In other news, this is my last weekend of freedom before school starts.  It’s been five and a half months of no work, lots of travelling and outdoor time, sleeping in, exploring old/new places and catching up with people to my heart’s content.  Come Tuesday, it’s game faces all around, and time for serious study.

Until the first school break, which is six weeks away…

(Visited 118 times, 80 visits today)

5 thoughts on “one in Emilion

  1. Pingback: the belles of st emilion – when wine sings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.