Renowned as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Saint-Émilion is one of those unique travel experiences that to me is what a trip to Europe is all about: Steep hilltop village, tiny cobblestoned streets, family-run restaurants, ancient ruins and quaint boutiques – and about 200 wine shops eager to ship your wine anywhere.
Last time I visited Bordeaux I felt under pressure to absorb everything (and finally pass my dreaded wine exams). After five days of tasting appointments, lunch and dinner reservations, I took the region by storm exhausting myself in all the nooks and crannies of the Left Bank, Right Bank, Sauternes and Graves. Lucky for me I got some special praise for that last blog post. Having caught a glimpse of Saint-Émilion on my last visit, I knew I wanted to come back.
First, where you stay is important. Look no further than Le Pavillon Villemaurine if you are visiting this area. Le Pavillon is a small, luxurious bed and breakfast walking distance from the town. Stylish, slightly eccentric and modern, the five room property comes with fabulous hosts, complimentary wine, sparkling water and cake – all of this dangerously available at any time. Did I mention the vineyard views out the window?
So let’s talk about the wine. Bordeaux wines are generally all blends. The main thing to remember is that each bank of the Gironde River varies in style due to the soil and climate. Unlike the Left Bank where the wines are generally focused more on Cabernet Sauvignon, the Right Bank, where Saint-Émilion is situated, is where Merlot is king. My kind of place.
Side note: Merlot gets such a bad wrap. Yes, we all blame Sideways but don’t forget, this is one of the most revered of grapes, and has been part of Right Bank history for centuries. Some of the world’s most expensive and worshipped wines are made from it. (Cheval Blanc, Pétrus, Le Pin, Ausone, need I say more?)
Our three-night stay here was the idea amount of time to relax and enjoy the village, tours, tastings and restaurants. On this Bordeaux visit everything was fabulous. If I had to name one highlight it would probably be our stay at Le Pavilion. Evenings with a bottle of rosé in the garden watching as numerous shooting stars flew across the sky was pretty spectacular.
La Terrasse Rouge – Modern, fancy restaurant and winery overlooking some of the most prestigious chateaus (iconic Château Cheval Blanc). We had lunch on the patio. I loved the iPad wine list; the service not so much. Even a reservation for two (and it happened to be my birthday) did not get actually get us a table for two. The food is very good and for the view and iconic “pool” of red stones it is still worth it.
Les Délices du Roy – Classic French restaurant in the heart of the village run by a lovely couple. They also make their own wines and I thought they were some of the best we tasted in Bordeaux. Order anything – it will be good.
L’Huitrier-Pie – Another great little restaurant in the heart of the city.
Wine tasting / Sightseeing
Chateau Soutard – Basically walking distance (or 2 min drive) from Saint-Émilion. Good for new tasters and seasoned. This is an impressive Chateau with fairly large production and no expense has been spared to the winery or the visitor experience. The tour takes you into the vineyard, through the shiny brand new fermentation vats and downstairs to a tasting. It ends with the excellently curated gift shop. Unlike so many wineries in France, they really have geared the winery to wow visitors. You’ll taste two wines for 10 Euro.
Les Cordeliers – Who knew the monks were making sparkling wine underneath Saint-Émilion?! This was a fascinating tour that gets you (out of the heat) below the historic Cordeliers cloister and down to the original spot where the wines have been made for centuries. These are still made here and we did a tasting of several styles of sparking – Cremant de Bordeaux.
Saint-Émilion Tour – The walking tour of the town was fascinating and a must do. It includes the history Saint-Émilion, the monk that the village is named after. The tour goes into where they believe he lived underground as well as into the underground monolithic church. Doing this by tour is the only way to see the cathedral and this was pretty fascinating. We got a really good appreciation of the history of the town.
Tuk Tuks – are everywhere and look like a fun way to get around.
Saint-Émilion Tourisme – to book both Les Cordeliers & Town sightseeing tour, plus many other great experiences
Uncorked Wine Tours – On my last trip when I needed help on where to taste Caroline was an invaluable guide and resource to getting reservations for winery visits and recommending restaurants. Note: Bordeaux is not like Napa where you can visit wineries unannounced. Generally you need to have a reservation and normally booked several weeks in advance.