THE ROMANS WERE THE FIRST TO CULTIVATE the vine in St.Emilion, a small area that has exported its wines to various parts of the world for well over 8OO years. In the first half of this century it lapsed into obscurity, but over the last 30 years St.Emilion has risen like a phoenix to recapture its former fame. There are many reminders of the wines ancient past, from the famous Château Ausone, which is named after the Roman poet Ausonius, to the walled hilltop village of St.Emilion itself, which has survived almost untouched from the Middle Ages. In contrast, the Union de Producteurs, which is the largest single-appellation cooperative in France, is a graphic illustration of the best in modern, technologically sophisticated wine production. Today there are no less than 1,000 crus within 10 kilometers (six miles) of the village of St.Emilion that may use this appellation.
The style of St.Emilion
For those who find red wines too harsh or too bitter, St.Emilion is one of the easiest with which to make the transition from white to red. Its elegance and finesse make it particularly appealing. The difference between St.Emilion and its satellites is comparable to the difference between silk and satin, whereas the difference between St.Emilion and Pomerol is like the difference between silk and velvet. The quality is similar, but the texture is not -although, of course, we must be humble about categorizing such complex entities as wine areas. It could justifiably be argued that the graves area that produces two of the very best St.Emilions -châteaux Cheval-Blanc arid Figeac - has more in common with Pomerol than with the rest of the appellation.
A large production
It is a surprising but regular occurrence that an appellation as small as St.Emilion produces more wine than Listrac, Moulis, St.Estephe, Pauillac, StJulien and Margaux put together. In 1986, for example, those six Medoc appellations produced 291,000 hectoliters (3.2 million cases), while St.Emilion produced 305,000 hectoliters (3.4 million cases).
The question of quality
The diverse nature of St.Emilion’s soil has led to many generalizations that attempt to relate the quality and character of the wines produced to the soils from which they come. Initially the wines were lumped into two crude categories, cótes and graves. The cotes are supposed to be fairly full-bodied wines that develop quickly; the graves fuller, firmer and richer wines, taking longer to mature. The simplicity was appealing, but it ignored the many wines produced on the stretch of deep sand between St.Emilion and Pomerol, and those of the plateau, which has heavier topsoil than the cotes. It also failed to distinguish between the eroded cótes and the deep-soiled bottom slopes. But most importantly it ignored the fact that many châteaux are spread across more than one soil type and that they have various other factors of terroir such as aspect and drainage, which affect the character and quality of a wine.