Saint-Emilion is a key wine town in the Libournais district of Bordeaux, important in terms of both quality and quantity. It lies just a few miles north of the Dordogne, in the final stages of the river's journey from the hills of the Massif Central hills to the Gironde estuary. The town is renowned as much for its beautiful buildings and scenery as for its wine. Its steep, narrow, cobbled streets, overlooked by its Romanesque church and the iconic 13th-century Tour du Roy tower are a reminder of the town's long history.
There have vineyards around Saint-Emilion since Roman times, and today the Saint-Emilion wine appellation is one of the most prolific in the Bordeaux region, generating more than 250,000 hL of wine each vintage. It is also responsible for some of the most prestigious, long-lived and expensive wines in the world; Chateaux Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Angelus, Figeac and Pavie, whose wines sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle, are all situated in and around Saint-Emilion.
Unlike the wines of the Medoc (which focus heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon), Saint-Emilion wines are predominantly made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The other traditional Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Petit Verdot and Malbec) are permitted for use here, but are rarely used to any significant extent. This is not so much a question of taste and style as one of terroir; the clay- and chalk-rich soils around Saint-Emilion are generally cooler than those on the Medoc peninsula, so they're less capable of ripening Cabernet Sauvignon reliably. Merlot makes up the majority (about 65%) of vines planted around Saint-Emilion, and continues to increase in popularity because of the softer, more approachable wine styles it produces. There are two notable exceptions to this: Chateau Cheval Blanc, where Cabernet Franc occupies 58% of the vineyard area, and Chateau Figeac, where Merlot, Cabernet Franc and (more unusually) Cabernet Sauvignon enjoy equal representation in both vineyard and wine.
On the whole, the prevalence of Merlot in Saint-Emilion means that its wines are approachable at an earlier age than their more astringent, tannin-rich cousins from the Medoc. This is a key factor in their appeal and popularity in markets all around the world, and particularly in the United States.
Geologically speaking, Saint-Emilion can be divided into three main areas. The most significant is the limestone plateau on which Saint-Emilion town is located, and the slopes around it. Most of the very top vineyards and Chateaux are located here, within a mile of the town (Cheval Blanc and Figeac again provide two notable exceptions to the rule).
Immediately south of the limestone plateau is the alluvial, sandy plain which slopes gently down to the banks of the Dordogne. Few wines of any note are produced here, and none of the Grand Cru Classe properties are located here.
In the north-western corner of the Saint-Emilion area is an ancient alluvial terrace, formed by glacial activity at the very beginning of the Quaternary period roughly 2 million years ago. This boasts the same free-draining 'gunzian' gravels as are found in the best properties of the Graves and Medoc, which explains why the two most famous chateaux here (Cheval Blanc and Figeac) are able to grow and ripen both Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. This terrace – known as the Graves de Saint-Emilion – continues westwards into neighboring Pomerol, and underpins the vineyards of such revered estates as Le Pin and Petrus.
Saint-Emilion has four 'satellites': Lussac-Saint-Emilion, Saint-Georges-Saint-Emilion, Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion and Montagne-Saint-Emilion. These cover distinct, slightly smaller areas immediately to the north-east of Saint-Emilion proper, and each has its own independent appellation title.
Saint-Emilion also has a Grand Cru appellation (Saint-Emilion Grand Cru), which imposes slightly tighter production restrictions. This has been the subject of much criticism since its introduction in 1954, as the restrictions are widely viewed as being too loose to warrant the use of Grand Cru - a title used in other regions only for the very finest wines or vineyard sites. Peculiarly, twice as much Saint-Emilion Grand Cru wine is made each year than regular Saint-Emilion. Fortunately, the Saint-Emilion Wine Classification system performs the task of marking out the area's top-tier wines. This works in much the same as the classifications of the Medoc, Graves and Sauternes, but with one significant difference: it is periodically reviewed to keep it up-to-date and relevant. It was first drawn up in 1955, and (after a controversial review in 2006) was most recently updated in 2012. For more information see: Saint-Emilion Wine Classification.