Going behind the scenes in St Emilion, Bordeaux with Nicolle Croft

Gastrology joined wine expert and author Nicolle Croft on a journey through the wine region of St Emilion in Bordeaux, where we gained a deep understanding of this famous appellation - from the soil, to the making of wine, the different vintages and the often confusing classification systems.

Having a truly hands-on connection with wine (Nicolle has a property in St Emilion) and boasting over twenty years of wine industry experience, the private tours conducted by Nicolle are second to none. If you want to truly go behind the scenes, we strongly recommend you allocate some of your precious hours in Bordeaux to be expertly guided around this beautiful region by Nicolle.

Friendly and knowledgeable, Nicolle builds personalised itineraries to suit your individual needs and desires. Nicolle created a truly wonderful itinerary for the Gastrology team, filled to the brim with superb wines, interesting people and breathtaking locations. 

A bit about the region...

St Emilion is one of Bordeaux’s oldest wine regions where vines have been grown for over 2000 years. The Romans built villas on the rolling countryside and recognised the potential of the limestone rock to grow wine grapes of exceptional quality (small trenches have been found dug into the rock that date from this time). 

St Emilion is on the Right Bank and therefore the Merlot grape reigns supreme. Merlot thrives in the clay and limestone soils and is blended in varying quantities with, amongst other select varietals, Cabernet Franc which provides perfume, freshness and acidity. The average blend is 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc but this is by no means a rule.

The vineyards of  this region surround the medieval village of St Emilion founded in the 8th century by the Benedictine monk, Emilian. St Emilion is known for its numerous ‘cool’ terroirs (including limestone plateau, slopes off the plateau, deep sands and gravel over clay) that gives this region such a diversity of expression in its wines. 

St Emilion has about 800 châteaux, of which only about 100 are classified in a list of the ‘top wines’. The first such list was put together in 1954 and is updated (rather controversially) every 10 years. The most recent classification dates from 2012 and sets out 18 Premier Grand Cru Classé, comprising 4 As (Ausone, Cheval Blanc and newly Angelus and Pavie) and 14 Bs. The level below these As and Bs are the Grand Cru Classé, of which there are 78 further wines.

The remaining châteaux can opt to call themselves 'Grand Cru' but they have to abide by stricter rules regarding their production and, of course, their wine must merit it.

First stop: Château Fonplegade Grand Cru Classé St Emilion

Our morning began with an exploration of Château Fonplegade’s vineyard in their "mule" car taking in the breathtaking views over the hillside. 

For centuries, the vine rows of Château Fonplégade have been the source of some of Saint-Emilion’s most coveted grapes. 

The vines are grown in limestone and clay soils and benefit from a deep underground water source which breaks through the surface to feed the fountain of Fonplégade.

In keeping with the owner's philosophical beliefs, the Château cultivates the vineyard using strict organic practices with all chemical treatments having ceased in 2004.

As we explored the barrel and vat rooms and toured their beautiful l'Orangerie, we learned of Château Fonplégade's history, their innovative approach to wine making and the holistic, organic approach taken to preserve the purity of the wine and protect the terroir of Château Fonplégade for future generations.

Following this in depth exploration of the winery, we were privileged to indulge in a tasting of a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé and Pomerol. The 2009 Château Fonplégade impressed - full-bodied, well-balanced with notes of blueberries and blackberries, this wine exhibited both grace and grandeur. 

Our private visit to Château Fonplégade was a rich and immersive one, and provided us with the rare opportunity to really go beneath the surface of a great Grand Cru Classé.

Second stop: St Emilion town

Set upon this hilly terrain, the unspoiled town of St Emilion is stunning.  

Wonderful cloisters, cobbled streets that wind and turn revealing beautiful historic buildings and monuments.

A medieval town with a deep history, the limestone plateau on which the town was located was excavated for its stone which built all of the region’s stone buildings. This has resulted in around 200 kilometres of tunnels deep beneath the town (which we experienced first hand during our final stop…).

Third stop: Château Siaurac, Lalande de Pomerol

Our next stop was Château Siaurac, a splendid estate from the XIXth century. Boasting a classical style château set amid an English style park which has been owned by the same family since 1852.

Led by reception director Céline Masson and owner Paul Goldschmidt, the passion of the entire team at Château Siaurac is palpable and can be felt in all areas. 

Each room of the Château is filled to the brim with precious antiques which form part of Paul's private collection - at one point we found ourselves wandering past a Picasso!

Following a tour of the winery and cellars, it was time to indulge in a tasting of the 2011 Château Siaurac lalande de Pomerol, Château Vraie Croix de Gaie Pomerol and Château le prieuré Grand Cru Classé St Emilion over the most magical of lunches.  

On a gloriously sunny spring afternoon, Nicolle arranged for our lunch to be set amidst the Château's romantic 19th century park.

Expertly prepared utilising fresh produce from the Libourne market, the dishes sung of spring.

The authentic cuisine was prepared with care and served on the most exquisite of porcelain (from a series of Bordelais artist Jules Vieillard).

A visit to Château Siaurac would not have been complete without meeting larger than life owner Paul Goldschmidt and their talented private chef Jean-François Roberts. 

Having been invited into the kitchen as chef Jean-François prepared our moreish dessert, we were captivated by Paul's energy and enthusiasm as he discussed his philosophy on wine and why he loves what he does. 

Fourth stop: Château Beausejour Becot, Premier Grand Cru Classé St Emilion

Our final stop on this wonderful tour was Château Beausejour Becot, Premier Grand Cru Classé St Emilion.

Beau-Sejour Bécot is a Premier Grand Cru Classé, located to the west of Saint-Emilion. This property is owned and run by the tight knit Bécot family - hands on owners who are more than happy to get their hands dirty.  

After several acquisitions, the vineyard of Chateau Beau-Sejour Bécot now covers 16 hectares and earned the prestigious ranking of Premier Grand Cru B in 1996. As expected, Merlot dominates the plantings, with sprinklings of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon playing a supporting role.

From the middle ages up until the end of 18th century, thousands of tonnes of limestone blocks were excavated from the plateau of St Emilion and used to build the many grand stone houses in the area leaving behind a labyrinth of underground tunnels.

It is said that there are more than 200 kilometres of tunnels on several levels under the village of St Emilion - which we were privileged to experience first hand. 

Descending into this secret underground world beneath the vineyard was a truly once in a lifetime experience. The underground tunnels under Château Beauséjour Bécot are simply breathtaking and, if the tunnels themselves are not impressive enough, they are also home to 60,000 bottles of wine. 

After a mesmerising journey underneath the vineyard, we had a our final tasting opportunity where we sampled 2 wines including the 2011 Château Beauséjour Bécot Premier Grand Cru Classé - a truly elegant wine with classic bright fruit and well-structured tannins. 

Having arrived in Bordeaux from England in 1989, Nicolle is a straight talking wine communicator and author (“Winetasting” a step-by-step guide of how to taste wines) with 20 years’ experience in the wine trade. Our day spent with Nicolle was highly informative and seriously enjoyable. By granting us private access to some wonderful Châteaux, Nicolle gave us a truly behind the scenes view of  the best this region has to offer. 

Whatever your idea of the ultimate wine tour is, Nicolle can create a custom itinerary that perfectly suits your interests and schedule so that you can maximise your limited time in Bordeaux. Having experienced these tours first hand, we could not recommend SIP wine tours more highly.

Nicolle Croft
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