Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Instinct and Heritage Trump Legal Wrangles; WINE

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Instinct and Heritage Trump Legal Wrangles; WINE

Article excerpt


ST EMILION is famous for two things: wine and macaroons.

I love both, but the quality of the wine is not nearly as consistent as that of the macaroons!

About 35 million bottles of red St Emilion wine is made each year (there is no white or rose). The main grape variety is the rich, bramblescented Merlot, usually blended with a little Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Because the complex geology around St Emilion encompasses at least four different soil types, the wine from each has its own distinct character, but the very diversity that helps make St Emilion so fascinating is also its Achilles heel.

Around the beguiling, tourist-trap town - a World Heritage site - the vines struggle to get a hold in the thin soil of a limestone plateau.

To the south of the town, a steep hillside provides a suntrap paradise for viticulture. On the north side, the slope is gentler, with a higher percentage of colder clay soils.

Towards neighbouring Pomerol, deep, warm gravels offer the possibility of more superb wine, the best of which is Chateau Cheval Blanc, one of the grandest and most expensive red wines in the world.

Patches of sandy loam nearby are less exciting, but the intensively cultivated alluvial soils that run towards the River Dordogne are not good news. The water table is high, the vines are lazy and the wine is dull. Wines from the satellite villages on the rolling limestone hills to the north east of St Emilion are often much more exciting - Montagne, St George's, Lussac and Puisseguin.

To distinguish better wines from also-rans, winegrowers of St Emilion came up with a classification of each chateau (chateau means everything from grand country house to cottage). Launched in 1954, and revised every 10 years, it should have been a great help. Unfortunately, they got carried away and awarded too many prizes.

There is more land rated Saint-Emilion Grand Cru than straight Saint-Emilion and the several dozen top properties, called Grand Cru Classe, are supplemented by a handful of Premiers Grands Crus Classes, itself divided into an A and B stream. Confused? It gets worse.

The latest attempt to revise the classification sank into a legal quagmire and has been suspended.

The 1996 classification is still in use - but those chosen for promotion in 2006 are up in arms and have also, of course, run off to the courts. A lot of lawyers will get very rich before any kind of settlement is grudgingly agreed. Most growers shrug their shoulders and get on with trying to make the best wine they can and finding innovative ways of selling it.

My good friend Arnaud de la Filolie, who owns one of the better Grands Crus Classes, Chateau Laniote, a few hundred metres from the town, is grateful for the regular orders he gets from Nicholas shops (his superb 2006 can be ordered online for pounds 27. …

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