The small Gironde town of Saint-Emilion is best-known as home to one the world’s great wines. However to reduce it to this is to overlook its long history as a religious centre and impressive architectural heritage.
SAINT-ÉMILION has long been associated with wine and boasts an exciting mix of cellars, wineries, wine lovers’ circles, vintage wine collections and châteaux. However this small town of 2,124 residents, has a history which extends much further than wine.
This legacy is found in the many chapels, churches and monasteries. Before wine, Saint-Emilion was mainly associated with religion. The monk Emilion, gave his name both to this medieval town and its wine.
Since 1999, Saint-Emilion has also been listed as a World Heritage by Unesco. This is recognition for its history as much as for its outstanding wine and winegrowing landscape.
Most visitors begin their exploration in the Hermitage Cave. Originally from Vannes in Brittany, Emilion left his family and his native region to join a monastery in Saujon, Santonge (modern Charente-Maritime) - Brittany still has a river and a fine church named after him.
Legend has it the 8th century saint was a baker for a Breton count as a young man but he took risks by smuggling out loaves for the poor. One day, it is said, the count, suspicious, asked him what he had under his tunic as he went out. He said it was firewood he was taking to the poor, and, by a miracle, when he lifted his tunic it had changed into wood.
Another tale has it he used to bake at the monastery, but, jealous of his piety other monks hid his tools. Unperturbed he walked unharmed into the oven to put in his bread and take it out.
Emilion became a hermit, living in a cave in what was then the forest of Les Combes, to the north-east of Bordeaux - the location of modern Saint-Emilion. The area was once the site of the Roman villa of Ausone, a Bordeaux statesman and poet of the 4th century, who planted vines (the prestigious Château Ausone takes its name from him).
It is said that the saint carved out his cave himself, creating a refuge from Saracen raiders - where he would live for the next 17 years. Needing fresh water, he caused a river to divert up to his hermitage where it gushed from the ground as a spring. Due to his miracles and generosity, Emilion’s reputation spread and he attracted many disciples. A monastic complex grew up near to his cave, laying the foundations of the town that took his name. Today the cave is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.
When the saint died in 767, his companions began to dig catacombs and a monolithic church (carved out of rock), which is unique in Europe for its size and shape and one of the most famous in the world. Legends are depicted in carvings in it, including an angel playing the viola in front of a sea monster. In the 12th century, Saint-Emilion was the second largest town of the diocese (after Bordeaux) with nearly 10,000 residents.
Over the centuries, different religious groups built their own places of worship. These include the Trinity Chapel, decorated with precious polychrome frescoes, and the collegiate church, which is 79 m long and one of the largest churches in the region. The adjoining cloister, built in the late 14th century, contains the tombs of the former cardinals. Close by are the beautiful remains of the Cordeliers - a former Franciscan monastery, which contains cellars used to make Crémant de Bordeaux, a sparkling white or rosé wine. A garden above the cellars is a peaceful setting for evening drinks, watching the sun setting behind the old archways.
Discovering the old medieval town is one of the delights of Saint-Emilion, although it can be a challenge due to the rough cobbled streets, sloping steeply between the upper and lower parts of the old town.
Unesco protection has allowed the town to preserve its unique heritage. The amphitheatre, authentic tiles and pastel shades provide a pleasing backdrop for snapshots.
Just after the Second World War, the Jurade, a powerful brotherhood which had managed the town until 1789, was brought back by residents. In its medieval form this body was created in 1199 by King John of England, who delegated his powers to local worthies in return for them granting England “the privilege of the wines of Saint-Emilion”. The quality of wines was checked by the Jurade before they were transported to England from the port of Pierrefitte on the Dordogne.
In its modern form the Jurade is a confrérie which aims to guarantee authenticity and quality of the renowned local wine. Members also helped restore the town’s monuments and participated in the Unesco classification bid.
Owner of the Château Carteau Côtes Daugay and Premier honorary Jurat, Jacques Bertrand remembers the era. “In the fifties, Saint-Emilion was a sleeping beauty. The first time the Jurade entered the Monolithic church in 1948, I was there, as an altar boy. The priest said: You are the family of Saint-Emilion.”
Twice a year, during the Spring Festival and for the Harvest Banns (the third Sunday in September), the Jurats parade through the town in long purple robes once flowers have appeared on the vines and again in crimson robes to proclaim the start of the harvest.
In fact it is only since World War Two that vines have completely covered the surrounding area. Grasslands, croplands and peaches and apple trees were replaced.
Mr Bertrand said : “We went from 4,000 hectares of vines in 1956 to 5,400 ha today.”
Nearly 100 chateaux with wine cellars offer tastings of wine described by Louis XIV, the Sun King as the “Nectar of the Gods “. On the outskirts of the town, a sound and light show is offered in the cellars of the Château Villemaurine.
Although part of the Bordeaux wine growing area, Saint-Emilion is not part of the 1855 Bordeaux classification system (which covers only Médoc and Graves). Its own version, dating from 1955, includes two châteaux with a top premier grand cru classé A status (Ausone and Cheval Blanc), 13 rated premier grand cru classé B and around 50 grands crus classé. Adding confusion is the fact some wines calling themselves grands crus are not in the rankings at all (look for the word classé).
While Saint-Emilion has retained its old-world charm, its population has shrunk. A number of shutters remain closed today; restoration work required is too extensive and rules associated with the heritage ranking too restrictive.
Formerly guarded by seven high gates, the medieval town is now open to the winds and vines. The town has lost many small local shops. A grocery, bakery, butcher and small post office remain - along with wine sellers and shops selling macaroons. The latter are another local speciality - it is said the recipe dates to 1620, invented by Ursuline nuns who established their convent in the town. The most authentic are reputed to be those sold by Nadia Fermigier at 9 Rue Guadet, where the almonds are still pressed by hand according to the ancestral recipe.
Article by Olivier Chartier/InnerFrance and translated by Estelle Phillips