To the east of Bordeaux, on the right bank of the Dordogne river, are the areas of Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, Fronsac, Côtes de Francs and Côtes de Castillon. The collective name for this region is the Libournais. This name comes from the most important city in the area: the port city of Libourne. However, the unofficial wine capital of this region is Saint-Émilion.
Saint-Emilion, enriching your vacation in France
To visit Saint-Émilion, go through one of the seven historic gates. These gates are left over from the medieval walls that were built around the city. In the city, there are narrow streets with beautiful historic buildings, cafes, boutiques, artisan shops, and restaurants. In the middle of the city, there is a main square with lovely patios. More than 2 million tourists visit the city every year, both for the beautiful location and for the internationally famous wine.
The birth of Saint-Émilion
Originally, Saint-Émilion's name was “Ascumbas,” but it changed during the 8th century. Legend has it that the Breton monk, Émilion, was the cause behind this name change. Around the 8th century, he settled in Ascumbas. Émilion lived in one of the many caves in this region. Before this, he was employed by a count as a monk. He had access to the count’s kitchen and regularly took bread to secretly give to the poor. One day, he was caught. The count asked what he was holding under his coat and Émilion said it was a piece of wood. When he showed it, the bread had actually turned into wood! Because of this legend, the monk became very popular, and the name of the town of Ascumbas was changed to Saint-Émilion. The cave where he lived has become a popular destination for pilgrims.
Saint-Emilion has grown into a prosperous shopping city over the centuries. It became a trading center for wine, grain, etc. This prosperity is still visible today, through the many monuments in the area.
Saint-Émilion on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Since 1999, the region of Saint-Émilion (the town itself, the 8 surrounding villages, and vineyards) has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Not many places have this honor! Through this action, the area’s special heritage will be preserved for the future.
With a city wall that has been preserved for more than a kilometer, Saint-Émilion belongs to the small group of French medieval towns that also have ramparts. Other towns include: Aigues-Mortes, Avignon, Boulogne, Carcassonne, Cordes, Dinan, Mont Saint-Michel, Provins, Saint-Malo, and Vannes. France only has two typical Romanesque city walls: one in Provins and one in Saint-Émilion.
One of the most historic buildings in Saint-Émilion is the “Monolithic Church,” a medieval church with an impressive bell tower. It is mostly underground. The church has been given the name Église Monolithe, because it is made of one piece of rock, a so-called monolith. The clock tower was added later. This church building is one of the largest churches of its kind in Europe.
You can enter the church from the market square. If you enter, under the arch, you will see a beautiful relief with a religious representation above you. On the other side of the arch is a large space carved in the rock, the nave of the church.
Guided tours of the underground spaces are given. You can see the life of the monk Emilion flash before you.
The top of the clock tower has a lovely viewpoint. You will have to climb 196 steps, but you will forget it as soon as you see the winding streets of the village and the red roofs of the houses below you.
The Cordeliers Cloister
Another main attraction in Saint-Émilion is the Cordeliers Cloister. It is a beautiful building that is preserved as a historical monument. After entering the curved monastery, you will descend 17 meters to see the underground cellars. From there, guided tours are given throughout the underground catacombs. During this tour, you will hear about the traditional method to prepare the 'Crémant de Bordeaux,' the sparkling wine of the Cordeliers. It has been produced since the 19th century.
The famous wines of Saint-Émilion
When you hear the name Saint-Émilion, you often immediately think of the famous red wines that come from this region. They are often very good quality wines with a Grand Cru Classe classification.
The wines are excellent quality due to the exceptional microclimate in this region and the special soil quality:
- The climate is a moderate continental microclimate, which is ideal for viticulture
- The soil is a special combination and variation of clay, gravel, sand and limestone soils. This also contributes to the exceptional quality of the wines produced.
The Merlot grape variety is the most popular in this region. This is the variety that is used to make Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec wines.
Saint-Emilion, with its 5,565ha. of vineyards, is one of the largest wine-producing regions in Bordeaux. More than 800 winegrowers produce quality wines every day, using 70 km of underground passages. The best Crus are ripened in limestone, for example: Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Angélus, Figeac, Canon la Gaffelière, and Clos Fourtet. Many wine châteaux offer guided tours and wine tastings.
The combination of world-famous vineyards and beautiful architecture makes Saint-Émilion one of the most beautiful places in the Bordeaux region to visit. But that’s not all: Saint-Emilion also features nice streets, attractive boutiques, beautiful views, and lovely patios.
You can also visit surrounding vineyards from Saint-Émilion, such as Pomerol, Sauternes and Margaux. You can do this in various ways: car, train, boat, bike, motorcycle with a sidecar, or even a horse and carriage!
A visit to the city of Saint-Émilion is highly recommended. Ask the Saint-Émilion Office de Tourisme for the Pass’Escapades, a fun way to discover the most famous sites.