Merlot wines so often gets pushed aside into the shadows of Cabernet Sauvignon. “Cabernet is King” is commonly the imposing mantra. And with the grand reputation of Bordeaux’ Médoc Grand Cru Classés of 1855 that is filled with Cabernet Sauvignon excellence, Merlot is often overlooked as a beautiful wine says wine writer Michael C Higgins.
The Queen of Grapes
And beautiful she is. “Merlot is Queen” being feminine, she is softer, with more rounded elegance, and a fruitiness that makes this wine so delicious. And drinkable much earlier than Bordeaux Big Cabernet Sauvignon, which generally needs at least ten years before it is ready. The Queen is more admirable than you might imagine. The most expensive wine in Bordeaux is a Merlot: Château Petrus, 100% Merlot, grown on the blue clay in Pomerol (Right Bank).
This story about Queen Merlot begins with terroir, the concept of soil influencing the wine. The Left Bank of Bordeaux grows Cabernet Sauvignon because it loves the gravel and sandy soils there, whereas the Right Bank grows Merlot because it loves the limestone and clay soils. The Right Bank’s most notable region is Saint-Émilion where a medieval village sits on top of the limestone plateau as its centerpiece. This wine region is as beautiful as its wines and it is where I would like to share with you how special it is.
In Bordeaux, there are many historic towns, villages and hamlets. Saint-Émilion is a village you do not want to miss. It originates back to Medieval times with Romanesque architecture dating back to the 2nd century when the Romans planted wine grapes there. The history is deep and immense and the village itself became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It’s located in the center of the Saint-Émilion appellation, on top of the famous limestone plateau. It was from the limestone quarries of this plateau in and around Saint-Émilion that stone blocks were excavated to build the entire village.
A system of caves
Under most of the châteaux surrounding the village, and under the village itself, 124 miles of massive cave systems exist. They were created from cutting these very large blocks out of the ground for this construction. The Monolithic Church’s Bell Tower is the highest point in Saint Émilion with views of the charming village and rolling countryside of vineyards for as far as the eyes can see. The church itself is dazzling, entirely carved out of one solid limestone formation. It’s gigantic proportions and uniqueness make it Europe’s widest monolithic church and famous worldwide.
The village is a beautiful place to explore, day or night. It is safe and peaceful. Enchanting, actually. There are numerous great restaurants to be found. Logis de La Candène whose atmosphere and creativity earned them a Michelin star. Lard et Bouchon is a restaurant underground in the caves. Wine bars and wine shops are everywhere. There are three châteaux in the village. I don’t mean a retail outlet for their wines. These are actual wineries making their wine in the village. They are Château Guadet (Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé), Moulin Galhaud (Saint-Émilion Grand Cru), and Les Cordeliers (sparkling wines underground). All three wineries are open to the public and have underground caves that you can visit.
Exploring Châteaux of Tourism, Food & Wine
A short walk from the village is Château Soutard, a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, with a castle you can stay in overnight. The winery as been rebuilt with the latest of technology and innovations. This property has wonderful views into the valley around them. Take one of their bicycles on a tour around the property, following the signs and explore many interesting features this property has to offer. Learn how Merlot becomes the queen of wines here. You will see a bygone era inside the historic castle of an aristocratic past and witness quality winemaking in an ultra-modern winery. They also have a large wine shop and boutique.
Tours tastings and workshops
Isolated on top of their own elevated plateau on the Saint-Émilion limestone, with their own forest, parks and gardens, Château de Ferrand, a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, operates within their own isolated ecosystem with diversified soil characteristic and no herbicides. Inside, are fully renovated buildings filled with high-tech modern elegance befitting of a queen. The tasting bar sits on a cool 360-degree rotating platform. They have the greatest range of tours, tastings, workshops, activities and culinary opportunities of any château in Bordeaux. I lost count at 22! And they treat every visitor like a professional; tours are sommelier-led, customized to your level of knowledge and interest. Owned by the Bic Pen family, the walls of the tasting room depict the four seasons of the vineyard drawn solely with eight Bic pens. It took the artist seven months to render this masterpiece.
On the northwest edge of this appellation is the famed Château Cheval Blanc. It’s one of only four Premier Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – A. They border Pomerol and share the blue clay vein that extends into their property, which produces Merlot of extraordinary quality. As one of the world’s best-known wines, their property reflects the prestige captured in their bottles. Contrasted by traditional buildings, a futuristic structure was designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Christian de Portzamparc with the latest in winemaking technology and customized tanks designed for each and every individual vineyard plot.
Extraordinary Wine tasting
Next door is Château La Dominique, open to the public all year with creative ideas in tours and tastings. My favorite is their underground blind tasting experience taken to the extreme. They built an underground tasting room to neutralize all the senses. First, the elevator ride down gets you in a quiet state. Then contrasted by walking on a noisy floor of loose stones. The room is extra dark, with minimal mood lighting. By the time you get to the table and sit down, your senses are heightened and confused at the same time.
Now it is time to begin. Bottles of wine, all the exact same shape and size, are covered with black socks. Wine glasses are all black and of the same shape and size. Are you blinded yet? Then they dim the lights even further, and you hear the sound of wine being poured. This is truly blind wine tasting. They have a gourmet rooftop restaurant La Terrasse Rouge both indoors and outdoors. A display of red glass stones covers most of the roof beyond the dining area and there’s a magnificent view of vineyard landscapes. Their menu oozes with temptations, including desserts to die for. You will not be able to go just once! And imagine this: they have all ten Bordeaux first-growths (crus) on the wine list.
Vineyards and valleys
Along the beautiful Southern Slope of the plateau, we find Château de Candale. It once belonged to the Count of Candale, a descendant of King Edward III of England. Today this is the hub of four châteaux, two Saint Émilion Grand Crus (Château de Candale and Château Roc de Candale) and two Grand Cru Classés (Château La Commanderie and Clos des Jacobins), a restaurant, and a wine shop where you can taste and buy from all four of these properties. They also start and conclude tours and their tastings here for the other châteaux.
This is a good food and wine center where you can spend the day and discover how the Queen of Merlot expresses itself differently from four different properties. It is a beautiful environment dining here at L’Atelier de Candale. Inside is filled with window-lined walls allowing natural light to flow in and for the eyes to take in the views. Outside is spectacular, overlooking the vineyards, forest and valley, under a large designer canopy. This is the place for the ultimate food and wine experience even more so because the owners make gastronomy a key focus of their business.
Exploring Wine Regions – Bordeaux France
Michael Higgin’s Exploring Wine Regions – Bordeaux France covers 100 pages on this region in its 494 pages on Bordeaux. 1,000 color photographs captured over three years studying Bordeaux, give you a spectacular visual experience of the region and its wineries. Discover the inside stories and information, including names, addresses, emails, websites, and maps so you can plan an extraordinary experience for yourself. Find out more: ExploringWineRegions.com