The clay and limestone terroir of Saint-Émilion.
Food & Drink Features

Bordeaux on the right: a beginner's guide to the wines of Saint-Émilion

The plump and fleshy Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the stars here, with the wines generally more rounded and ready to drink a little earlier than the wines of the Left Bank
Jay Labrador | Mar 14 2019

Along the Gironde Estuary, on the banks of the  Dordogne River, in the area referred to as the Right Bank, lies the medieval town of Saint-Émilion in France. This UNESCO World Heritage site and the surrounding land are home to two of Bordeaux’s most acclaimed wines, as well as  host to some of the most dynamic estates.

The plump and fleshy Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the stars here. Cabernet Sauvignon is decidedly a bit player in this region. The wines generally seem more rounded and are ready to drink a little earlier than the wines of the Left Bank.

The wines of Saint-Émilion have four ranks of quality: Premier grand cru classé A, Premier grand cru classé B, Grand cru classé, and Grand cru. In contrast to the written-in-stone 1855 classification of the wines of the Medoc, the Saint-Émilion classification is dynamic, subject to change every 10 years. Properties, no matter how exalted in stature, can be demoted if they do not perform, while more humble chateaux can aspire to a higher ranking.

The wine cellar of Chateau Angélus.

At the very pinnacle of the ranking are the two Premier grand cru classé A, Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc. Chateau Ausone is a tiny property of 6.8 hectares producing just over 2,000 cases of wine. In contrast to most of the other Saint-Émilion chateaux, the wines here are mostly Cabernet Franc (55 percent) with Merlot in the supporting role. The reputation of this property was already well established in the 19th century, but the wine has been stellar since the 1996 vintage.

Joining Ausone at the very top is Chateau Cheval Blanc, another property that believes in Cabernet Franc (60 percent) over Merlot (40 percent). One of the greatest wines ever made in Bordeaux was Cheval Blanc’s legendary 1947 vintage. A nod to wine geeks was made in the Disney animated movie Ratatouille when the critic Anton Ego asks for Cheval Blanc 1947 to accompany his dinner at Gusteau’s.

Cheval Blanc’s 1947 vintage should have technically been a disaster. The summer was so hot and the grapes were being baked, which resulted in higher-than-normal concentrations of sugar. There were problems with fermentation that resulted in extremely high levels of volatile acidity. The alcohol of 14.4 percent was more like something you would find in an Aussie Shiraz or California Cabernet. And yet, despite all these perceived flaws, even as a young wine, it was deemed to be something very special. The tasting notes of Robert Parker and Michael Broadbent (perhaps the greatest experts on old vintages) state that it is more port-like than a regular dry red wine, with an unctuous texture and sweetness of fruit. For those of you with the means and a burning curiosity to try this wine, a bottle can be had for about half a million pesos.

Vines of the Cabernet Franc grape.

Another great Cheval Blanc, the 1961 vintage, also played a supporting role in the Academy Award-winning movie Sideways, where the protagonist, Miles, opens his precious bottle in a burger joint and drinks it out of a paper cup. Less exalted than the 1947, but still a great wine (93 points from Robert Parker), this bottle sells in the vicinity of PHP 100,000.

The Premier grand cru classé B estates also have daunting reputations. Among the well-known names you will find here are Chateaux Angélus, Beau-Séjour Bécot, Canon, Figeac, Pavie, Pavie-Macquin, and Troplong Mondot.

In the last few years, I was able to taste several of these wines. Among them, was an Angélus 1989 that I tasted in November 2009—very youthful, with grainy tannins still apparent. It tasted of tobacco and sweet fruit. This would have no trouble aging a bit more.

I tasted an Angélus 1999 in January 2010, which had classic Bordeaux aromas of pencil shavings and cedar. It was deep and complex, with sweet, ripe fruit. It will certainly get better with age, but it’s still very good now.

Figeac 1990 was one of the stars I tasted at a lunch in January 2010. It tasted of sweet tobacco, a little damp earth, and was quite rich. It was also dry, but sweet on the very long finish. With a taste of bittersweet chocolate and pencil shavings, this wine is still a baby, with some firm tannin still in evidence. Excellent wine now, but I have a feeling this will get even better in a couple of years.

I’ve had Pavie-Macquin 2000 in 2009 and 2010. This vintage has consistent notes and is a rather full, rich Bordeaux—not quite ready, and needing a few years to loosen up. Now, however, it displays liquorice, leather, sweet tobacco, and mint leaf. A 2001 I consumed last year was very good: meaty nose, lovely fruit, a little tart but already showing quite well. Pavie-Macquin also makes a rather good rosé, the 2007 vintage of which I’ve enjoyed several times.

Chateau Ausone

Then there is the polarizing wine of Chateau Pavie. Robert Parker enjoys the highly extracted style of the wine, but British wine critics for the most part are unimpressed.

I have notes on a few vintages. I tasted a 1999 in March 2009, which had obvious browning on the edge although the core still looked young. It tasted of coffee, mint, raisins, and very ripe fruit, and had a faint burnt and overripe character. A bit of alcohol showed as well. It had soft tannins and is probably close to peak now. It was very good, but not extraordinary.

I tasted a 2001 in December last year: Coca-Cola nose at first and then a disturbing oxidative note. Ripe and sweet but not heavy. A bit pruney. Still firm and a bit tannic on the finish but is probably quite close to the peak. Meaty. Dry finish. If tasted blind, I would probably have guessed California. Aside from the off-putting oxidation, I thought this was pretty good. Like Pavie-Macquin, Pavie also makes a very good rosé.

There are, of course, many other properties making good wine. Canon la Gaffelière, Corbin, l’Arrosée and Monbousquet to name a few. There is much to explore and enjoy here in Saint-Émilion.


Buying Bordeaux

There are many wine shops in Manila, but very few carry a good selection of wines from Saint-Émilion, France.

BACCHUS at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel carries a fine selection of Valandraud, Angélus and second wine Carillon de l’Angélus, Troplong Mondot, Cheval Blanc and Petit Cheval, Ausone, and La Dominique.

The pioneer in bringing in top-end Bordeaux is, of course, SANTI’S DELI with several shops all over Metro Manila. Angelus, l’Arrosee, Beau-Séjour Bécot, Cheval Blanc, Figeac, Grand Pontet, Tertre Roteboeuf, and Valandraud are all available here.

The Wine Story branch at Shangri-La Plaza.

If you want to try before you buy, head over to WINE STORY where the Enomatic wine dispensers allow you to buy a taste of the wines to see if they suit your taste. Wine Story at the Shangri-La Plaza in Mandaluyong and at Serendra, Bonifacio Global City, has an impressive selection of multiple vintages too long to list here. Suffice to say, you will be awestruck as soon as you enter the store.

For those who find the selections here too limiting, you may want to look at shops in the U.S. and elsewhere. A good resource is WINE-SEARCHER, which gives you wine prices from different stores around the world. At least from the U.S., Johnny Air Cargo can ship wines within seven working days.