Over the past few years, we’ve spent a great deal of time in Saint-Émilion — so much so, that we’ve come to think of the area as our second home. Not only do we import the magnificent regional wines, but twice a year, we travel with our clients and share favorite local places. Below is a dash of history as well as top attractions and restaurants that we highly recommend. Hopefully you’ll visit this magical place if you haven’t already. Santé!
AUSONIUS & ÉMILIAN
Long before you reach the village of Saint-Émilion, you’ll notice the enormous spire of the city’s ancient monolithic church towering over a vast limestone plateau – the same stone that flavors the region’s prestigious wine. Upon arriving in the city, you’ll see remnants of the first church, built by Dominican friars and destroyed during the Hundred Years War. Wander the steep cobblestone streets and see more tales of the past – architectural bits and pieces from Romans, Celtic priests, French and English kings. Take a seat in the centuries-old square and feel as if a dream is unfolding before you.
One of France’s most beloved and unspoiled medieval cities, Saint-Émilion is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. And as you walk through this charming, provincial village, you might almost forget that some of the world’s most expensive and sought-after wines are produced here. But, like so much in the region, everything begins and ends with wine.
Saint-Émilion’s first recorded history began in the 4th century when the Romans controlled Gaul (France). According to popular history, Decimus Magnus Ausonius established a property and planted the first grape vines. Ausonius had been born in Bordeaux, so was familiar with the natural beauty of the area and abundant limestone. His name is now immortalized in the Saint-Émilion winery, Château Ausone — one of the appellation’s four First Growth properties.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, much of the region was desolate, until the 8th century, when a Benedictine monk, named Émilian arrived. The good monk and his followers created a massive network of caves and catacombs. Years after Émilian’s death, the celebrated Monolithic Church was finally completed.
Meanwhile, the village of Saint-Émilion grew and prospered with wine trade and stone quarries. Then in 1337, the Hundred Years War commenced, taking a huge toll on the area. By the end of the French Revolution, Saint-Émilion was almost entirely abandoned.
But the city’s fortunes have always turned on wine, and interest in Bordeaux wines fueled a re-birth in the 19th century and, for the most part, the city has prospered ever since.
RAMPARTS, CAVES & MACAROONS
Begin your tour of Saint-Émilion at the Tourism Centre. The helpful staff will provide you with maps, historical information and recommendations for shopping, dining and any special events going on during your stay.
If you’re feeling energetic, make arrangements to visit the Église Monolithe (Monolithic Church). You’ll be given a huge skeleton key – supposedly once used by the Benedictine monks themselves – to unlock the main door of the Tour du Clocher (Bell Tower). From there, you’ll climb 196 steps to the highest point in Saint-Émilion. By the time you reach the top, whatever breath you might have left will be expended immediately on dazzling views of the village and the miles and miles of vineyards that surround it.
Continue your tour at the underground level of the church – the labyrinth of caves carved out by Émilian and his followers. The sheer scale of the arches and pillars is astounding. Very little decorative art remains; most of the art was destroyed during the French Revolution. There is, however, a lovely bas-relief at the bottom of the nave depicting two angels, guardians of the gates of Paradise.
An interesting historical note: The legendary stained glass windows of the Chartres Cathedral were hidden away in the Église Monolithe church during World War II. Since the Nazis were infatuated with Bordeaux wines, Saint-Émilion and its priceless vineyards were left mostly intact during the war and the windows survived untouched.
Back in the sunlight, stop by Fabrique de Macarons, at 9 Rue Guadet, to sample some of the delicious pastries. Macarons were originally created by the Ursuline nuns of Saint-Émilion in the 1600’s. These are not the sweet, multicolored meringue creations you saw in Paris, but rustic sugar and almond cookies baked on parchment paper.
Madame Nadia Fermigier, owner of the Fabrique, claims to have the original Ursuline recipe for Macarons – a highly guarded secret, as you can imagine. These same cookies were a highlight of the 1867 International Exposition – a conclave of Saint-Émilion winemakers. You can judge for yourself, but there’s no doubt that sampling a 400-year old cookie is a unique treat!
If the Macarons have sufficiently revived you, stroll along Rue du Couvent to visit the original Ursuline Convent. Only remnants of the 17th century structure remain, but you can peek through the crumbling windows and imagine the interiors.
Across from the convent stands the austere Tour du Roy (King’s Tower). The tower is so old, its origins have been completely lost and historians are baffled as to whether Henry III of England or King Louis VII of France commissioned the structure — or why exactly it was built at all.
Currently, the tower provides the grand finale for two major wine festivals held in spring and fall. During these festivals, members of the Saint-Émilion Jurade (a fraternity of wine professionals, dedicated to the advancement of Saint-Émilion wines) parade through the village and hold spectacular dinners. Michel was inducted into the Saint-Émilion Jurade several years ago — a privilege and honor he holds dear!
At the close of the festivals, the members of the Jurade ascend the tower and release hundreds of balloons – a thrilling site for miles around. The Tour du Roy is open to the public, so you too can climb the tower and enjoy the impressive views.
ESSENCE OF SAINT-ÉMILION
Saint-Émilion is filled with cute shops selling any number of souvenirs and trinkets. But, for a unique gift or remembrance of the area – aside from a bottle(s) of wine – try Nathalie Boisserie’s Salon, tucked away on a sidestreet at 4 Place du Chapitre des Jacobins.
Nathalie has created a completely original fragrance – Les Jardins d’Héloïse, Eau de parfum – using the small flowers that bloom on local grapevines. The flowers appear for just a few days in the spring. During this very brief period, Saint-Émilion is bathed in rapturous aromas.
Nathalie has managed to capture this fragrance and bottle it in clear, etched glass, as pretty and appealing as the parfum itself. She named this lovely fragrance after her daughter, Héloïse.
DINING À LA SAINT-ÉMILION
Given it’s size – less than 3,000 residents – tiny Saint-Émilion may offer more fine dining per capita than any other city in France! Not only is the food impressive, but the restaurants are almost always located in extraordinarily lovely sites, with views of surrounding vineyards and architectural treasures.
Panoramic views at Château de Candale as well as the vineyards of cult winemaker François Mitjavile at Tertre-Rôteboeuf.
L’Atelier de Candale
at Château de Candale
You can almost reach out and pick the grapes at L’Atelier de Candale. The pretty outdoor seating backs up to the vineyards – guaranteeing more beautiful vistas and alluring sunsets. The interior of the restaurant is artfully decorated and the restaurant menu is every bit a match for the views. Dishes include Pork with Coriander and Ginger Sauce, Scallops in Mille-Feuille Pastry, Ravioli of Porcini Mushrooms with Truffles, Sautéed Foie Gras with more truffles! Prices are quite reasonable. A Lunch Market Menu with starter, main course and dessert is €26.
The wine list, as you’d expect, includes many selections from Château de Candale available by the glass. And, as an added bonus, you can visit the winery after dining.
La Table de Catusseau
86 Route de Catusseau
Another of our favorite spots, La Table de Catusseau is located in Pomerol, just a few miles east of the village of Saint-Émilion. The charming interior is well-appointed with a collection of copper pots and assorted cooking utensils. An outdoor terrace is popular in good weather. Owners Kendji and Nadège Wongsodikromo have created a menu that is an appealing blend of local Bordelaise dishes and Asian flavors.
The menu changes seasonally, but could include appetizers of Escargot in Ravioli served with a Leek Cream Sauce or a Pumpkin Soup with Smoked Salmon. Soups are standouts here. Be sure to indulge! Main courses offered are Crab Parmentier with Anise and Potato Foam, Roasted Squab with a Confit of Vegetables, Crunchy Prawns served on a bed of Arborio Risotto. For dessert have either Poached Pears with house-made ice cream or a Chocolate Croquette with Saffron Crème Brûlée and Apple Confit.
The wine list is eclectic, but features well chosen wine with an emphasis on Right Bank properties. The selection of wines by the glass is broad and well-priced, for example, a nice Premier Cru Chablis goes for €10.00. The Lunch Market Menu is €21.00 for a starter, entrée and dessert. The Menu Catusseau includes a broader range of choices for €33.00. Prices in general are excellent given the quality of the dining experience.
La Terrasse Rouge
1 la Dominique
More vineyard views await at La Terrasse Rouge — this time from a rooftop terrace offering you spectacular landscapes of neighboring Château Cheval Blanc and Pomerol estates. The restaurant name references the red terrace, covered in red glass gravel to resemble a grape harvest. Perfect for a souvenir photo!
An open kitchen produces outstanding fare at excellent prices. The Gourmet Menu at €39 is offered for both lunch and dinner and changes seasonally. Choices include a starter with possibly Foie Gras or Oysters. Main courses could be Sea Bass, Tuna, Duck Breast or Veal Chop with roasted vegetables, sautéed mushrooms and new potatoes. Desserts choices often include Rhum Baba, Dark Chocolate & Raspberry Mousse Cake, or a selection of mature cheeses.
Another wonderful indulgence is the restaurant’s extensive selection of mature Armagnac vintages. Be sure to book reservations. La Terrasse Rouge is one of the most popular spots in the region.
Lard et Bouchon
22, rue Guadet
You won’t find bucolic views of the Saint-Émilion countryside at Lard et Bouchon. Instead, you’ll dine in a 12th century wine cellar, below the streets of the city, within thick limestone walls and rows of wine bottles.
Owner, Sylvain Sasso, who functions as the headwaiter and sommelier, is a charmer. He moves with enviable ease among all the tables – which fill quickly – seating guests, decanting wines, all the while managing to chat up patrons.
Food at Lard et Bouchon is well-prepared, simple and hearty. Menu highlights include: Tuna Tartare with herbs and Escargots (12 large snails!) as appetizers.
Main courses are Duck with Foie Gras Poêlé (pan-sautéed) and daily fish specials.The huge selection of wines are well priced, as Sasso has great relationships with many regional winery owners.
L’Envers du Décor
11 Rue du Clocher
A local bistro since 1987, L’Envers du Décor was recently purchased by Gérard Perse, owner of Château Pavie, Château Monbousquet and hotel L’Hostellerie de Plaisance — to name a few of his properties.
The property has received a stylish makeover and new chef, Bertrand Bordenave, offers an appealing menu of updated classic dishes. Expect prime rib, lamb shoulder, andouillette sausage, and roast chicken. The signature dessert, a Grand Marnier Soufflé, is worth the visit alone.
The wine list, as you might expect, offers a number of selections from the many Perse estates. But in general, choices are excellent and prices are very reasonable.
Logis de la Cadène
3 Place du Marché au Bois
Join local winery owners, investors and Bordelais business-types at Logis de la Cadène. The dining room is all elegance and polish, with starchy linens and impeccable service. Founded in 1848, the property is one of the oldest hotel-restaurants in Saint-Emilion. Hubert de Boüard, owner of Château Angélus, loved the place as a child growing up in Saint-Émilion — so much so that he bought it in 2013.
Under the supervision of Chef Alexandre Baumard, Logis de la Cadène recently received a Michelin star. The upscale menu often includes Risotto with Truffles and Parmesan, Medallions of Lobster with Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli in an emulsion of Pine Nuts or Wild Rabbit stuffed with Foie Gras, Mushrooms and Potato Churros.
Soufflés are again a house specialty, with choices ranging from Cointreau with Blood Orange Sorbet to Caramel with a Compote of Apples or a simply decadent Chocolate Soufflé. Not surprisingly, the wine list is skewed towards selections from Château Angélus, but there are numerous other options as well.
Prices, of course, reflect the quality and artistry of the menu. The Luncheon Menu du Marché includes three courses for €39, while the evening Signature Menu offers six courses for €75.
La Table de L’Hostellerie de Plaisance
Place du Clocher
Breathtaking views await visitors on the terrace of the Hostellerie de Plaisance, another Gérard Perse property. Situated next to L’église Monolithe, the property looks out over the vineyards of Saint-Émilion and the ancient church itself. Begin your evening with Lillet – a favorite Bordeaux apéritif – or a glass of wine from the excellent Plaisance menu. Then sit back and enjoy a ravishing sunset and views of the village.
Later, move inside and be amazed by the visionary cuisine of Chef Ronan Kervarrec. His lavishly prepared meals have earned 2 Michelin stars. Offerings could include Scallops from Plougastel with Clementine and Sea Urchins, Roast Pork served with Beetroot Risotto and Ravioli, or Lobster with Jamaica Pepper & Mint. You’ll be pampered with an elegant service and any number of extra treats from the kitchen.
The luncheon Menu Découverte is priced at €72 for 3 courses and 2 sommelier’s wine selections. The evening Menu Souvenirs, with 10 courses, is €195. The wine list features a large selection of older vintages, and some of the most prestigious wines in Bordeaux. Prices reflect the rare quality of the wines and the extraordinary menu.
At the end of your meal, you might find yourself once again at the Plaisance terrace bar — the space is so captivating. There, watch the luminous stone walls fade to gray in the twilight. Listen to the evening chimes. Contemplate the centuries worth of history swirling in your glass and wonder if you’re awake or dreaming.
OUR SAINT-ÉMILION WINE LIST
If you can’t be in Saint-Émilion, you can at least drink the wines — at any rate, that’s our philosophy! Below is a list of a few of our favorites. Call for recommendations, suggestions or to reminisce about our favorite village in France.
Château d’Arce 2016. $18.99. 84 bottles.
Château Angélus 2015. $329.99. 36 bottles.
Château Bellevue 2015. $59.49. 23 bottles.
Château Bellevue Mondotte 2015. $148.99. 7 bottles.
Château Bellefont Belcier 2016. $42.99. 24 bottles.
Château Beausejour Becot 2003. $99.99. 12 bottles.
Château Beauséjour Becot 2010. $76.99. 6 bottles.
Château Beauséjour Becot 2015. $68.49. 12 bottles.
Château Beauséjour Duffau 2005. $99.99. 12 bottles.
Château Beauséjour Duffau 2006. $77.99. 12 bottles.
Château Beauséjour Duffau 2009. $369.99. 4 bottles.
Château Berliquet 2015. $38.99. 10 bottles.
Château Barde Haut 2006. $29.99. 33 bottles.
Château Barde Haut 2008. $38.99. 27 bottles.
Château Barde Haut 2015. $37.99. 36 bottles.
Château Barde Haut 2016. $38.79. 87 bottles
Chapelle d’Ausone 2015. $179.99. 4 bottles.
Chapelle d’Ausone 2016. $189.99. 6 bottles.
Clos de l’Oratoire 2009. $77.99. 16 bottles.
Clos de l’Oratoire 2005 in Magnums. $199.99. 3 bottles.
Le Carillon de L’Angélus 2012. $72.99. 1 bottle only.
Château Canon la Gaffelière 2015. $108.99. 35 bottles.
Château Canon la Gaffelière 2016. $93.99. 6 bottles.
Château Figeac 2009. $199.99. 3 bottles.
Château Fombrauge 2016. $25.99. 12 bottles.
Château Grand Mayne 2015. $42.99. 10 bottles.
Château Haut Villet 2013. $19.99. 47 bottles.
Château La Confession 2012. $34.99. 22 bottles.
Château La Confession 2015. $35.99. 29 bottles.
Château La Clotte 2016. $65.99. 9 bottles.
Château La Gaffelière 2016. $66.99. 7 bottles.
Château Magrez Fombrauge 2015. $109.00. 10 bottles.
Château Poesia 2016. $34.79. 60 bottles.
Château Pavie 2015. $329.99. 27 bottles.
Château Quinault l’Enclos 2016. $34.79. 21 bottles.
Tertre Rôteboeuf 2005. $249.99. 5 bottles.
Tertre Rôteboeuf 2012. $159.99. 8 bottles.
Tertre Rôteboeuf 2014. $137.99. 12 bottles.
Château Valandraud 2015. $164.99. 7 bottles.