No doubt due to the beauty of the landscape, and favourable climate, pre-historic people settled in the area. A number of remains, as exemplified by the ‘Menhir’ at St. Sulpice, prove that these people had a deep spiritual richness.
In the 8th Century, the area became a religious centre when a hermit from Brittany called Emilion settled in one of the many natural caves laying underneath the lush forest which covered the area. Pilgrims on their way to Saintiago di Compostela stopped to pray and pay homage to the great Emilion. A number of devotees settled and, taking advantage of the easily extracted limestone, a massive ‘monolithic’ church was hollowed out close to Emilion’s original cave.
Over the years the forest was cleared and a stone extraction industry was developed. Up to the end of the 18th Century, quarrymen had exploited 70 hectares of subterranean space to extract stone, sell it, and above all build the town and other buildings in surrounding areas.
Since that time, above the very quarries which provided the blocks that built the magnificent Chateaux and dwellings, the great vineyards of todays were planted. In turn, the people of Saint-Emilion have found, right underneath them, the ideal space where they can put away the thing they treasure most; their wines.
Most of the underground cellars of Saint-Emilion and its surroundings are in fact former quarries. When they are not obstructed by stones or blocked by land collapses, these quarries link many of the estates and form a network of corridors and passages between them.
One of the best Chateau where one can see this is in the cellars of Chateau Canon, from where one can easily walk to Chateau Ausone, Chateau Magdelaine (now incorporated into Chateau Belair Monange), Chateau Clos Fourtet and Chateau Beausejour Becot.
The height and levels of the quarries vary considerably. Some are more than three metres high, whilst others are quite low with not much use. Another interesting fact is that sometimes the roof of cellars is just a few centimetres underneath the surface, and cave-ins are not uncommon.
Recently such a cave-in took place at Chateau Belair. Indeed, severe restrictions are in force when it comes to traffic flow along the many lanes and small roads that criss cross the vineyards.
The cellars are not temples of the past. At Saint-Emilion they contain treasures of the here and now. Old, prestigious vintages and wines that are still ageing.
At Chateau Belair, winemaking has been carried out in the cellars since the 14th Century. Conditions here are ideal; between 80% and 95% humidity, and a stable ambient which does not vary much from 12 degrees.
To avoid excess humidity, winemakers are sometimes obliged to cut air holes in the ceiling to bring a little surface air into the atmosphere which is saturated with water.
These conditions are ideal for both bottle ageing as well as barrel ageing. In the casks, due to the ambient temperature and humidity, the exchanges between the wine and the air can proceed smoothly and gently.
The limestone is also very beneficial to the vines especially in very dry summers. The cellar rock is barely 50cm under the vineyard. The limestone works like a sponge. It retains water in winter and redistributes it by capillary action during the summer, when water stress is at its height.
I can think of no great wine that does not come from a beautiful region. It seems that the vine does best where there are great views, environments and people to look after it.
As in most agriculture, looking after your vineyard should also mean looking after your region, as the two are inseparable. This generally creates a patriotic spirit within the community and is why some of the nicest and prettiest villages in the world are in agricultural areas.
Saint-Emilion is a clear example of how a harmony between men and nature can give birth to a great wine.