The Benedictine hermit who gave his name to the town of St Emilion lived in a limestone cave which has now been enlarged into a monolithic church (right). This means that instead of being built of stone the church was carved out of the solid stone. It has all the main features of a Romanesque basilica, including aisles and columns, though sadly the structure has been weakened by water damage and now requires the support of interior scaffolding.
The area was under English sovereignty until the latter part of the Hundred Years' War and St Emilion wine was shipped to the court of King Edward III.
Today there are over 800 wine producers here. Since elevation ranges from 3 to 100 metres there is significant variation in terroir between the plateau, the slopes (cotes) and the flat plain. Towards the border with the Pomerol region the soil becomes more sandy.
Limestone soils can be quite thin and vine roots will work their way down through cracks in the underlying rock. You can see examples of this in the cellars that honeycomb the substrata around the town. The cellars at Chateau Franc Mayne are particularly extensive, being linked with a former underground quarry.
Like a rock reservoir, limestone absorbs water in rainy seasons and releases it back to the vines in dry spells.
Whereas Macon wine such as St Julien is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, the principle ingredient of St Emilion is Merlot. Some vignerons use 100% Merlot. Franc Mayne was one of these, but now includes about 10% Cabernet Franc. By contrast the Soutard estate is planted only 63% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Franc, the balance being made up of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.
For my taste just a hint of spiciness provided by a tiny percentage of Malbec makes an ideal St Emilion wine, but others disagree. The variety offered by St Emilion means it can be drunk with a wide range of food. For our sundowner at Soutard we were offered nibbles of both meat and cheese and greatly enjoyed both.