Returning to St Emilion the next day, we enjoyed a leisurely classic French dejuner (lunch) at an outdoor cafe before our winery tour.
We were greeted at the door of the Couvent des Jacobins by the owner, Mme. Joinaud; Benoit Gaillard, the wine shop manager and our tour guide; and this smiling fellow hanging from the wall.It’s a decent bet that it will be a good day when the god of wine bids you welcome.
Madame quickly introduced herself as she unlocked the 15th century oak door and led us into the dark, cool interior of the winery that has been her home for most of her life. She then left us in Benoit’s hands for the tour, as she had another appointment.
The Couvent des Jacobins was founded in the 14th century by the Dominicans, and remained the property of the church until the Revolution. It was purchased by the Gaudet family in 1787, and sold to the current owner’s family in 1902. The history of the property is written in gold on the frame of this portrait of the current owner’s grandmother.
They produce the only Grande Cru Classe wine made in the village of St. Emilion. As impressive as that is on its own, this classic wine and three others are made from a vineyard of only 10 hectares (25 acres), planted with 2 varieties of grape – Merlot (85%) and Cabernet Franc (15%). From this small vineyard, 40,000 to 50,000 bottles of wine are produced yearly.
Winemaking begins in the fall with the harvest. Here, all the grapes are picked and sorted by hand. They are de-stemmed, lightly pressed and put into concrete fermentation tanks for one to two months. The vineyard is divided into sections, each bearing a womans’ name – the tank in the foreground above is for ‘Eva’, and only grapes from that plot are in this tank. The fruit from the different sections will be kept separate throughout the fermenting and aging process.
After the time in the tanks is finished, as determined by the winemaker, the juice is drawn off and barreled. The traditional oak barrels are made by hand, the products of 5 different coopers. Each has distinct characteristics, from the blend of oaks used to make the barrels to the amount of charring done to the inside. Based on the strength of the vintage – the stored sugars that ferment into alcohol – the winemaker will choose the best combination of barrels in which to age the wine. The young wine will spend up to 18 months in this first room. Incidentally, this room used to be the Refectory, where the monks took their meals.
Finished with the first aging, the wine is tested for color and clarity, the barrels are topped up to replace liquid lost to evaporation and the porous nature of the oak. It then spends another 12 months or so in the second aging room, a space renovated in 2000 with a double ceiling and climate-control system. From there, it goes into bottles, a process we were lucky enough to see. So, down into the basement…
Through a tiny door in the wall, down a winding wooden staircase to a limestone cellar pungent with new wine. The humidity hovers near 100%, the temperature around 50 degrees year-round. And the sound of clanking glass – the 2008 vintage is being bottled.
The machinery and crew are rented. It only takes a day or two to put an entire year’s harvest into bottles. Some of the wine is already sold. These bottles will be labeled and packed in cases and shipped out.
Wine not yet sold will stay in the winery . Unlike larger places, this wine will never go to a warehouse or be in the care of others. It will stay in the cellar under perfect conditions until it is sold. This wine is not labeled, as the high humidity would cause the paper label to slip or deteriorate. It will be identified by its unique cork.
One last stop on our tour – the archives. In this cellar room are bins of each wine produced since 1943. Benoit explained the process of re-corking, which is done every 40 or 50 years. Twelve bottles will be opened, tasted, and judged. If the wine is still worthy, one bottle will be used to top-up the other 11, and they will be sealed with new corks. Sacrifice the one for the good of the many, I suppose… but it had a noble purpose.
So, we bid a fond adieu to Madame, Benoit, and St. Emilion, and returned to the hotel in Cadiliac. Still full from lunch, we skipped dinner – and Coco’s floor show – and turned in early. The next morning, we headed north to Margaux.