“Wine is the most civilised thing in the world,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, and it does not get any more civilised than in St-Émilion, one of the oldest wine towns in southwest France, with a viticultural heritage stretching back to Roman times.
Glossy vines cover every inch of the landscape, amber châteaux languish behind wrought-iron gates and subterranean caverns provide natural cellars for ageing wines. Although officially part of the Bordeaux wine area, St-Émilion is proud of its own viticultural traditions.
"People often ask to taste a typical St-Émilion wine," notes Jean-François Carrille, a fourth-generation winemaker. "But there's really no such thing. We have over 90 châteaux producing hundreds of different wines, the taste depending on the soil, grapes and the way the wines are aged."
The Carrille family has been producing wines for over a century at their family property, Château Cardinal-Villemaurine. While many of St-Émilion's prestigious vineyards have been snapped up by canny investors, Château Cardinal-Villemaurine remains strictly a father-and-son concern.
Jean-François has no time for the high prices some of the top appellations, such as Cheval-Blanc and Ausone command. "There's snobbery in the wine industry. Wine is not a treasure to be hoarded or a stock to be traded. A good wine drunk with friends is a hundred times better than a priceless wine that sits in a cellar."
He points to a poster on the wall. "Buvez du vin and vivez joyeux" (drink wine and live happily), it reads. "For me, that's what winemaking is all about," he laughs.
That evening, we stroll through the vineyards above St-Émilion. The town burns butter-gold in the evening light, as swallows dart between the cathedral spires and the sun sinks low over the town's terracotta rooftops. The only sound is the rumble of a tractor in the distant fields.
Where to stay
Château de Pitray is a turreted 19th-century castle just outside St-Émilion. Owned by the Count and Countess de Boigne, it is opulent, with sweeping staircases, antique-stocked rooms and a pool overlooking parkland. You can take a tour of the château's vineyards (from £125)
Where to eat
Follow the locals to Chai Pascal, which serves country cooking and St-Émilion wines. Proprietor Pascal Fauvel is happy to advise what to drink (mains from £6; 37 rue Guadet).
Further information: saint-emilion-tourisme.com/uk
The article 'Southwest France St-Émilion: Best for wine' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.