Sunday, 6 April 2008

Saint-Émilion in the Sun

Friday there was real warmth in the sun, so we took down the hood of the batmobile and headed through the vineyards of the Gironde to Saint-Émilion.

On our fertile alluvial plain, we are used to a whole variety of crops: maize, rape, tobacco, salads, sunflowers. But the Gironde is nothing but row upon row of vines to each horizon. At this time of the year the vines are still bare, the stubby main stems cut back to one or two new tendrils curved out and fastened to supporting wires. Occasionally we'd see a solitary battered old car parked among the vines and a solitary worker, bent double or down on hands and knees. If they look up, all they can see is a landscape of more vines that need work.

Suddenly it comes home to us - the sheer scale of the French wine industry and its foundation on the work of generations of individual men and women, tending one vine at a time.

Saint-Émilion scrambles up a hillside and is a maze of narrow cobbled streets filled with restaurants and wine shops. In the warmth of the sun we lunched outside, in the square below the great mediaeval monolithic church carved out of the limestone.

Tod is still recovering from the shock of seeing premier grand crus in every shop window and wines up to €2,450* for a bottle of Château Le Pin on our otherwise very mundane menu. (* That's £1,932 or US$3,853 at today's less than exciting exchange rates.)

Listening to the American voices around us, we window-shopped for wine but didn't buy (we didn't need to; this is here for us any time). Instead we took a tour of the catacombs and the church. Our English speaking guide told us that in summer she has groups of 50 or more throughout the day. On Friday there were just four of us wandering in the cool gloom and marvelling at the faded paintings, the empty burial niches and the towering nave, with its huge columns carved from the rock, now locked in great metal bracelets to hold the weight of the enormous bell tower that is pressing down from above.

Saint-Emilion tourist office
An American site describing viniculture

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