On Saturday night, a torch-lit procession of chateau owners in bright red toques and flowing robes will parade through Bordeaux’s famous medieval village of Saint-Emilion. Naturally, wine will flow as fireworks explode.
The next day, this vinous group—the Jurade—will proclaim the beginning of the harvest from the top of the stone Tour du Roy. They’ll wave their hats and release clusters of purple-black balloons that look like huge bunches of flying grapes as the wind carries them away.
For wine pageantry, the annual weekend event can’t be beat. And during this year’s harvest, local chateaux are making the birth of a vintage more accessible than ever to outsiders.
For the first time, Chateau Troplong Mondot is inviting visitors to share the traditional daily harvest lunch with the owners and winemakers for 100 euros (about $140) a head. Until Oct. 16, you can savor vintages of its powerful, opulent, expensive reds alongside homemade country pate, pot-au-feu, local cheeses and fresh-fruit tart in the grand dining room.
It’s a celebration, too. The French government confirmed the chateau’s promotion to premier grand cru classe status when it signed off on the region’s latest classification in June.
In mid-May, grand cru classe Chateau Soutard, a 10-minute walk from the town’s central Place du Clocher, started giving wine lovers free access to its 22-hectare vineyard.
At the new L’Orangerie terrace, I relax with a glass of spicy 2010 Rose de Chateau Soutard (3.50 euros) while perusing an illustrated map highlighting three self-guided treks (there’s even one for kids).
The “Poetic Trip” takes me past a grand view of the town, 60-year-old vines, and a fascinating reconstruction of the way Romans once grew grapes here. At harvest, the vineyard is filled with pickers; the air thick with the scent of fermenting grapes.
Among the chateau’s half dozen other new activities is the chance, for 90 euros, to play hands-on winemaker and work with the cellarmaster and vineyard manager for half a day, learning how Soutard’s intense, deep vines are created.
Surrounded by ancient, cream-colored, stone ramparts, Saint-Emilion is a tiny museum of a city, with a maze of winding cobbled streets, many dangerously steep for walkers not wearing rubber-soled shoes. These are essential for climbing the 196 steps to the impressive panoramic vineyard view from the bell tower of the cavernous monolithic church, carved out of the rock. Underneath the town and vineyards are 70 hectares of limestone caves.
A five-minute stroll brings me to Chateau Villemaurine’s new cave tour (12 euros), a one-hour kitschy but entertaining sound-and-light show. Photo montages projected against cave walls along with vivid narration convey Saint-Emilion’s history of the lone monk who founded the town, and the quarrymen who created the caves.
On the other side of town, Chateau Canon’s caves are damper, creepier, more authentic-looking and 13 degrees celsius. Tunnels split off, and it would be easy to get lost if there were no guide. We’re walking under the vines, whose roots are kept cool by this natural air-conditioning, even when temperatures soar.
Before dinner, I wander along the Rue du Clocher, ducking into its jewel-box wine shops for tastes from uncorked bottles. Just-opened Maison Paul Cousin specializes in Saint-Emilion’s hard-to-find, reasonably priced second wines. Under the pergola outside Comptoir des Vignobles, a sandwich board advertises bottles of Petrus from neighboring Pomerol, going back to 1952 (3,400 euros) and 1961 (10,000 euros). Inside, a Thai collector shows me his long wish list.
No visit is complete without a stop at Nadia Fermigier’s storefront on Rue Gaudet for the town’s best macarons. Soft, yet chewy and crunchy, these traditional cookies are made according to the recipe of 17th-century nuns, eventually passed on in 2008 to Fermigier.
A few years ago, her predecessor Madame Blanchez showed me how she selected, roasted and ground almonds by hand in the shop’s bakery. This deliciously rustic macaron bears no resemblance to the gussied-up, pastel-colored version from Paris’s Laduree, which makes its debut in New York this month.
Food? My dining rule is to follow the locals, meaning winemakers. Which is why I regularly end up at wine bar and restaurant L’Envers du Decor.
To feel like a real chateleine, I like to stay at Chateau Franc Mayne, an elegant 18th-century wine estate a kilometer from the town center that’s now a luxury bed-and-breakfast.
Some of the nine, themed rooms ($300 and up) seem weirdly out of character, like the “African Lodge,” with its giant elephant and zebra portraits. But the soothing beige tones, classic white stone fireplace and antique gold mirror give the “Campagne Francaise” room an authentic chateau feel, especially at harvest time, when you can watch from your window pickers bringing in the grapes.
Just how good a vintage 2011 will be depends on this month’s weather. Hailstorms hit Bordeaux’s Left Bank in early September prompting early picking last week at Cos d’Estournel and Lafite-Rothschild.
Let’s hope Saint-Emilion’s harvest festivities don’t suffer.