Troy Hightower

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St Emilion

From Perigord we drive west a couple of hours to the wine region and town of St Emilion, there to do some winery exploring, wine tasting, and luxurious living in the elegant Relais & Chateau—Hostellerie de Plaisance. We arrive at the lovely stone hotel, once a convent, and back our rental black mini into the only empty of three spots in front, next to a black McLaren P1 and a black Ferrari 812 – intimidating company! We’re shown to our terrace suite overlooking the hotel’s lower gardens and the golden stone town tumbling down the hillside. Plaisance is owned by the Perse family, which also owns nearby Premier Grand Cru Chateau Pavie—which dates to Roman times, and takes its name from ancient orchards of peaches “pavies” which stood on the location. The Perse family also own Chateau Monbousqet and Chateau Pavie-Decesse, and they are clearly committed to quality and luxury. We meet Madame Chantal Perse over the course of our stay, and she is both elegant and welcoming.

The first night we dine in the classy 2 Michelin star La Table de Plaisance, and enjoy a leisurely prix fixe meal that includes a vegetable tartare, duck foie gras, and rare medallions of chevreuil—deer. We almost always order wines by the glass, so we can sample more types, and taste several local offerings that were delicious, and pair well with the selection of cheeses from the trolley to end the meal.

St Emilion is crammed with wine shops selling the local vintages, from the Premier Grand Crus commanding $1,000 and up per bottle, down to lovely wines that still run in the $30-100 range. We remember a shop by location from a previous trip, which turns out to be named Etablissements-Martin, and is run by the affable Ben – short for Benoit. We wander in at around 10:30 am, and are immediately offered tastes of various wines, which is done in modern fashion using the portable Coravin wine dispensers. This is an ingenious device with an argon cartridge and an inserting hollow needle, which is pressed down into the cork, without removing it. Argon is injected, which preserves the wine, and forces tastes of wine out the pouring spout. Bottles treated this way can provide perfectly fresh and identical tastes over months.

Over a couple of hours we taste more than a dozen red St Emilions, and a few white wines, and settle on four cases of wine which will be shipped to us in California (though, as it turns out, not without some customs paperwork hassles). Bottles of Couvent des Jacobins, Milens, Bellefont Belcier, Roc de Cambes and others eventually make their way to our cellar on Sonoma Mountain.

The Hostellerie has arranged a tour of Chateau Figeac the next day, a wine that has long been a favorite of mine, and we toodle round the back roads past some other world class wineries such as Chateau Ausone and Chateau Angelus (which has an external carillon of bells that chime at noon as we pass by) to reach Figeac. The Chateau itself is a classical three-story buff limestone edifice with slate roof set among almost 100 acres of vines. There is a mobile crush station set up just outside, and bins of grapes are coming in by tractor, dumped onto a conveyor where a half dozen people sort them, after which they go into a high-tech optical sorter which uses lasers and air jets to eliminate further undesirable berries, before the stream finally elevates up another conveyor into the crusher.

We’re given the usual history and background, tour through the vineyard and barrel aging cellars, and then are deemed worthy to taste the 2012 vintage, as well as a second wine, La Grange Neuve de Figeac, made with grapes from younger vines. Both quite delicious, but at upwards of $150 a bottle for the Figeac, it didn’t make it into our case selection to be shipped home.

That night we make our way down the steep cobbled Escalette de la Grande Fontal and take a table at the Pizzeria du Vieux Lavoir and dine splendidly on a caprese salad and a crispy wood-fired pizza accompanied by a half-bottle of Clos des Jacobins. An eau-de-vie on in the coolish air on our terrace overlooking the lit stone town readies us for our next day’s departure for the coast and Bordeaux.

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