Heavenly Merlots in Saint-Emilion

The picturesque medieval town of Saint-Emilion, renowned for its red wines made from merlot grapes blended with cabernet franc and sometimes cabernet sauvignon, is located about 45 minutes east of Bordeaux. There are more than 1,500 chateaux and wine estates in the six appelations surrounding the town. To visit most wine estates, it is necessary to call ahead for appointments (the tourist office in Bordeaux can provide a list of estates), often as much as a week in advance.

An easier way to taste a variety of Saint-Emilion wines for free is to visit Maison Christoval, a wine distributor located just a few miles west of Saint-Emilion on Route 670, the main road from Bordeaux to Saint-Emilion. Maison Christoval offers free tastings of a wide variety of wines from the six estates it represents. A word of advice: if you plan to stop at Maison Christoval in the morning, have breakfast first, unless you want to taste 30 wines on an empty stomach. Wines of several vintages from the following estates, representing most of the six Saint-Emilion appelations, were available to taste:

Our visit to Maison Christoval was made especially enjoyable by the assistance of Christrof, one of the proprietors. Christrof also suggested that we visit the wine shop in Saint-Emilion owned by him and his partner Val (see below). Maison Christoval is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

MAISON CHRISTOVAL, Cercle des Oenophiles, Route 670, Libourne-Bergerac, Phone: (557) 247958, Fax: (557) 247959

The town of Saint-Emilion is dominated by the spire above the Monolithic Church, which dates back to the founding of the town in the 8th century. The spire, which was added in the 15th century, is sinking and leaning, so just like at the leaning tower of Pisa there is remedial work being done, including the addition of cement pillars and metal braces. With its steep cobblestoned streets and massive stone fortifications, a walk through town can easily transport you back to medieval times. Once inside the town walls, it is impossible to walk far without coming across a wine shop or a bakery featuring Saint-Emilion's other famous product, sweet almond cookies known as veritables macarons.

On a side street not far from the Monolithic Church, we found the wine shop Chez Mil & Zim and were greeted by Christrof's friendly partner, Val. She brought us down to the shop's cellars and offered tastings of several Saint-Emilion wines. One of the most interesting was a Passavant '96, like a good port wine with a hint of black cherry.

CHEZ MIL & ZIM, 5 Rue de la Cadene, Saint-Emilion, Phone: (607) 198976

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