Finding a mattress in Saint-Emilion, France, would not be easy. The world's largest wine convention was about to descend on the city of Bordeaux and vacant rooms in the legendary wine-growing village about 25 miles to the northeast seemed almost as rare as Cheval Blanc '47.
Then I got lucky with a telephone lead. One bed-and-breakfast owner -- who had no vacancy herself for my upcoming soak-up-the-wine-food-and-ambiance getaway, said she had a neighbor who might have a free room just outside the Saint-Emilion vineyards.
"Are you very big, monsieur?" Madame asked politely in French.
"Pardon?" I asked.
She explained that her neighbor was "perfectly charming," but there was one slight problem: The beds at his place were . . . on the small side.
"Well," she concluded after I explained in metric terms that I was more than 5 feet 10, "you could always sleep on a diagonal . . . " I called and booked.
It was only a week later, as I drove toward my room at Chateau de Lescaneaut, that I began having second thoughts. What had I gotten myself into: a hobbit hotel? A closet under the stairs?
As it turned out, the place was everything I like in a country inn -- despite the tub-only hand showers, towels like sandpaper and plumbing that brayed like an overwrought donkey. Chateau de Lescaneaut is a 300-year-old farmhouse surrounded by vineyards, with a country bourgeois decor that's remained unchanged for generations. There were wood floors, poster beds (my feet barely hung over the end), a stately dining room where generous breakfasts were served in the company of large ancestral oil portraits, and a witty, world-weary proprietor named Francois Faytout Garamond.
"That's just where I like my family -- on the walls," Garamond quipped in French about the portraits during my introductory tour.
As I headed out to Saint-Emilion that first evening, Francois warned me about Saint-Emilion and how it had changed.
"It's Marrakech!" he hyperbolized with a mischievous grin. Then he bade me good evening and warned me about the locals: "Be careful on the road, people around here like to drink a lot."
I drove the narrow winding roads pointing up to the medieval village. In a small country hamlet, I had to slow down for what would become a familiar sight throughout the area that week -- an elderly, half-dressed man standing in the road, staring mystified at the occasional car that passed him by.
Saint-Emilion, at first glance, is one of those ancient villages that are almost too perfect, with postcard panoramas and picturesque plazas, pedestrian-only stone streets and the strangely disconcerting absence of anything that might be considered bad taste.
The village is set into a hillside -- a natural amphitheater topped by a plateau with vineyards that run to the edge of the horizon. A bell tower and an old dungeon tower look over red-tile rooftops and intimate courtyards. The plaza below is dominated by a limestone cliff, which contains a church and catacombs carved out of the rock by monks, the first of whom followed a real Emilion from Brittany in the 8th century.
I arrived after the sun dropped behind the cliff and the upper village. I parked the car on the outskirts and entered on foot. From Francois's comments, I'd expected the usual tacky tourist shops selling T-shirts and trinkets, with the addition of Emilion religious statues. There were none. Instead, I found a different kind of tourist bazaar in the expensive wine shops -- which seem at times to outnumber local residents -- promising "worldwide shipping" in English and Japanese.
As the shops closed for the night, restaurant tables that spread over the plazas filled with smartly dressed couples and families who shared regional specialties -- slurping oysters and white wine and cutting into steak Bordelaise, braised and cooked in red wine. Decanters were being filled with deep purple vintages. As if on cue for a Disney screen test, groups of twittering swallows raced in circles between the buildings.
Ultimate Wine Country
There are vineyards and there are vineyards.
Some have history, culture, architecture; others have charm or natural beauty; and some just have that magical combination of climate and soils that tend to produce some of the world's greatest wines. Saint-Emilion is one of the few that have it all.
Which explains why the vineyards spreading over Saint-Emilion and seven neighboring villages became the first winegrowing area on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites six years ago. It is to wine lovers what Walden Pond is to lovers of nature poetry, or what Paris's Seine is to lovers.
I spent five days here -- about 41/2 days longer than most of the million people a year who come from the world over to have a look around, buy a few bottles and leave. That is too bad, because Saint-Emilion is a place that merits scratching below the surface. Literally.
Beneath its outer crust, Saint-Emilion is a giant Gruyere of catacombs and caves hand-dug over centuries to excavate the large white limestone blocks used for construction throughout the Bordeaux region. The result is a spectacular subterranean system that stretches from village historical sites (the church, catacombs and the cave dwelling believed to be that of the real Emilion) through wine cellars and under acres upon acres of vineyards.
During my stay, I visited about a dozen wine chateaux -- about two or three a day -- selected from among the most prestigious that are open to the public (the mythic Cheval Blanc is not) as well as lesser-knowns I'd heard about in town.
Saint-Emilion has some 800 wine growers, and "chateau" can be a deceptive term, referring to anything from a historic country manor complete with chapel and wine cellars sunk in rock tunnels, to a prefab house with vines just behind the kids' swing set.
The vineyards are accessible by car and an elaborate system of bike and hiking trails. I used a list provided by the regional tourist office to call ahead for an appointment -- important because most wine producers don't have full-time tour guides.
Saint-Emilion wines aren't cheap -- anywhere from $17 to $300 for a recent vintage -- so knowing a bit about them is important.
All Saint-Emilion wines are made from hand-harvested merlot and cabernet varietals and are classified in a very French manner by a series of regulations and evaluations over time.
Basic wines are simply labeled Saint-Emilion or Saint-Emilion grand cru. The wines that meet the highest standards over time are classified as Saint-Emilion grand cru classe (pronounced "class-ay") or the ultimate -- Saint-Emilion premier grand cru classe. The most expensive, prestigious and complex wines are almost always from chateaux on the high ground around Saint-Emilion village. The more pedestrian are grown on the valley floor toward the Dordogne River.
In the 1990s, Saint-Emilion became a center for "garage wines" -- super-concentrated powerful wines produced in tiny amounts by garagistes, who challenged the status quo by seizing the wine world's attention with wines from less than noble plots. But "garage" can also be misleading and has managed to become synonymous with "ridiculously expensive." At L'Essentiel, a mod-chic Saint-Emilion wine and cheese bar where bottles are displayed like Gucci shoes, one glass of the garage wine Valandraud is priced at more than $40 a glass -- seven times more than a glass of good champagne.
A Taste of Old Europe
"We don't make jam here, we make wine," explained Beatrice Amadieu, the young woman who gives private tours in English and French at Chateau Canon.
By using the pejorative "jam," with an edgeless smile, Amadieu was, I assumed, saying in a nice old-Europe way that Canon is a traditional Saint-Emilion estate and not some newcomer or garagiste trying to appeal to trendy tastes typified by a certain large beer- and Coke-guzzling country on the other side of the Atlantic.
Walking the grounds of Canon that morning -- a premier grand cru classe property next to a little church with a 1,000-year-old cemetery and views of the Saint-Emilion clock tower -- it was hard not to get sucked in by the Old World ease of the place.
The gates leading up to the 18th-century country estate remained wide open on a private dirt road. There were no tour buses, no signs and no boutique selling ball caps or even wine.
As Amadieu guided me through the cellars below the chateau -- there are about 40 acres of excavated caves under the vines -- she explained that the billionaire Wertheimer family, owners of Chanel, purchased the chateau in 1996, primarily for the wine cellar containing vintages as old as 1868.
"Just how many bottles are there?" I asked, peering through a set of iron gates at row upon row of dusty bottles illuminated by a faint lamp.
"Nobody knows," she answered. "Maybe 35,000. They've never been totaled. What would be the point?"
Indeed, Chateau Trump this was not.
The following morning I visited Chateau Figeac, another classic Saint-Emilion estate, housed in a three-story 18th-century bourgeois home with just enough outward wear and peeling paint to give it real character.
At the end of an hour-long tour with a chateau secretary who used the "jam" word again, I met chateau manager Count Eric d'Aramon in Figeac's tasting room -- a hall with an immense fireplace, massive timbered ceilings, Oriental carpets and tapestries. D'Aramon, who married into the family that has owned this estate since the late 19th century, opened a half-bottle of 1990 Figeac.
Whereas most chateaux open only young and often rudely astringent vintages for visitors, Figeac is known among Saint-Emilion's prestige estates for offering older riper vintages for all its visitors.
We sat in plush red velour chairs swirling the velvety wine in the glass and sticking our noses inside to inhale the earthy aromas of underbrush.
A compact, energetic man in his early fifties, d'Aramon explained in English that Figeac has always welcomed visitors and has always served older vintages -- "to give people the possibility of tasting wines as they were meant to be drunk."
"To offer a young Saint-Emilion," d'Aramon said with a smile, "would be like someone giving you a bicycle and telling you in a few years you will get the seat."
From the outside, Chateau Soutard is another slightly faded 18th-century manor on the plateau north of Saint-Emilion that produces fine grand cru classe. But one step inside the small whitewashed room that begins the visit and it feels like an edgy art gallery.
On the wall to the right is tacked one plain white piece of paper with a French translation of a poem by Italian poet Claudio Parmiggiani titled "March 5, 1953."
March 5, 1953: Stalin's funeral : immense crowd.
March 5, 1953: Prokofiev's funeral: twenty persons.
On the wall facing the entrance is a narrow table with neatly arrayed objects: different-size jars containing soil, vine cuttings, grapes preserved in alcohol, a set of large springs and a basket containing a whistle, a wooden faucet, light bulbs and more.
The proprietor, Francois des Ligneris, is an iconoclast, environmentalist and as close as one gets to being a revolutionary in Saint-Emilion. At 50, the salt-and-pepper-bearded son of a count and countess has challenged the French appellation system and has helped found a group of winegrowers calling for a ban on herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. He's also shocked Saint-Emilion's establishment by buying land on the other side of the Dordogne to produce inexpensive table wines, such as his Vin des Promesses ("Wine of promises"), which bears the inscription, "Tomorrow I will stop drinking."
His restaurant/wine bar in Saint-Emilion, L'Envers du Decor ("the other side of the picture"), is a popular hangout among winemakers, wine lovers, locals and bobos (the made-in-U.S.A. term for "bourgeois Bohemian" that's caught on big in France).
As des Ligneris enters this room at the chateau, he wears the serene, playful expression of a yogi, which never seems to leave his face. For the next 45 minutes he launches into a performance piece in French, using the props to illustrate his noninterventionist winemaking philosophy, whereby each vintage is a product of that year's "earth and sky." In his vineyard, des Ligneris follows a natural, near-organic discipline, and in his winery he shuns the use of yeasts, filtration and fruit-extraction techniques. Bucking what has become modern conventional thinking in Bordeaux, he ages his wine with a minimum of new (and hence strong-flavored) wood casks.
At the end of his performance, des Ligneris picks up a strainer filled with more props and announces, "These things illustrate the wines I do not make."
He pulls out a small builder's level.
"I don't make perfect wines," he says. "I don't make uniform wines . . . "
Then out come more props to finish the point: a file, a folding ruler, a little pink dog collar.
In someone else's hands, the whole thing might be bombast or shtick, but des Ligneris's quiet charisma makes the whole thing work somehow. He cares deeply about the future of wine and Saint-Emilion. Funny, I left there caring, too.
St. Emilion Details, P9.
Robert V. Camuto last wrote for Travel on Italy's Puglia region.