St-Émilion, 35km east of Bordeaux, and a short train trip, is an essential visit. The old grey houses of this fortified medieval town straggle down the steep south-hanging slope of a low hill, with the green froth of the summer’s vines crawling over its walls. Many of the growers still keep up the old tradition of planting roses at the ends of the rows, which in pre-pesticide days served as an early-warning system against infection, the idea being that the commonest bug, oidium, went for the roses first, giving three days’ notice of its intentions.
The best way to see St Émilion is on a guided tour. Tours begin at the grotte de l’Ermitage, where it’s said that St Émilion lived as a hermite in the eighth century, sleeping on a stone ledge. The tour continues in the half-ruined Trinity Chapel, which was converted into a cooperage (barrel-makers’) during the Revolution. Striking frescoes are still visible. Across the yard is a passage beneath the belfry leading to the catacombs, where three chambers dug out of the soft limestone were used as an ossuary between the eighth and eleventh centuries.
Below is the church itself. Simple and huge, the entire structure – barrel vaulting, great square piers and all – was hacked out of the rock. The interior was once painted, but only faint traces survived the Revolution, when it was used as a gunpowder factory. Every June the wine council – La Jurade – assembles here in red robes to judge last year’s wine and decide whether each viticulteur’s produce deserves the appellation contrôlée rating.