Clos des Jacobins
Religion weaves its way through the history of wine. In some regions we can see this very clearly, with our own eyes; in Burgundy, for example, which is rich in ancient monasteries and of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders, or the riverside vineyards of Germany, where winemaking monks also left their mark. In Bordeaux, however, it sometimes feels as though this historical relationship has been lost, as if wine and religion went through a divorce sometime during the 18th or 19th century. There are no great winemaking monasteries to be found nestling among the great châteaux of the Médoc.
One exception to this observation is St Emilion. This famous wine town owes its existence to the hermit named Emilion, and the cave where he lived eventually grew to become the town’s famous monolithic church, the largest such structure in all Europe. With its monastic origins St Emilion – as the town became known – seemed to act as a magnet to all manner of religious groups, which accounts for the various churches and other religious buildings dotted around the town. These include the Collegiate church and cloisters, the Cordeliers cloisters, the remains of the Ursuline convent and of course the Dominican monastery situated near the top of the town, of which today only one very impressive wall remains (pictured below). It is a beautiful town simply dripping in history, much of it of a religious bent.
Unsurprisingly, the influence of these occasionally powerful religious orders was felt well beyond the boundaries of the town, out in the surrounding vineyards. There are any number of domaines located here that have similarly ecclesiastical origins. These include the related trio of Couvent des Jacobins, Château Franc Mayne and of course the subject of this profile, Clos des Jacobins. With a shared origin, their stories are very similar, and we begin many centuries ago, before any of these estates were created.
I suspect the slopes to the west of St Emilion have been trodden by viticulteurs, be they monks who came here to honour the hermit for whom the town is named or not, for many centuries. Sadly the exact origins of the vineyards of the Clos des Jacobins and its immediate neighbours seem to be lost to history, although there are any number of clues that viticulture has long been important here. Perhaps most evocative are the elongated trenches cut into the limestone bedrock, a common technique undertaken by Gallo-Roman viticulteurs. After hewing into the limestone they would plant a row of fruit trees in each trench, followed by vines which would then be trained up the trunk of the young sapling.
Such trenches are not rare in the region; others may be seen at Château Bellevue and Château Cadet-Piola, and there are others dotted around the limestone plateau behind Château Ausone. The existence of these trenches is not, however, cast-iron proof that vines were planted here during the time of the Roman Empire. This very traditional way of working was so engrained in the local mindset that it persisted for many hundreds of years, long after the fall of Rome and into the Medieval era. All the same, even if these trenches are not truly Roman, this is still evidence that there was viticulture here many centuries ago. And there is plenty of other circumstantial evidence for the planting of vines at this time, not least the historical association between these vineyards and several religious orders.