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Château Simard 1996

Château Simard 1996

Have you ever wondered why St Emilion – the town, not the wine – is called that? I confess I hadn’t, at least up until yesterday, when at one moment the question suddenly popped into my head. I can’t be sure exactly why it came to mind so abruptly, although I suspect the fact I was holding this bottle of wine at the time may have played some part. Having said that, given my own interest in the history of the Bordeaux region and of course its wines, it is perhaps surprising that I haven’t asked myself this question before now.

It is widely accepted that the Romans were cultivating the vine here nearly two thousand years ago, at the time of Ausonius (whose life is well documented) and Figeacus (whose existence I find rather less certain, the evidence being rather thin). Cynical types looking for more tangible evidence of Roman settlement here should check out the tesserae mosaic excavated during the 1960s at Château La Gaffelière. I had imagined that the town of St Emilion therefore had Roman origins, but it seems this isn’t the case. During the Gallo-Roman era this was semi-forested countryside, dotted with villas and vines; these Roman settlers introduced the vine, but they certainly weren’t building a town here.

The seeds for the town of St Emilion were not sown until the 8th century, when a hermit settled in the woods. Named Emilion (sometimes this is written Emilian, or Aemilio), this monk seems to have lived an extraordinary life which I suspect is an interweaving of fact and fiction. We know that he came from Vannes, a coastal town in Brittany, and he subsequently joined a Benedictine monastery in Saujon, which lies on the right bank of the Gironde, near the mouth of the estuary (a long way downriver from anything of viticultural interest). It seems that Emilion was something of a Gaulish Robin Hood; he worked as a baker in the court of a rich nobleman, and he took to smuggling loaves out in order to feed the poor. It may have been (if you believe any of this) that his being caught red-handed was what prompted him to head east, and ‘settle’ (or should that be ‘hide’?) in a cave, in the forest in Les Combes, to the northeast of Bordeaux.

Château Simard 1996

It is said that Emilion carved out his cave himself, and being a competent miracle-maker (he obviously didn’t understand the concept of ‘lying low’) he soon developed a bit of a reputation. His acts attracted disciples, and before long his cave was surrounded by a pious monastic settlement. He eventually died in 767, and after his death the monks who had followed him here commemorated his life by carving out the monolithic church around which the town of St Emilion grew up. This church still dominates the town today, and it remains the largest monolithic church in Europe.

By the 12th century, St Emilion – as it was now named – was the second largest town in the region after Bordeaux. With its monastic origins the town seemed to act as a magnet to various 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. There are also any number of châteaux located around the town that also have their origins in religious orders, including the Clos des Jacobins, Couvent des Jacobins, Château Franc Mayne and no doubt one or two others.

The Simard domaine (long since divided into Château Simard and Château Haut-Simard) has no such ecclesiastical foundation, the Simard family having been wealthy bourgeoisie living in the town since at least the 17th century, as described in my recently published profile. Sadly I didn’t have a bottle of Clos des Jacobins or similar to hand in order to keep the ecumenical theme going. The 1996 Château Simard now displays an obviously mature hue, with a bricking mahogany rim, quite broad and pale at the edge. The nose even at this age still shows a light edge of green, which comes on top of some lightly stewed, macerated berry fruits, as well as some notes of sweet dried fruits, all figs and prunes, with a smoky, dusty edge. There follows a fresh, cool, acid-framed palate, within which there sits at best a moderate texture, with a lightly oily edge to the substance of the wine into the finish. This feels lean and mature, with a slightly hard-edged and firm finish. It shows a little length, with a twist of caramelised fruit. Overall, this feels like a rather tired effort, from a vintage which clearly favoured the left bank rather more than it did the right. 14.5/20 (13/6/16)

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