A beautiful photo of the stately Château Cos d'Estournel. Photo by Thomas Pusch. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.
Saint-Estèphe, usually abbreviated as St-Estèphe or St-Estephe in some countries, is the northernmost and largest of the four major wine-producing villages of the Médoc. At 9.09 square miles, it is slightly larger than neighboring Pauillac. Its population of 1,800 is also the highest of the four villages.
Although less popular and expensive than Pauillac, which is slightly to the south, St-Estèphe has nearly as good a pedigree in fine winemaking. The wines from St-Estèphe, although they can vary greatly, are typically very full-bodied, sometimes even more so than Pauillac. Long aging is often necessary to bring out the more gentle flavors of the Cabernet grape.
A label of Château Montrose.
This photo is in the public domain.
Nothing in St-Estèphe's early history gives it a major difference from the other three villages of the Haut-Médoc, or indeed of the Médoc in general. A few historical details, however, are worth noting. Since the village is further north, wine there was less obscure in the Middle Ages than in the other appellations. Indeed, there are records of some early wine production, a period of obscurity, and then a rejuvenation in popularity before the 1700s general draining of the Médoc marshes. Apparently small areas were open to vinification in St-Estèphe even before the draining.
Of course, when the Médoc was generally developed, St-Estèphe was soon noted as one of a handful of truly great winemaking villages in the world. St-Estèphe was one of the original AOCs in 1936, like the other 3 Médoc villages. Its desirability, derived from demand by both collectors and wealthy folk alike, shows no signs of slowing down. The buyer should be forewarned, however, that years of cellaring are more often than not a prerequisite to getting your money's worth from the wine.
Climate and Viticulture
St-Estèphe's gravel banks are much closer to the surface and much more prevalent than the ones in Margaux and St-Julien. In fact, they rival Pauillac for their concentration, depth, and their location nearly everywhere in the appellation. As a result, the wines are deep, rich, and almost black in color at first. Only after years of aging do they open up and show their true potential. There are, however, certain examples of more modern producers that create more approachable wines.
Although it is slightly further north than the other appellations, there are no significant differences between St-Estèphe's climate and those of the other villages. St-Estèphe's one drawback may be its size, but vineyards there are nonetheless consistently well-maintained and promising.
Petit Verdot is very obscure in St-Estèphe; although it is planted at some châteaux, it does not usually make it into the final blend. Malbec and Carménère are also rare, so only three grapes are truly prominent in St-Estèphe.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: As in the other villages, Cabernet Sauvignon in St-Estèphe makes up most of the plantings and even more of the actual winemaking percentages. Most châteaux use at least 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; the grape can be outstanding here due to the prominent gravel banks. While it usually must be softened to make a perfect Bordeaux blend, it does give the final wine the great majority of its character and structure. Sometimes this grape can take on a minerally characteristic in this village, which is often accompanied by huge tannins and powerful, dense flavors.
- Merlot: Merlot is just as important in St-Estèphe as it is in the other three villages; the Cabernet Sauvignon must be at least somewhat softened and lightened. The châteaux vary greatly in the amount of Merlot used, however; Cos d'Estournel usage can approach half the wine, while Montrose has very few Merlot plantings.
- Cabernet Franc: Cabernet Franc is more obscure here, as many estates simply choose to blend only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Montrose's vineyards, however, have plantings of about 10% Cabernet Franc.
There are no first growths from St-Estèphe, although both their second growths have been compared to 1ers crus in quality. For those wine buyers less obsessed with rankings, a number of excellent nonclassified wines exist; they are listed after the classed growths.
Two of the 14 2ers crus hail from St-Estèphe, both of them typifying the St-Estèphe model of high tannin levels with a mineral note.
- Château Cos d'Estournel: While arguably the best wine in St-Estèphe, Cos d'Estournel is definitely the most famous. The château has changed hands repeatedly during its history, yet has always maintained a pedigree of long-aging, high-powered, reliably good wine. Although the vineyards are planted with about 40% Merlot, Cos d'Estournel's wine is a study in intensity. Although the bouquet of minerals and perfume (flavors as diverse as pain grille and Asian spices have been cited) is rich, the sheer power of the wine can be intimidating to inexperienced tasters. As a result, it has possibly the best aging potential of any wine produced in the Médoc, easily lasting 35 or 40 years in the best vintages. Prices are relatively reasonable, ranging down to $120 in less acclaimed vintages.
- Château Montrose: Montrose rivals Cos d'Estournel for the title of the best wine of its appellation. It has had a long history and has some of the best land in St-Estèphe, planted with about 65% Cabernet, 25% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Franc. The wines are equally intense, if not nearly as powerful, as Estournel's; in addition, they showcase the usual Médoc flavors with an additional layer of mineral aroma. Again, this is a 30+ year wine. Montrose is significantly less expensive than Cos d'Estournel, with only the 2005 exceeding $150 in recent vintages.
A Calon-Ségur from the legendary
1961 vintage. Photo by BerndB
on Wikipedia. License: Creative
Commons SA 3.0 Unported.
There is one 3er cru from the appellation.
- Château Calon-Ségur: Close to a 2er cru in both quality and pedigree, Calon-Ségur is one of St-Estèphe's leading estates. About 40% Merlot is planted and used, and just like Cos d'Estournel, the wine is nevertheless quite powerful. Since it is not as powerful or concentrated as the 2er cru St-Estèphes, Calon-Ségur is much more approachable at a young age. Nevertheless, good vintages can last 25 years or more. Though critics like it, the wine's most influential reviewer is actor Johnny Depp. Depp has been quoted as saying "it's a marvelous wine that you can drink every day, and it's also very affordable." Compared to the top houses of appellations such as Pauillac, Calon-Ségur's price range of $60-$150 per bottle is indeed quite reasonable.
There is also one 4er cru in St-Estèphe.
- Château Lafon-Rochet: While not nearly as full-bodied as the other crus in St-Estèphe, Lafon-Rochet's wine can be equally powerful. It requires long aging to show its true potential, but is very earthy and minerally from the beginning. Reviews are generally quite favorable. Prices are always under $100, and can be as low as $50.
The more modern 5er cru is the only one in St-Estèphe.
- Château Cos Labory: This estate has lately been making wines that defy the typical flavors and structure of the appellation. The tannins are less intimidating and the body less full than competing châteaux. Not everyone is a fan of this style, but nonetheless the château has an excellent pedigree. Prices are under $50.
A few of the nonclassified châteaux are worthy of brief mention.
- Château Haut-Marbuzet: Another more modern St-Estèphe, this one even meant for immediate drinking. While they don't offer the typically cited flavors of St-Estèphe, the wines made here may indicate a trend towards a new style. In this wine, elegance comes at a reasonable price of less than $50.
- Château Meyney: One of the most extraordinary bargains of St-Estèphe, this wine can cost less than $30. Although full-bodied, the wine showcases numerous flavors that are more approachable than those of some of the intimidating top châteaux such as Cos d'Estournel.
- Château de Pez: Not to be confused with les-Ormes-de-Pez (also an affordable St-Estèphe), this château makes fruit-forward wine that nonetheless has high tannins and is full-bodied. Long aging is not necessary. Prices are below $50.
- Château Phélan-Ségur: This wine is often an excellent value, although it rarely provides outstanding bargains. Much more approachable than the classified growths, it provides a modern style of St-Estèphe, but nonetheless can be aged for a decade or more.
Although Phélan Ségur is usually known to be
a good value, the 1961 vintage is doubtless no
longer a bargain!
This photo is in the public domain.
St-Estèphe has no subregions that are even historically significant.
Another great shot of the Château Cos d'Estournel. Photo by Thomas Pusch. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.