Every now and again, as people in the ‘Hospitality’ business, we get invitations to interesting events organised by the Office de Tourisme or one of the notable or more pro-active tourist venues. In this case we were invited (along with a lot of others over a two-day period) to visit the ‘Union de Producteurs de Saint-Emilion’. The UDP de Saint-Emilion is a large wine Co-Operative that produces a wide range of excellent, quality, wine from hand-picked Speciality Grand Crus to easy drinking AOC. This co-operative was founded, along with many others, in the 1930’s as a direct effort to counter the effects of the impending economic depression.
Nowadays this UDP provides a full range of wine making skills for whoever wants to make use of it within the Saint-Emilion area. In addition the scale of their operation means that they are able to offer their growers not only their expertise, knowledge and superb processing facilities but also marketing and sales assistance on a scale that individual producers could not afford. This of course (apart from us being consumers) is where we, with this invitation, come in.
We chose the second of the proposed days for our visit and took the scenic route down through rambling villages and open countryside into the mono-culture area of the greater Bordeaux vineyards. Despite the additional scenic element that a wrong turn gave us (we will not dwell on it here) we made it, door to door in well under an hour.
We were met in the UDP reception by the excited and fired-up marketing team. We were taken straight to the basement exhibition space where we had coffee and pain au chocolat. The marketing team made us welcome and while our colleagues gathered the team were able to give us a quick briefing and identify the 6 or 7 Anglophone people in the party. Slowly our companions for the morning assembled, drank coffee, dropped crumbs of pain au chocolat and properly curved croissant (certainly not Tesco value) and chatted while gazing at the exhibition of paintings.
With most of the 20+ of us assembled and fortified for the tour we set off into the shop for a very interesting talk on the geology and landscape of the Saint Emilion AOC. From a foundation group of six wine-growers there are now 150 producers within the UDP. They harvest about 36,000 hectolitres from 700 hectares in the prestigious Saint-Emilion and Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. The singularity of the varied geology is what makes this area what it is.
The tour started as we were led into the great hall of concrete vats on a walkway above the impressive wine presses. Beyond this hall was clinical and shining; stainless steel glinting in the light. Here the grapes arrived by trailer to start their conversion. Four conveyors for ‘other’ grapes and one for the specialised ‘hand-picked’ grapes that are sifted, sorted de-stalked and optically quality/size checked in a completely different way to the bulk of the grapes.
The scheduling of arrivals and the record-keeping involved in ensuring that the right grapes go to the right place (specific château grapes must take their pre-ordained processing route to maintain their integrity) for such a range of producers is mind-numbing. Because the UDP processes for so many and so varied a group of producers they must cater for everything from Grand Cru and Château bottling to the standard AOC. This I think is one of the great benefits of a visit to the UDP; while it is not a famous single Château with a single process to demonstrate it is far more than this and can show a range of different processes under one roof.
We were shown the fermenting chambers where the wild yeasts are killed off and specific yeasts administered before the juice is cooled in summer and warmed in winter to provide the perfect environment for that wonderful magic that turns juice to wine.
Enough of the boring details because you can go and find these out for yourself.
I will, however, dwell on one other aspect of the tour and that is my second favourite segment (the wine tasting at the end came first place), and that was the beautiful warehouse where the wines (the ‘better’ wines at least) are stored in rank after rank of golden oak barrels.
The oak comes from a single forest in the centre of France and four or five workshops provide the cooperage. There is an amazing glow that fills this dimly lit cathedral of a room.
I will gloss over the final part of our tour where theory met practice as we sampled three delightful wines all of great quality but each better than the previous. This we ‘washed’ down with an excellent buffet.
Throughout the visit our guide, Christine, gave a full commentary in French. After each stop she took the small group of Anglophone visitors to one side and gave us explanations of the technicalities in English. She was never hurried, no question went unanswered and the range of her knowledge was superb. There was though one question that I forgot to ask and that concerned the escape of alcohol from the barrels and the change in strength of the wine stored in those barrels over their four years of gentle slumber.
So, if you want to visit what does it cost? Not a lot – once you are in the area and staying with us a tour and sampling can be arranged for free every day of the year (well almost, exclude Christmas day and New Years day). The marketing people are passionate and incredibly knowledgeable and really want you to enjoy your visit. Go on, spoil yourself, stay at Bon Abri in Puymangou and spend a really pleasant morning with the UDP in Saint Emilion.
For more on Saint-Emilion itself have a look at this earlier post.