The Jurisdiction of Saint-Émilion

A short history and description by Tim Hartley, Chancellor in Great Britain of the Jurade de Saint-Émilion

Saint-Emilion is a beautiful miniature mediaeval city, surrounded by lovely landscape and beautiful chateaux, the first wine growing area to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. saint emilion view
saint emilion view
saint emilion view by Night
saint emilion wineries view

The vines which produce its great wines have roots which go deeply through the shallow soil

saint emilion soil

and into the rock beneath, often penetrating

saint emilion view wineries

into the miles of limestone gallery from which the stone of the City have been quarried.

saint emilion quarries

The roots of the Jurisdiction and Jurade of Saint-Émilion lie equally deep in both French and English history – as its Arms, Great Seal and banners, which bear both the Lilies of France and the Lions of England, show.  Saint-Émilion, together with the rest of Aquitaine, formed part of the dowry of Eleanor of Aquitaine on her marriage to King Henry II.  The written history of the Jurade goes back to 1199, when their son, King John, in the Charter of Falaise confirmed privileges apparently given in a, now lost, earlier grant by Richard, Coeur de Lion.  For the next six hundred years, the City was ruled by the Jurade, composed of the Jurats, or magistrates, and one hundred “pairs” or peers.

By that time Saint-Émilion was already an old settlement.  Traces of human settlement go back to the Upper Palaeolithic period. There was heavy population before the Romans came with a defended Gaul hill fort on the plateau overlooking Saint-Emilion. The Roman occupation began when Augustus created the province of Aquitania in 27 BC.  Burdigala, modern Bordeaux, prospered. If swords were not beaten into ploughshares, they were at least laid aside whilst Valerius Probus had his legions fell the Cumbris forest in AD 275 BC so as to create the first vineyards. New varieties of grape were grafted on the Vitis biturica that grew naturally in the region.   It was here that the Latin poet Ausonius retired when he withdrew from public affairs in the 4th century – it is said he lived where Chateau Ausone now stands.

With Christianity came monasteries, and, in the mid 8th century so did a Breton monk, Emilian, who had left a northern Benedictine community.   and led a hermit’s life in a cave, which is next door to the Eglise Monolithe and can be visited.  Legend has it that those who wish for children should sit on the monk’s stone bench. Reports of miracles attracted many companions, who lived according to the rule of St Benedict.  It was they who began to build the great monolithic church, which was three hundred years in the building, or, more accurately, excavation, in the limestone of the City.
saint emilion cathedral tympanum
Then as now it was the largest such church in Europe. Above it now stands the steeple and belfry

saint emilion

which, together with the Tour du Roi

saint emilion tour du roy

dominate the City, as Church and Crown dominated it in the middle ages.  Since the region was on the Pilgrimage Route to Santiago de Compostella, from the 11th century onwards it experienced great prosperity and many monasteries, churches, and other religious buildings were founded, all built of the limestone quarried from the galleries beneath the City.  Those galleries now have a second life as cellars, the temperature and humidity being perfect for that purpose.

saint emilion wine barrels

From the late 12th century Saint-Émilion became effectively a free City under the Crown with the Jurade having control of its legal and economic affairs.   Not long before, in England and Wales,  King Richard and John’s father, Henry II, had set up the Assize system of the King’s Judges going out on Circuit to do justice.   Those who have seen the robes of an English High Court Judge trying criminal cases will note the close connection between them and the robe of the Jurats,

saint emilion jurade

who had judicial power in Saint-Emilion; a power which is the reason for it still being properly called the Jurisdiction of Saint-Émilion.  The Jurats’ duties included the control of production, and sale of, wine, closely monitoring its quality, branding approved casks and destroying any which were unworthy.  They regulated  vineyard practices, forbidding entry to the vineyards before the official opening of harvest; preventing the release of dogs into the vineyard before and during picking, no doubt for reasons of hygiene; punishing misconduct and fraud; branding approved barrels with their Great Seal

saint emilion jurade torch procession

but breaking and burning barrels of wine considered unworthy of the name of Saint-Émilion.

Under Edward I, in 1289, the area controlled by the Jurade was enlarged to cover some 19,400 acres of the Jurisdiction of Saint-Émilion and eight communes which, even today, over 700 years later, remain the wine growing area entitled to the appellations of Saint Émilion.  It is bounded on the north by the Barbanne, a tributary of the Isle, on the south by the Dordogne, on the west by the territory of Libourne, and on the east by that of Castillon-la-Bataille.  In return for the privileges it granted, the Crown required that regular, and very large consignments, of wine be tasted, judged, its good quality assured, and then be consigned to England in casks.  During the 12th and 13th centuries there were produced what were known as vins honorifiques (known in English as “Royal wines”) because they were presented as gifts to kings and other great men, which gives an indication of their quality.  After Saint-Émilion passed to the French Crown, in 1453, the Jurade’s rights and duties were confirmed by French Royal Charters but, in the French Revolution, Jurats lost both their heads and their privileges.

Vast quantities of wine were exported, much of it to the English Court and nobility.  The wine fleet went out from England in the autumn and again early spring in wine fleets of 800 or more vessels leaving Libourne (founded and named by Guy de Leyburn, a Yorkshireman, who, true to type, knew a good thing when he saw one).   English records show that in 1306/7, the equivalent of 120 million modern bottles, some 100,000 tonneaux, passed through Bordeaux for export, most of it to England and the rest of the Angevin empire.   So important was the trade that it gave the word still used to measure a ship’s size by volume – tonnage from tonneaux –  and led to the foundation of one of the City of London’s great Livery Companies – the Company and Mystery of Vintners.  The fleet leaving England carried exports of cheese, cloth and dried fish, but often went out in ballast, taking stone which was not wasted for it still paves the streets of Saint-Emilion.

saint emilion street
saint emilion by night

The Jurade, revived and grafted onto modern rootstock in 1948,  no longer has its extensive former civic and legal powers but its Grand Council still sits once a year, in Spring, to conduct a blind tasting of the wines of Saint-Émilion to assess their merits and pronounce a Jugement du Vin Nouveau.  In September, following a Solemn Mass marking the occasion, it authorises the start of picking, in a ceremonial Ban des Vendanges from the top of the Tour du Roi, the Jurats wearing the scarlet and white robe of their mediaeval predecessors and calling upon those predecessors’ spirits to witness the continuation of over 800 years of tradition, passion, experience and skill.

saint emilion jurade on king's tower

The Jurade has two Chancelleries in Britain, based on York and London, as well as in Belgium and Switzerland, Malta and Hong Kong also each have a Chancellery, acting as embassies for the Jurade in their respective countries.  The Jurade also travels abroad celebrating its history, traditions and excellence.

In this picture

saint emilion jurade exits church

Jurats can be seen leaving York Minster after a Service of Ecumenical Friendship between the Minster and the Eglise Collègiale in Saint-Émilion.
Saint-Emilion’s modern control of quality began shortly after the revival of the Jurade in 1954, when four classes were established, later reduced to two Appellations – Saint-Emilion and Saint-Emilion Grand Cru – in 1984.  The latter has some wines classifies as Grand Cru Classé and Premier Grand Cru Classé.  Grand Cru status is not granted, as in most wine areas, to all wines from a particular piece of land but to the individual wines of a particular property in each year.   The higher classifications are reviewed every ten years and in order to be promoted to or remain in one of those classifications the wines must meet a number of rigorous criteria.

Not only is Saint-Emilion’s classification system unique but the Jurisdiction has also been noteworthy for other innovations, such as the establishment of the first wine syndicate in 1884 and the first cooperative production facilities in the Gironde in 1932.

Some 67·5% of the Jurisdiction is down to vines (all red), little else being grown, of Merlot, Cabernet Franc (known here also as bouchet) and Cabernet Sauvignon with a little Malbec (also known as Pressac or Côt) and, occasionally, Petit Verdot.  The Merlot predominates in most vineyards and prefers the cooler soils of the higher parts of the slopes and of the plateau itself.   The slopes or Côtes of the Jurisdiction, facing south, which are so obvious to any visitor, plunge steeply from the plateau

saint emilion wineyards

into the Dordogne valley and form concave valleys or combes, in one of which the city of Saint-Emilion itself is situated.

saint emilion

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