The Saint-Estèphe wine area is renowned for red wine in the Bordeaux region, located in the Médoc sub-region. It takes its name from the commune of Saint-Estèphe and is the northern most of the six wine appellations in Médoc. Saint-Estèphe wine area has held an AOC recognition since November 1936.
Records show that vines have been cultivated in and around Saint-Estèphe since Roman times. In the middle ages the wine industry expanded, thanks to English wine buyers regularly visiting the port of Bordeaux. The draining of marshlands, began in the 17th century, resulting in larger areas of land available for cultivation. The areas soil contains a mixture of gravels, clay and sand, though St. Estèphe contains a slightly higher proportion of clay.
Due to the large deposits of clay, the wines of St. Estèphe often produce great wine in hot, dry years. The varietals recommended for this appellation include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Carménère, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The AOC regulations do not instruct the exact proportions to be combined, but in practice most blends consist predominantly of Cabernet Sauvignon. While some Châteaux have recently increased the planting and therefore proportion of Merlot - in order to make their young wines earlier drinking and softer on the mid-palate - though most still use 60% or more Cabernet Sauvignon in their blends. The key producers include: Château Cos d'Estournel, Château Montrose, Château Calon-Ségur, Château Lafon-Rochet, Château Cos Labory, Château Haut-Marbuzet, Château Meyney, Château de Pez, Château Phélan-Ségur.
The density of planting required is at least 7,000 vines per hectare. The rows should be positioned no more than 1.5 metres apart and the distance between any two vines within a row should not be less than 0.8 metres. All of these and canopy manage regulations are designed to ensure the growth of sufficient foliage for the grapes to fully ripen.
The method of harvesting is not stipulated in AOC regulations, with many estates now using machine harvesting, although some prestigious estates, still harvest by hand. This practice is preferred as it is possible to sort at the same time as harvesting, not to mention the further round of sorting that takes place when the harvest is loaded onto a sorting table in the winery. The minimum alcohol content is set at 11% by volume. When it is decided that a wine needs enriching, the alcohol level should not exceed 13.5% by volume. When the harvest is of such exceptional quality that it does not need enriching, there is no upper limit to the naturally occurring alcohol allowed.
The Saint-Estèphe vineyards have 1,377 hectares under vine and is the largest of the major, Bordeaux appellations in the Medoc. There are roughly 136 grape growers, of those, there are about 56 different Châteaux and roughly 80 growers provide their fruit to a négociant or co-operative. On average, 585,000 cases of wine are produced annually, representing approximately 7 million bottles per year.
Due to its large size, it is easy to find a diverse array of wines from growers within the St. Estèphe region. For example: Cos d’Estournel can produce the ripest, most exotic style of wine in the appellation. Then the wines from Château Montrose, are more structured, powerful and perhaps longer lived. In vintages where the grapes are capable of ripening, the wines from these two Châteaux, as well as at the other top estates are never harsh. When mature, the wines of Saint-Estèphe deliver rich, concentrated wines with; cassis, fresh blackberry, tobacco, cigar box, mineral and dried spice notes.