A rich history
When it comes to historic significance, Bordeaux is hard to beat. Wine has been made here since Roman times. It was even referenced by Shakespeare, who referred to it as “Claret.” But Bordeaux’s big moment came in 1855, when Napoleon III commanded that the vineyards be classified into five categories, or “Growths.” Today, First Growth Bordeaux remains some of the most expensive wines in the world.
Exploring the region
I recommend that you stay in the city of Bordeaux, which was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site for its beautiful 18th century architecture. A number of comfortable and affordable hotels are within walking distance of the tourist office (look for the blue sign with the letter “i”). There you can sign up for a bus tour that will bring you to the heart of the wine region.
Before your tour, it’s a good idea to take a class at the Bordeaux Wine School. Here, local wine professionals will cover the geography, climate, grape varieties, and sub-regions of the area. You’ll also become familiar with the taste of Bordeaux wines – but make sure to spit your sips into the stainless steel sink (that’s what it’s there for), or you’ll miss most of the lecture.
Another option is renting a car and driving into the wine regions. One of the best drives is along the D2, which meanders up the left bank of the Gironde River and leads you past some of the most famous wine chateaux in the world: Chateau Margaux, Chateau Léoville, Chateau Talbot, Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and Chateau Mouton Rothschild, among many others.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild
One of the most interesting tours in the Medoc area of Bordeaux is at Chateau Mouton Rothschild. This First Growth chateau produces everything from world-class bottles to their everyday line, Mouton Cadet. The visit begins with a brief film and continues with a guided tour of the lovely property and gardens. As you walk past the fermentation tanks, it’s hard to imagine that the tubes of ruby red liquid will one day fill bottles that will sell for $600. What sets this chateau apart is The Museum of Wine in Art. This is a stunning private collection of crystal, goblets, porcelain, oil paintings, and tapestry – amazing wine artifacts that date back hundreds of years. After the museum, you will enjoy a rare treat that will make even your most jaded wine friends jealous: tasting barrel samples of the Chateau’s finest wines.
If sweet wines are to your taste, what better chateau to visit than one that produces that nectar of the gods, Sauternes? When you ride up Chateau Guiraud’s gravel drive lined with leafy trees, you will feel as if you’ve entered a fairy tale. The chateau’s historic limestone architecture, complete with a tower, will continue the fantasy. As you tour the graceful grounds, you will learn that this is the only First Growth Sauternes winery to achieve a certification in organic farming – and you’ll see the insect hotels that help control pests without harmful chemicals. Don’t miss the chance to bring home a bottle of the winery’s richly flavored Sauternes, and remember that the deeper the amber color, the older – and probably more complex – the wine.
Bordeaux is steeped in history, but has a modern side, too, as witnessed by the wireless tramway that snakes through the old city. The same can be said of Chateau Paloumey, a Cru Bourgeois winery that has both a historic chateau and a stunning modern facility with sleek wooden walls and contemporary art exhibits. On the second story patio, you will be offered a glass of refreshing white Bordeaux by Martine Cazeneuve, winemaker and owner since 1990. Martine is also one of four Medocaines, women winemakers in Bordeaux who are trendsetters in the male-dominated business here. If you visit just before harvest time, Martine will invite you into the vineyards, where you can bite into the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and watch as she decides if they are ripe enough to pick. As you enjoy Martine’s hospitality, you’ll understand why Chateau Paloumey won the 2011 Wine Tourism Award from Great Wine Capitals.
Dining in Bordeaux
Bordeaux is a vibrant city and the dining choices range from casual café to four star cuisine. Here are two of my favorite restaurants in the city of Bordeaux:
Le Bistro de Quinconces, 4 place Quinconces
Bordeaux is situated on the western edge of the time zone, and the sun sets especially late here, so it’s a great city to enjoy the lingering light in the sky as you dine. Grab an outdoor table at Le Bistro de Quinconces, a traditional restaurant with excellently prepared, well-priced meals. Enjoy the sunset skies as you gaze onto the grand Place de Quinconces, the largest city square in western Europe. To your left is the Colonne de Girondins, one of Europe’s most magnificent fountains with a center column that soars 43 meters into the air. As you relax to the splash of the water and enjoy people-watching, order an entrecote de boeuf with foie gras sauce and enjoy a bottle of red Bordeaux. Finish your meal with a cheese course and a tiny espresso, or as the French say a “café”, which is always served last, never with dessert.
L’Huître à flot, Bassin à flot n° 2, quai Ouest
The Bordeaux region extends west to the Atlantic, and it is here that some of Europe’s finest oysters are harvested. L’Huître à flot provides the perfect casual dining spot to enjoy the bounty of the sea. This little restaurant is definitely off the tourist’s radar: I was taken there by a group of locals. It’s a great place to soak in the sunshine at outdoor picnic tables and enjoy platters of glistening oysters that taste like they were just plucked from the ocean. From your table, you can enjoy a view of the Gironde River, and see a remnant of World War II, a German submarine base. The chef serves up a menu that features much of the local seafood, including a bountiful seafood pasta, as well as a popular mixed grill. The mood is cheerful, the main courses are enormous, and the view is wonderful. After dinner, nightclubs await further down the quay.
When to visit
The Bordeaux Wine Festival is held every two years (the next date is June 28-July 1, 2012), and this massive festival provides a perfect excuse to come to Bordeaux. The event includes tasting passes to wine tents up and down the river and features musical performances and numerous other entertainments.
Le Weekend des Grands Amateurs is held every year at the beginning of June. During this three-day event, the public can taste wines from Bordeaux’s finest estates during an extensive daylong tasting. There are special dinners, tours, and parties to celebrate the weekend as well.
Additionally, spring and fall are wonderful times to visit the Bordeaux area.
Getting to Bordeaux
From the U.S., travelers first fly to Paris. From there you can fly to Bordeaux Merignac Airport in under an hour and a half. A convenient airport bus will quickly have you downtown. You can also take the high-speed bullet train from Paris and arrive in Bordeaux in just three hours.