Say Bordeaux and the word that instantly comes to mind is ‘wine’, at least for most of us. You don’t really have to be a wine connoisseur to know the value of Bordeaux wines, which is the oldest wine producing region in the world. Anyone who fancies a glass of vino over other liquors and have had the chance to taste a vintage from the region will know its worth. So it’s inevitable that when you plan a trip to Bordeaux you have only one thing in your mind – wine!
Stepping into Bordeaux city, however, you almost forget about the wines. The medieval architecture, withholding its past glory as well as adapting to modern retouches, leaves one in awe. As you walk past magnificent monuments and cathedrals of yore, quirky stores and cafes of the new millennium, and through the vibrant markets and narrow cobbled lanes witnessing the local culture, you feel it - the harmony, the charming effect of the city that everyone who has visited it before keeps gushing about. No wonder then that you often find its name among prestigious award lists such as World’s Best City to Visit, European Best Destination, Favourite City of the French, so on and so forth. It has rightfully earned its credits.
Bordeaux – the Wine Regions
We of course plan our itinerary around ‘wine’. Bordeaux wines have set the standards high across the world for its quality and finesse, and as such, even when it comes to a wine experience of the region, you expect nothing less. And you are not disappointed at all, courtesy, the picturesque vineyards and lavish chateaus that make the experience surreal.
Only when you soak in the atmosphere in Bordeaux do you realise that even a week’s time is not good enough to enjoy it fully. It only makes for a quick pitstop amidst so many incredible places to explore.
The wine regions of Bordeaux are broadly categorised into right bank and left bank based on the Gironde estuary and its two tributaries – Garonne and Dordogne – that flow through it. The six main wine growing regions include Medoc and Graves on the right bank; Bourg, Blaye and Libourne on the left; and Entre-deux-Mers is the region in between Garonne and Dordogne. This divide also means that the terroirs are vastly different from each other in terms of soil type and micro-climate, which play a huge role in the type of grape varietals produced in the respective regions. Each region is further divided into sub-regions, of which the most visited ones include Saint Emilion, Pomerol, Pessac-Léognan, Haut-Medoc and Sauternes to name a few. If you have a week’s time in Bordeaux, you can dedicate each day to exploring the different regions. If you have a specific region that you would like to explore then you can fit that in the itinerary too. The tour organisers are happy to meet your requests.
Bordeaux – the Wine Varietals
While we commonly associate Bordeaux with red wine, its wine regions also produce white wine and rose. Coming to red wine, most are made by blending at least two grape varietals, primarily merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The other red varietals that are allowed to be blended include Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carmenere. During our wine tours we learnt that the red wines produced in the left bank are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon while the ones produced in the right bank are Merlot. Also, there are strict rules and regulations (known as AOCs) governing the wine production of the region, including the grape varietals allowed, total yield and labelling. The most sought after wines in Bordeaux include 1855 classification and Premier Grand Cru Classe, and of course they are very expensive.
The white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle grape varietals while rose wines are made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. We also got to learn the very interesting process of producing rose wines, where the skin of the grapes are left in contact very briefly with the mush just before the fermentation process starts. This results in the wine developing the slight reddish tinge.
The sub-region Sauternes of Graves is popular for the production of what is known as dessert wines, which are immensely fruity, and pairs incredibly well with cheesecakes and the like. Almost all the wine regions are approximately an hour’s drive away from Bordeaux city. You can choose to stay in the city and take daily wine tours to explore the various regions or stay in a beautiful chateau in one of the wine regions for an unforgettable experience. The France Tourism office in Bordeaux offers a range of options to help you make the most of your time, including wine and cheese pairings and food and wine tours. There are also private tour operators available.
If you are keen on visiting the top chateaus to taste premier wines like 1855 classification, Premier Grand Cru Classe and others, here are a few names you should look out for - Château Ausone, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Pavie, Château Haut-Brion, Château Pétrus, Château Le Pin, Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion, among others.
A Trip to Saint-Emilion
Saint-Emilion, a sub-region of Libourne, is considered a World Heritage Site and consists of a group of villages. Besides its wine, which is primarily made of Merlot, it is also known for its rich history. A walk through the village is a must when you visit the place and also to visit the largest underground monolithic church in Europe, where the Benedictine monk – Saint Emilion – who was known to possess miraculous powers, lived as a hermit in the 8th century. You also need to try the macarons here at the local bakeries, which is said to be the original recipe, minus the frills.
Needless to say, there are numerous chateaus in Saint-Emilion where you can visit, learn about the wine making process and do elaborate wine tastings. We booked a group tour with French Tourism office and made our way to Chateau Champion to see it all first hand. Luckily enough, it was the right season to witness the harvest and also taste the sweet grapes directly from the vines. The owner of the chateau took us through the entire process and also gave us insights to their family history of wine making. The wine tasting that followed, included the sampling of their two vintages, accompanied by the nuances of sniffing and swirling wine for the perfect experience.
If you would prefer a more elaborate affair, you can sign up for chateau visits along with your choice of food and wine experiences. Options are aplenty and for different budgets. In my opinion, if you have the time, stay in one of the chateaus for a complete experience, including enjoying the wines with local food and exploring the region at your own pace. Nothing like it!
Wine Tour Via Cruises
There’s a different charm in sailing through the Gironde, soaking in the beauty of the riverside and exploring the different wine regions. Bordeaux offers river cruises to go on and explore the different wine regions and learn more about the terroir, which is so essential in the wine making process. You can sign up for this if you want a more memorable experience. There are full day and half day tours, including food and wine pairing options.
La Cite Du Vin – the Wine Museum
Any wine story in Bordeaux hereon would be incomplete without mentioning about La Cite Du Vin. The new, world class wine museum which opened this year in June is a must for every wine lover. The modern eight-floored structure, representing ‘the swirl of wine moving in a wine glass,’ provides a multi-sensory experience to its visitors. While on the second floor is the exhibition with 19 thematic modules (right from the history and wine making to sensing the nuances of wine), the eight floor houses the belvedere with panoramic view of the city, where you can also taste a selection of world best wines. There are three dining options as well for a memorable wine and dine experience. A single ticket costs about 20 Euros, and the tour lasts for about 2 hours followed by a wine tasting. For wine courses and other experiences, you can check at the front desk.