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Wine Tasting in Bordeaux

A pitifully short expedition to Bordeaux’s five finest wine districts

Have you ever flown to Bordeaux from Paris? On a train? The TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse) will get you there in about three hours. Look at the map. That’s amazingly fast. But what does Paris have to do with an article about Bordeaux, you ask? Not much, really. Except that just about every foreign traveler’s journey in France usually begins in Paris. Yours will, too. And as fate would have it, so did this one.

I arrived in “the Paris of the South” on an early spring afternoon and soon discovered that I already had a soft spot in my heart for Bordeaux. Growing up among the vineyards of Central California probably had a lot to do with this. The similarities are sometimes uncanny. Bordeaux is, of course, the world's most famous wine city, resting serenely on the banks of the Garonne, where it joins the Dordogne and flows out to the nearby Atlantic. It’s much larger than I expected, being the sixth largest city (and third largest port) in France, but it has little in common with that intimidating metropolis to the north and it has a certain local, almost small-town touch to it. Its world-famous châteaux are literally close enough to walk to. But I rented a car anyway, of course.

My room near the Place de Quinconces had a good location between the Esplanade des Quinconces and Bordeaux’s main shopping district and after a quick look around and bite to eat I wasted no time in unfolding my maps to plan the following day’s expedition. Gazing at the maps, it quickly became clear to me why the Girondins (local people) are so proud of their region. The countryside surrounding Bordeaux is packed with some of the greatest names associated with wine. Unfortunately, I would only have three days here. That wasn’t going to be enough. I would not have the time to see all of the vineyards I would have liked to, so I would have to plan carefully.

Luckily, the five most important wine districts are located in a relatively compact area and nicely divided between the left and the right banks of the Garonne. To the right are Pomerol and St-Emilion. To the left are Médoc, Sauternes and Graves. I knew that I would have to work systematically – and quickly. Sadly, I had to accept the fact that I would not be able to visit the other famous areas between the two rivers (Entre-Deux-Mers) and to the east of the Garonne (Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Bourg). In the end I decided to begin with the right bank. I suppose the main reason for this being that the best wine I had ever tasted had come from St-Emilion.

I started out early the next morning, around 11:00 or so - hey, I’m on an expedition, people, not on the run. It didn’t take me long to reach St-Emilion, however. St-Emilion is Bordeaux’s oldest wine region. The Romans cultivated wine here. It sits quaintly upon a small hilltop with a lovely view to the valley below. But I wasn’t particularly interested in any of that quaint and lovely stuff just right now. I was looking for wine. And I had no trouble locating dozens of shops, all apparently waiting for the arrival of cultureless souls like myself. After some intensive conversation with one particular shop keeper, he recommended a bottle of Grand Cru AC 1998 (Appelation Contrôlée) from the Chateau Ausonne (named after the Roman poet Ausonius). I bought it on the spot. He also gave me directions to the Chateau. I couldn’t find the place, however, exited as I was to continue on to Pomerol.

The inhabitants of Pomerol like to call their village “the Republic of Pomeral”. They consider themselves to be quite unique, you see. They have every right to. Their wines certainly are. Although “the experts” say that the Pomerols are not quite in the same league with the wines of St-Emilion or the Médoc (Pomerol’s wine culture is relatively new), this district is nonetheless home to some of the most famous châteaux, among them the world-famous Château Petrus. Pomerol’s location (as also with St-Emilion) has had a lot do with its great success. Because access to it was easier than to other wine areas and because most of the wine brokers traditionally had their offices in nearby Libourne, these districts were more effectively marketed than the others.

One says that that the best vineyards always overlook a church here. So I drove to the nearest one I could find, asked a few naive questions about this and other silly claims and was promptly directed to a “special” wine shop down the street. There is always a special wine shop down the street here. A tasting or two and a little friendly conversation was enough to sell me on a wine I would never have bought otherwise, being, well, much too expensive for me: a 1989 Vieux Château Certan. I drove off in a bit of a daze (it was the price, not the alcohol) and spent the rest of the afternoon purposely getting lost among the winding roads and countless, beautiful vineyards. I was back at the hotel in Bordeaux by nightfall.

The next morning I drove off to the Médoc. Unlike in Pomerol, they say that the best vineyards here are the ones overlooking the river. And pretty much everything is overlooking the river in this area, too. I headed straight for Pauillac in the Haut-Médoc (the Haut-Médoc is the southern part of this 50 mile long peninsula, the Médoc is the northern part). Pauillac is one of the most well-known communes here, ranking right up there with the world-famous chateaux Lafite Rothschild and Margaux. A friend of mine had recommended that I take a look at the fantastic wine museum there, which I did and really enjoyed. Before moving on, I did some quick tasting at the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and bought my next bottle: a bourgeois superieur produced at the Chateau Vieux Robin.

I drove from here to the district of Graves. Graves means gravel in French and these gravelly hills just southwest of town are known for producing some of the world’s great dry white wines. These are usually made by combining the Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Sémillon grapes. I stopped and asked directions to the village of St-Macaire and stopped to have a small glass of white and enjoy the famous view of the Garonne. After a leisurely lunch and quick snooze (in the car) I stopped at the next wine shop I could find and purchased a bottle of Château du Seuil – to go.

It only seemed appropriate to finish up my expedition with a dessert wine, so I took a quick drive on to the Sauternes region. This small, roughly 5,000 acre area of low-lying hills and tiny valleys near the Ciron (a small tributary of the Garonne) is most famous for producing the Château d’Yquem, though many other sweet and semi-sweet appellations abound here, as well. These wines rely more on the predominance of the Sémillon grape. I got to try one which particularly impressed me: a Sainte-Croix du-Mont. It was getting late now and I was exhausted and I would be returning to Paris the next day. I was also running out of money. But needless to say, I bought a bottle of this fine wine, too.

My flight back to Paris on the TGV that following afternoon was even faster than the first one. Or so it seemed. How should I put it? Let’s just say that, well, the part in the title about the five bottles of Bordeaux? Only four of them actually made it back.

Bordeaux is referred to as ‘the Wine Capital of France’.

With a population of more than half a million, it’s claimed to attain fourth place in the country – population-wise, while it claims second place in size – area-wise. However, its main claim to fame is its surrounding wine-growing vineyard district. And many tourists choose to take a holiday in Bordeaux purely to visit these vineyards – and to sample some of the local wine that is produced there. In fact, a vineyard touring/wine tasting holiday has become a particularly popular tourist attraction. Bordeaux is said to be world famous in its role of ‘Wine Capital’, and it is also the venue for a biennial ‘Fete de Vin’, which is a four day celebration of local ‘viticulture and gastronomy’ which is held in June.

Bordeaux is also an interesting city in its own right. It lies alongside the western side of the River Garonne, and is a large bustling city with an eighteenth century centre, which is known as Vieux Bordeaux, and whose narrow streets are lined with grand mansions. The Vieux Bordeaux encompasses a central area known as Quartier St. Pierre and stretches up to the Grand Theatre, which is situated in the north, and also embraces the cathedral, which lies to the west, and Cours Victor Hugo, which lies to the south. Considered to have been the ‘social hub’ of the eighteenth century city was the classical Grand Theatre, which was built on the site of a Roman temple by the architect Victor Louis in the year 1780.

Described as ‘a lofty building with an immense colonnaded portico topped by twelve Muses and Graces’, and an interior that is equally opulently decorated, it is maintained that the best way to appreciate the theatre’s full glory is to attend one of the operas or ballets that are staged within its portals throughout the year.

North of the theatre is the Esplanade des Quinconces, which is said to be Europe’s largest municipal square. Many museums are to be found in Bordeaux. And described as the city’s best museum is the Musee d’Aquitaine, which illustrates the history of the region from prehistoric times. And among the featured items on display are what are considered to be the three main facets of the region’s development – namely maritime, commercial and agricultural.

Other museums within the confines of Bordeaux include: Musee des Beaux-Arts – which displays the works of artists such as Rubens, Matisse, Renoir, Titian, as well as Lacour’s 1804 Bordeaux dockside scene ‘Quai de Chartrous’; Musee d’Art Contemporaire; Musee des Arts Decoratifs, which displays an extensive collection of French porcelain, period furniture, glass, miniatures, sculptures and prints of the city during its maritime glory.

Likewise, the city also has a museum known as Musee des Douanes, which features Bordeaux’s port and seafaring past. The city’s cathedral, the Cathedrale St-Andre, is particularly stunning, having exquisite stained-glass windows and tall twin steeples. Nearby stands the classical Hotel de Ville.

To the northwest of the city lies the park known as Jardin Public, which contains Bordeaux’s botanical gardens, and which is described as being ‘particularly beautiful’.

Bordeaux has a plethora of hotels, which range from the ‘basic’ to the ‘luxurious’, and apart from the occasions when events such as ‘Fete du Vin’ are staged in the city, finding accommodations is not usually considered to be a problem. It is also claimed that Bordeaux is ‘packed with restaurants’. And due to the city’s close proximity to the Atlantic coast, fresh seafood is a prominent feature on most menus.

Lively bars, likewise abound in Bordeaux, and there’s no shortage of ‘night-life- entertainment in the city. The tourists who choose to take a holiday in Bordeaux primarily to visit the city’s surrounding wine-growing vineyard district, are recommended to make contact with the ‘Maion du Vin de Bordeaux’, which is able to provide information on chateaux visits and ‘wine tasting’, as does the Bordeaux Tourist Office, which also organises ‘English Language Wine Tours’.

The wine producing districts lie in a semi circle around the city, commencing first with the red wines of Bordeaux from Medoc in the north, and proceeding eastwards to St-Emilion, while the white wines, such as the super dry Graves and the sweet dessert wines of Sauternes, are produced in the area south of the city.

A fortified hilltop town, St-Emilion is regarded as being the prettiest of the wine producing areas, and it is considered to be one of the Bordeaux country’s richest wine districts. It also has a cavernous underground church. In fact, it is considered to be well worth visiting in its own right. A fortified medieval town, its houses are said to straggle down the south-hanging slope of a low hill ‘with the green froth of the summer’s vines crawling over its walls’.

St. Emilion himself is said to have lived a ‘hermit’s life’ during the eighth century, supposedly in a cave that was later unearthed. A ‘rough hewn ledge’ is believed to have been his bed while a carved seat was thought to have been the chair on which he sat. And it’s claimed that ‘infertile women’ regularly come and sit on this seat in the hope of becoming pregnant!

And it’s also claimed that just over fifty years ago a resident, who was in the process of enlarging his property’s cellar, came across a tombstone on which had been inscribed: ‘Aulius is buried between saints Valery, Emilion and Avic’ – Saint Valery being the patron saint of wine-growers! The wine producing districts that lie in a semi circle around Bordeaux are numerous. And while they include the Medoc region to the north of the city, the Sauternes region to the south of the city, and the St. Emilion region to the east of the city, they also include Entre-deux-Mers, which lies to the west of the city, and which is situated between the Dordogne and Garonne – and whose name translates ‘between two seas’. Like St. Emilion, Entre-deux-Mers is also regarded as being one of the prettiest Bordeaux wine regions, being an area that features medieval villages and gently rolling hills.

Burgundy, Champagne, and the Bordeaux Wines are said to form the ‘top trio’ of French viticulture. And although there are as many white wines as there are red wines produced in the Bordeaux region, it is the latter which apparently appears to have been the most popular for numerous centuries – and which is referred to as ‘Claret’ in Britain.

And it is claimed that the countryside that produces the wine – which encircles the city of Bordeaux – lays claim to ‘near-perfect’ climatic conditions, with soils that range from limestone to sand and pebbles.

In fact, the Bordeaux area is described as being the largest quality wine district in the world, with 500 million bottles a year being produced – a figure that represents more than half the country’s quality wine output.

And tourists continue to be fascinated by the area, and not only flock to Bordeaux to enjoy the city’s manifold attractions, but also to undertake daily – and occasionally overnight – trips to ‘the largest quality wine district in the world’

Roberta Crookes has worked as a newspaper journalist throughout most of her life, writing news stories, editorial features, advertisement supplements, and reviews. And in the course of her work she has interviewed many famous people from all walks of life. She has also managed to combine parallel careers in both journalism and acting, and, being Welsh speaking from North Wales, her main television featured parts have been Welsh language roles with BBC Wales.