Wine tours in Bordeaux
Exploring the great wine region
Bordeaux is a Mecca for vinophiles, and its finest wines are unrivalled – in quality, in price, and in complex, subtle, delicious flavours. Bordeaux the wine-producing region is actually a galaxy of regions, sub-regions and estates: to know them all is a lifetime’s study for the enthusiast, usually never completed.
Among the most famous major regions within Bordeaux are Médoc, Graves, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. The Médoc can perhaps be described as the Bordeaux heartland: it spreads south along the Gironde from the tip of the Médoc peninsula nearly to the city itself. The poor gravelly soil, with excellent drainage into the river, is useless for most types of farming, but ideal for vines.
The earliest records of vine cultivation in the region date from Roman times, and the introduction of a grape variety known as Vitis biturica, probably the ancestor of cabernet sauvignon. A blend opf cabernet grapes with merlot still form the basis of the Bordeaux reds. Bordeaux’s white wines, generally grown south and east of the Garonne, are made from the semillon and sauvignon blanc grape varieties.
In addition to the French AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) regulations, which ensure the right grapes are harvested in the right place at the right time, Bordeaux’s wine growers aspire to a grading under the official Grands Crus classification system introduced in 1855. Growers were graded according to the price their wines had fetched over the previous hundred years, and top performers were awarded the right to label their wines Grand Premier Cru. At the top of the league, which to most wine enthusiasts’ amazement has hardly been revised since 1855, are the four Haut-Médoc châteaux of Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild (added in 1973); Château Haut-Brion from the Graves; and Chateau d’Yquem from Sauternes. There are four lesser cru (growth) classifications with several bewildering sub-divisions; and of course the fact that each year’s vintage can be of differing quality adds a further degree of confusion for the amateur.
Visiting Haut-Médoc’s great châteaux is no happy-go-lucky affair, and plans should be laid well in advance. Though the vineyards of the Médoc were among the last to be planted in the 17thC (this used to be bandit country), most of its châteaux have since risen to such dizzy heights of complacency that only serious wine types are admitted by appointment. One way round this is to join one of the Bordeaux tourist office’s guided tours, though these do not include either château Margaux (www.chateau-margaux.com), or Mouton-Rothschild (www.chateau-monton-rothschild.com). For more detailed information about wine-making and châteaux visits throughout the region, contact the helpful Maison du Vin, cours XXX-Juillet, 33000 Bordeaux (tel. 05 56 00 22 88).
If you are content to look but not enter, the D2 heads north from Bordeaux into big vine country. Take a picnic – restaurants are few and far between. A fun option is to return part of the way down the east bank of the Gironde through the vineyards of Blaye and Bourg, which was the original cradle of Bordeaux’s wine trade. A short ferry ride connects Lamarque to Blaye (click here), then take the D669.
Some 25 km north of Bordeaux on the D2, Château Prieuré Lichine at Cantenac offers good-value guided tours year-round. The main buildings occupy a 16thC Benedictine monastery. Margaux is a pretty village with more than its share of gracious houses, a Maison du Vin where you can buy but not taste, and glimpses of the chapel and roof-tops of the magnificent Empire-style Château Margaux. There is also an extremely sumptuous Relais et Châteaux hotel, the Relais de Margaux (€€€; www.relais-margaux.fr), set in a secluded 35-acre estate which stretches down to the Gironde.
At Lamarque, you can make a quick detour to the ferry (bac) and check the timetable for later in the day. Next up is Château Beychevelle, a delightful pocket-size mansion built in 1757, just inside the commune (wine region) of Saint-Julien. Its reputation is superb. Pauillac, despite its top-heavy cluster of Premiers Crus is a scrubby little place with an oil refinery on the front. Feast your eyes instead on Château Lafite-Rothschild further along the D2. Just up the hill, after the splendid facade of Château Cos d’Estournel (one of Sainte-Estèphe’s finest crus classés), take the little D2E for Saint-Estèphe and its summer season Maison du Vin (a Cru Bourgeois Supérieur from Château de Pez is a worthwhile buy here).
Villa holidays: the Bordeaux area offers many holiday rental properties.