The most fabled wine region in the world is more accessible than ever.
By Roger Voss
The first time I went to Bordeaux, I was just beginning my wine-writing career. Bordeaux's reputation as the most important red wine area in the world was unassailable. Margaux, Lafite, Latour—the names came off the tongue almost like a religious incantation. I couldn't wait to get inside those estates and taste the wines.
Driving north from the city of Bordeaux along the Route des Vins, I marveled at the omnipresent vines and the grand chateaus, each vying with the other for extravagance. I also remember, with a shock, that all the gates were firmly closed, that there were no invitations to come and taste, no tasting rooms. Unless I made an appointment several weeks in advance, and subjected myself to an interrogation, entry was denied.
But much has changed. Today, Bordeaux is wide open to visitors. The city of Bordeaux is now one of the most beautiful cities in France. So beautiful, in fact, that the city center has just been nominated by the French government as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has become a destination, not just a place of enophile pilgrimage.
From the city of Bordeaux, you can go north to the Médoc, east to Saint-Emilion, and south to the Graves and
Sauternes to experience the most dramatic changes in the region: the chateaus. "They used not to be interested in visits," says Jean-Daniel Terrassin, the Bordeaux tourist office director. "They thought their wine went to the world, now they understand that the world wants to come to their wine." Why? "Well, Bordeaux has a wine crisis," concedes Terrassin. "Producers have to work harder to sell their wine. But it was already coming. [Producers from] Bordeaux went to see what was happening in Napa and in Australia, and discovered that it worked."
At the same time, the Bordeaux tourist office has made touring that much easier. Want to go to Latour? Terrassin can arrange it. Want to tour the Médoc? No problem. Want to make a week of it with tasting lessons, too? Great. His staff can arrange tastings, tours and even lunch at chateaus. Go with a group, or do it alone.
The attitude of the Bordelais themselves has also undergone a transformation. They have had a reputation, even in France, of being formal and stuffy. But the younger generation is more open. The city has modernized and the people have changed with it.
Here's a quick tour of the city and the wine regions within a few hours' drive.
Vineyards in the vicinity Bordeaux's topography is not dramatic—there are no mountains or deep river valleys. There are, however, several distinct landscapes to the Bordeaux wine region.
Easily the most impressive commune is Saint-Emilion. Long slopes face the Dordogne River, while behind there is hilly back country dotted with villages. Saint-Emilion, the center, is a picture-book French city. There is everything here for the visitor: cobbled streets, ancient churches (one, the Monolithic Church, carved out of rock), street cafés, fine restaurants, trendy wine bars. Tiny lanes comb the hillsides (beware tractors), passing between medieval walls. So well preserved is the city, that satellite dishes and TV aerials are banned.
Pomerol is smaller. Located on a plateau surrounded by vineyards, it has only a church and a wine center. Even its great estates have relatively tiny chateaus, and small parcels of land. The greatest, Château Pétrus, is merely a large farmhouse.
The contrast between Pomerol and the Médoc could not be greater. The Médoc is vast, with distant horizons stretching to pine forests and the ocean on one side (including a naturalist resort with a golf course), and to the wide, brown Gironde estuary on the other. In the winter, the Médoc can be desolate, its dormant vineyards punctuated by the imposing chateaus, which were designed in the 19th century by the rich owners as summer retreats. Summer brings green to the 70-mile stretch of vineyards, from Bordeaux city in the south to the tip of the Médoc peninsula at Le Verdon. The waterfront of the main city, Pauillac, brightens up with yachts, and the open-air restaurants bustle.
A third, distinct landscape is found in the Graves. It feels ancient and remote, despite its proximity to Bordeaux city. The villages, such as Podensac, Cerons and Sauternes, are small and packed with low, one-story houses. The chateaus are grand but hidden behind dense stands of trees. It is easy—and fun—to get lost in the Graves.
The most beautiful landscape is that of Entre-deux-Mers, the land between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. It boasts green hills, steep valleys, copses of oak and beech, attractive villages and the vast monastery of La Sauve. The best estates, which make some of the most attractive dry whites in Bordeaux, are conveniently situated in a line between Créon and Sauveterre.
Glittering city After traveling wine country, it is easy to come back to Bordeaux city for the night. But be sure to reserve at least a day, if not several, in the city itself, because there is much to do. It is one of the largest cities in France (current population is 660,000), and is a great walking city—much of the heart of the center is for pedestrians only.
A couple of weeks ago, we spent the night in a downtown hotel—the comfortable Majestic. Before dinner, we took a long walk. And as we came out past the Doric pillars of the 18th-century Grand Théâtre, we turned to look down the Cour du Chapeau Rouge. Not long ago, this was a street whose blackened stone buildings looked on to dense traffic. But the stone is now a luminous pale yellow, the buildings are floodlit and the street is traffic free, with pedestrians enjoying the trees that have been planted in rows down the middle. It is breathtaking.
This is what has happened all over the city of Bordeaux. Huge sums of money have been spent to clean up, get rid of the traffic and build a modern tramway system. The curve of the riverfront (Bordeaux, a major port, is called the Port de la Lune, because of the river's resemblance to the curve of the new moon) displays over two miles of beautiful stone buildings, centered around the Place de la Bourse (the stock exchange), which has been refurbished and is now clean and floodlit.
If the weather is good, walk in the Jardin Public along the Cours du Verdun and admire the cityscape as well as the calm of these formal gardens, which also has a natural history museum. Also venture to old Bordeaux, the antiques markets around the church of Saint-Michel, the formal 18th-century streets of Allées de Tourny and Grands Hommes (the new town, as it's known). If you get tired, take a tram—the system is brand new and super-efficient. Or go for a boat ride on the river.
Bordeaux has all the great French shops, conveniently located in a relatively small area: Rue Sainte-Catherine, Allées de Tourny, Marché des Grands Hommes, Cours de l'Intendance and Cours Georges Clemenceau. And while shopping, of course, don't forget to buy wine. There are two great places. One is Bordeaux Magnum, a treasure trove of old and new vintages. Every Thursday, there are wine tastings focusing on a chateau, always tutored by the director or winemaker of the chateau (3 rue Gobineau. Tel: +33 556 48 00 06). The other is Millesima. Just outside the city center, in vast warehouses where the owners (the Bernard family, also owners of Domaine de Chevalier) store brandy, this is stacked high with wooden cases of wine. (87 Quai du Paludat. Tel: +33 557 808 808.)
And spare some energy to experience the city's thriving nightlife. We dined at Herald's, a restaurant and wine bar with modern décor in a 12th-century vaulted room. It was packed with locals enjoying local wine along with eclectic, modern food that draws its inspiration from the staples of Bordeaux—foie gras, duck, fish and oysters.
This was a truly memorable and enjoyable evening, and one that could have been repeated in many Bordeaux city restaurants (see sidebar). If we had been up for it, the nightlife continues into the wee hours. For those who really want to finish the party in style, we recommend you go to the Marché des Capucins, the wholesale produce market. Take a table at the Cochon Volant (flying pig) and enjoy a steak with the market workers at 4 a.m.
The best part of the adventure? Everyone makes you feel welcome. This is truly the new Bordeaux.
Getting there Bordeaux has a fast train connection to Paris (three hours, city center to city center), and also a direct train connection to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport. For details, visit www.sncf.fr.
Bordeaux Mérignac airport has frequent Air France flights to Paris Charles de Gaulle and Paris Orly (flight time 1 hour 15 minutes). Mérignac also has direct flights to London, Madrid, Munich, Brussels, Amsterdam and Rome, as well as to other French cities.
Driving from Paris to Bordeaux takes about five hours on the toll road, Autoroute A10. Bordeaux is about a two-hour drive from the Spanish frontier at San Sebastián.
Tourist Office The Office de Tourisme de Bordeaux is equipped to handle most queries concerning wine tourism, as well as city visits. They have a range of programs, from guided tours to individually arranged programs for those who prefer to drive. A counter in the tourism office is dedicated to wine tourism. Visitors can choose pure wine tours, some of which start in a wine merchant's cellar in Bordeaux and then, after lunch, include chateau visits and tastings. There are also coach tours combining wine and art, in which participants visit chateaus with interesting art collections, as well as a wine and cheese tour. Every Wednesday, there is a tour to three classed-growth chateaux in the Médoc, including lunch. Most tours run from April or May until October. (Office de Tourisme de Bordeaux, 12 Cours du XXX Juillet, 33080 Bordeaux. Tel: +33 556 00 66 04; fax: +33 556 00 66 01. www.bordeaux-tourisme.com)
The Bordeaux Wine Council The Maison du Vin of Bordeaux, across the road from the tourist office, can provide brochures on the chateaus. Beginning this summer, the Maison will have a wine tasting bar. The Bordeaux Wine Council also runs wine courses, called the Ecole du Vin. Courses are held in English and French. Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux, 1 Cours du XXX Juillet, 33075 Bordeaux. Tel: +33 556 00 22 88;. Fax: +33 556 00 99 30; www.ecole.vins-bordeaux.fr)
In addition, every Bordeaux commune has its own Maison du Vin, which can offer more detailed information on each area. Visit these through the Bordeaux Wine Council Web site: www.vins-bordeaux.fr.
City of Bordeaux Lodgings Room rates are based on a standard, double-occupancy room in high season (May through the end of September) Burdigala is somewhat out of the city center, but is the smartest hotel at the moment. Rates from $190 a night. www.burdigala.com. Best Western Grand Hotel Français. On the edge of the old quarter. Rates from $120 a night. www.bestwestern-grandhotelfrancais.com. Hotel de Normandie. In the 18th-century city, where the visiting wine trade stays. Rates from $120 a night. www.hotel-de-normandie-bordeaux.com. Majestic Hotel. Close to the Grand Théâtre. Rates from $130 a night. www.hotel-majestic.com. Spring 2007 should see the opening of what Bordeaux badly needs: a five-star hotel. Situated in the magnificent, former Grand Hotel, Radisson is opening a very grand hotel indeed.
Restaurants Menus are 3-course meals, prices cited are for lunches. For dinner, expect to pay more. Wine is extra. Café du Musée. Located in the Musée d'Art Contemporain. Tel: +33 556 91 81 74. Café du Theatre. Close to the Theatre d'Aquitaine, with food by Jean Amat, one of Bordeaux's top chefs. Square Jean Vauthier. Menus from $20. Tel: +33 557 95 77 20. Chez Greg. A popular hangout in the old quarter with serious food. 30-31 Quai de la Monnaie. Menus from $20. www.chezgreg.fr. Chez Mémère. Traditional fare in an old-style setting. 11 Rue de la Devise. Tel: 05 56 81 88 20. Herald's. In the old quarter, currently the happening bar and restaurant. Great wine list, with good prices and friendly service. 5 Rue du Parlement Sainte Catherine. Menus from $25. www.heraldscafe.com. La Tupina. This is traditional, full of dishes packed with foie gras and duck. Warm and welcoming. 6 Rue Porte de la Monnaie. Menus from $34. www.latupina.com. Le Chapon Fin. Don't let the extraordinary décor (19th-century fake rocks and glass ceiling) distract you from the quality of the food at this restaurant. Owned by the Cazes family, of Château Lynch-Bages. 5 rue Montesquieu. Menus from $35. www.chapon-fin.com. Le Cochon Volant. For steak and fries at 6 a.m. (and all day). 22 Place des Capucins. Tel: +33 557 59 10 00. L'Estacade. Go for the view, especially at sunset (it's across the river, and faces on to the Place de la Bourse). The food is fine, the wine list adequate. Menus from $20. Quai des Queyries. www.lestacade.com. Moshi Moshi. Japanese restaurant with foie gras sushi, duck breast sushi, etc. 8 Place Fernand Lafargue. Tel +33 556 79 22 91.
Arts & Special Events The Bordeaux Wine Festival. A must for any wine lover who happens to be in Bordeaux from June 29 to July 2. A city-wide celebration of wine, including major tastings. Visit www.bordeaux-fete-le-vin.com Centre Jean Moulin. Museum devoted to World War II. Place Jean Moulin. Open 2-6 p.m., closed Monday. Grand Théâtre. The very grand theater of Bordeaux, built in the 18th century, has opera and plays, and also guided tours. Details available at the Tourist Office. Musée d'Art Contemporain. A darkly eccentric museum of modern art in an old warehouse. The reward is the restaurant at the top. 7 rue Ferrière. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Monday. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Paintings and sculpture from the Renaissance onwards. 20 Cours d'Albret. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Tuesday.
Outside the city Lodgings Hostellerie de Plaisance, Saint-Emilion. In the heart of the city of Saint-Emilion, very luxurious, very expensive. The restaurant is top quality. Room rates from $240. www.relaischateaux.com. Hotel Cordeillan Bages, Pauillac. Owned by the Cazes family of Château Lynch-Bages, this is a Relais et Chateaux hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant. Rates from $150. www.relaischateaux.com. Hotel Grand Barrail, Saint-Emilion. 19th-century chateau in the Saint-Emilion vineyards. Rates from $190. www.grand-barrail.com. Les Sources de Caudalie, Martillac. Not just a luxury hotel with two restaurants and romantic lakeside cabins, but also a luxury spa, where you can have treatment using vinotherapy (based on grape pips—much better than it sounds). It's also in the vineyards of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte. Rates from $250. www.sources-caudalie.com. Relais de Margaux. By the edge of the Gironde estuary in Margaux, a modern hotel with an associated golf course. Rates from $220. www.relais-margaux.fr. There are more in the works: Jean-Luc Thunevin (Château Valandraud, St. Emilion), will open a B&B at the end of 2006. Several other chateaus throughout Bordeaux also have B&B accommodations (check with the tourist office).
Restaurants Two hotel restaurants are a serious must: Cordeillan Bages in Pauillac and Les Sources de Caudalie in Martillac in the Graves (see hotels). Francis Goullée, Saint-Emilion. Apart from the two top hotel restaurants (Plaisance and Grand Barrail—see hotels), this is the top place to eat. Watch your step as you leave, the street is very steep. Tel: +33 557 24 70 49. La Salamandre, Pauillac. A great place for a quick, good-value lunch between chateau visits, with a view of Gironde estuary. 15-16 Quai Leon Perier. Tel: +33 556 59 24 87. L'Essentiel, Saint-Emilion. To taste all the Saint-Emilion grand crus by the glass, come to Jean-Luc Thunevin's very Manhattan wine bar. Cheese and cold meat platters. It's also a wine shop. 6 Rue Gaudet. Tel: +33 557 24 39 76. The Cazes family is also opening a bistro in the small hamlet of Bages, near Lynch-Bages. There will also be a small bakery. Details on www.lynchbages.com Le Saint-Julien. In the center of Saint-Julien village. Traditional menu, well prepared food. Menus from $25. Tel: +33 556 59 63 87.
Where to spot the wine producers at lunch Lion d'Or, Médoc. You have to like noise to eat here, but the food is good, if simple. Admire the private stores of wine from the great chateau, used by the owners or winemakers when they lunch here. In the village of Arcins, half way up the Mèdoc. Tel: +33 556 58 96 79. L'Atmosphère, St.-Emilion. In Saint-Germain-de-Puch in the Saint-Emilion vineyards. It's pizzas or steak, cooked on the open fire. 93 le Bourg. Tel: +33 557 24 52 34. Le Saprien, Sauternes. Big, buzzy, open-plan restaurant. 14 Rue Principale. Menus from $22. Tel : +33 556 76 60 87.
Visiting the chateaus Now that so many more chateaus are open to visitors, you can almost choose your favorites—even Château d'Yquem has tours organized through the Bordeaux tourist office. But here are a few of my favorites. Some will be open to casual visits, others prefer that you to book through the tourist office. Plan ahead; you should never assume that you can visit without an appointment. Most chateaus also have Websites.
Pessac-Léognan Château Pape-Clément. Beginning this summer, there will be a visitor center and a restaurant associated with top French chef Alain Ducasse. Tel: +33 557 26 38 38; www.bernard-magrez.com Château Haut-Bailly. Tel: +33 556 64 75 11 Domaine de Chevalier. Tel: +33 556 64 16 16; www.domaindechevalier.com