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Published: November 7th 2017
Medoc region, Bordeaux
It’s been a few days since the last blog entry, but that was because I figured I should just do one entry about my time in Bordeaux. Unlike my time in Alsace and Burgundy, my visit to Bordeaux has been about one thing, and one thing only: wine.
So I left Beaune on Thursday morning. I had toyed with the idea of visiting Perigueux along the way, but as it turned out, I would have reached there about 4:30pm and that was a bit late to see much. The drive across to Bordeaux was over 6 hours, so I wasn’t going to be feeling like doing much anyway.
The drive was pretty good though. There wasn’t much traffic, and even though I was on highways and motorways the whole time, the scenery ranged from nice to spectacular. The mountains in the centre of France are pretty cool, and there were some massive gorges I drove across along the way. I wasn’t expecting much from the drive, but was pleasantly surprised.
As I approached Bordeaux, however, the traffic increased and I soon found myself in a city larger than I have visited so far on the trip. After a
couple of weeks in Alsace and Beaune, it was a bit of a shock. Even though it was peak hour, the traffic in the outer suburbs wasn’t that bad.
The centre of Bordeaux was a traffic jam, however. There was some roadworks that my gps didn’t know about and I couldn’t always turn down the road it told me to go. Normally that’s not a major issue, but the centre of the city is full of one-way streets and pedestrian-only streets, protected by bollards. After a lap crawling around the city centre, with my gps telling me to drive over a traffic-stopping bollard (which I ignored) I decided to just park the car and proceed on foot. The problem then was that I had no map to go on, just my memory of the gps instructions.
This resulted in 30 minutes of fun times lugging a heavy suitcase around the city. I eventually found my hotel though, and after checking in, I went back and moved the car to the parking garage that the hotel has a deal with. It turns out that my gps may not have been so wrong after all – just before the bollard
there was a narrow side-street that it was probably referring to. So it was likely my fault after all. Apologies to the maker of the gps and the civil planners of the city of Bordeaux for anything I may have said about them and/or their mothers during this difficult time.
After a good night’s sleep, I was looking forward to Friday. I had a private wine tour booked for the left-bank wine region of Medoc. The left bank in Bordeaux is where most of the largest chateaus are, and where they make wines dominated by my favourite wine grape variety – cabernet sauvignon.
I was met outside my hotel by my driver and tour guide, Henri. Henri comes from a wine-growing family in the Loire valley, but years ago he decided he enjoys talking about wine more than making it, so he moved to Paris and became a sommelier. About 13 years ago, he moved to Bordeaux to start a wine tour business and he’s been at it ever since. He certainly was knowledgeable, so he was good to have as a guide.
As I’ve mentioned before, my experience with wine outside Australia is very limited, so
Vineyards of St. Emillion
St. Emilion region, Bordeaux
I didn’t really know any of the famous chateaus and sub-regions that he was talking about. But we looked at quite a few along the way to the first wine-tasting at Ormes de Pez. The chateau is now a B+B because it was bought by the owner of Chateau Lynch-Bages, which is a fifth-growth Grand Cru. I was able to taste a wine from each and really liked the Chateau Lynch-Bages wine.
Henri also explained to me how the Grand Crus classification works in Medoc and it’s not really that useful, to be honest. The classification was made in 1855 and hasn’t changed since then, except when Jacques Chirac was agriculture minister and he upgraded one of the Rothschild chateaus to Premier Crus (first growth). According to Henri, people agreed with this decision because the chateau had originally been relegated to second-growth because of “political reasons”. However, the classifications don’t currently reflect the wine that is being made and some, like the Chateau Lynch-Bages wine I tasted (which is priced as a second-growth), are essentially ranked on price. It makes it difficult to know what’s good though, because a chateau that was ranked highly in 1855 could be making
Medoc region, Bordeaux
terrible wine but will also be charging a high price.
Anyway, another oddity about the Bordeaux wine region is that most of the chateaus will allow tastings (for a fee, usually) but you generally can’t buy the wine there. This is because historically, the wine trade developed a model of the winemaker selling to wine merchants. Originally these were often English or Dutch merchants who were forbidden from owning land, which resulted in the separation. Today, winemakers will often sell future vintages to merchants before they are bottled, so they don’t have anything to sell in the chateau. Not what I was used to, but at least it takes the pressure off you from feeling like you have to buy something after tasting it.
So after the first tasting and a look around at some more chateaus, Henri and I went for lunch. The restaurant was part of a small plaza outside the Chateau Lynch-Bages new facilities (being built) so that meant there was a shop there that sold their wine. After lunch I went and purchased a bottle to take home. I was hoping that I didn’t end up tasting something better later.
After lunch, there
were two more tastings. The first was at Chateau Pedesclaux and not only did the lady showing us around have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen; the winemaking facilities were absolutely amazing. Instead of using pumps, they only use gravity to move wine around, within and between vats and presses and so forth. To do this, they have four vats that can be lifted above or below the stationary vats. The whole facility has cutting edge technology for temperature control as well. My pre-conceived notions that French winemaking was too wedded to tradition preventing innovation was completely blown away at Chateau Pedesclaux. Unfortunately, this facility is fairly new and the wines I tasted were from previous vintages, or the first vintage of the new facility. This meant that it wasn’t yet up to the quality promised. At least to my tastes, anyway.
The final tasting for the day was over at Chateau Cantenac Brown, a third-growth Grand Cru. The chateau itself was stunning, and the tour was informative. But as enjoyable as it was, it kind of paled after Chateau Pedesclaux and the wine wasn’t as good as the Chateau Lynch-Bages. We then visited a few of the
Chateau Ormes de Pez
Medoc region, Bordeaux
famous Grand Cru chateaus for photo opportunities, before heading back into Bordeaux. Henri bade me farewell and we were going to do it all again on Monday, but on the right bank.
When Henri had asked what I was planning to do on Saturday and Sunday, I only had one definite thing in mind – Cite du Vin. This is the new museum of wine (translates to City of Wine) which opened last year. He suggested I visit on Saturday because it would be busy on Sunday. I have no idea if that’s true, but if it is, it must be bloody crowded on Sundays because it sure wasn’t empty on Saturday.
I booked my ticket online before leaving the hotel on Saturday morning. I saw there was a workshop at 2pm in English so I decided to pay the 20 euros to attend that. I didn’t really look into what it was, so I hoped it would be good. The museum is about 3.5km from my hotel and I was thinking about walking. But as Henri said there was a lot to see at the museum and I would probably be on my feet all day, I
decided to take a tram instead. The trams in Bordeaux are really cool. I am not sure exactly how they are powered because there are no overhead cables. Henri said something about boxes on the ground opening as the tram goes over them and they were the first in the world to be powered this way. Anyway, it’s great not having the ugly overhead power cables.
The museum itself is in a spectacular building. As I got off the tram, an older English couple were walking ahead of me and the lady was shocked and disgusted at the sight of it. I can’t say I love it, but I get sick of boring old cement boxes, so I am always happy to see architects trying something different. Have a look at the photo and judge for yourself.
Anyway, I headed in and like I said, it was pretty crowded. This wasn’t ideal because many of the displays are interactive, or at least videos that start when you scan your audioguide. This means many of them are really only useful for one or two people to view at a time. However, once I moved past the first couple of
Medoc region, Bordeaux
exhibits about wine regions around the world, it wasn’t a major hassle. The displays though, were fantastic. There was a lot to learn (e.g. to deal with phylloxera, most wine plants are two different species of grape vine grafted together, one for the roots, one for the fruit) and before I knew it, it was time for my workshop.
I headed back down to the first floor and found the sensory chamber where the workshop was hosted. When I approached the lady at the door, she assumed I didn’t know what I was talking about until I literally pointed at the “14:00” on my workshop ticket and insisted I was at the right place. This was even weirder when I headed in and she closed the door after me… she clearly knew she was waiting for just one more person so I don’t know why she was so sceptical when one person turned up insisting they had a ticket for the workshop. I guess I just didn’t look like the type.
Anyway, inside was a couple from Mexico and a guy from Scotland, so it was a nice and small workshop. Essentially, we “travelled” to different regions and
Medoc region, Bordeaux
through pictures displayed around the walls of the round room, sounds played and smells emitted by diffusers in the centre we explored the world. During the workshop we tasted four wines, a Rose from Provence (for a Mediterranean market), a Riesling from Alsace (matched to Asian food, although we didn’t eat anything), a Petit Verdot from Uruguay (for South American barbecue) and a Pinotage from South Africa (matched to North African desserts). It was an enjoyable hour (and a welcome sit-down!) and although my ability to recognise smells was shown to be poor, at least it gave me the chance to try some wines I’d not tried before. I’m keen to try the Pinotage again!
I then headed up to the top floor for the wine-tasting included in the museum ticket. The printed guide says that the lines for the elevator can get long at the end of the day, so I figured it was a good time to go. I was right. I got up there quickly and had a glass of a local Bordeaux (you essentially get to choose one glass of wine to drink) and enjoyed the view while I drank it. There were a few
Chateau Pichon Baron
Medoc region, Bordeaux
people up there, but not many.
I returned to the main exhibition and continued exploring. I resumed where I left off, in the Wine and Civilisations exhibition, learning about wine throughout history. I continued on, including a visit to the temporary exhibition on Georgia (the country) where the grape vine was domesticated, and wine invented 8,000 years ago! By the time I’d seen most things (except for the early bits I’d skipped) it was 6pm. I was exhausted and decided to leave. As I left, the line to go up to the top floor was huge, so I definitely made the right choice in not leaving it to last!
The museum was really good, and I recommend visiting if you come to Bordeaux. I was a bit surprised by how many people dragged kids along for their visit. I must confess, if my parents had taken me to a wine museum when I was 8, I would have hated it. I didn’t see many kids enjoying themselves either, really. But, I guess that’s their problem. I had a great time.
As I left, it was clear that it had been raining for most of the afternoon. As
Medoc region, Bordeaux
it turned out, it would be raining on and off all weekend. This meant that my Sunday was a bit crappy because my plan was to walk around the city and take photos. There’s not much to say, really, so I’ll leave the photos to speak for themselves. It’s a lovely city to walk around, but I gave up mid-afternoon because I was cold and wet. I tried to visit a wine bar that Henri had recommended, but apparently it wasn’t open on Sunday afternoons.
Monday morning Henri picked me up at the hotel and we headed over to the right bank, where the wines are made predominately with merlot. I’m not a huge fan of merlot, so I wasn’t expecting much. The right bank is quite different to the left. The chateaus are smaller, for one, and the land is not as flat.
Our first stop was to chateau Tailhas in Pomeral, which as family-owned winery. The winemaker’s niece was the one who showed us around and it was a good tour. As expected, I didn’t love the wines, but they were nice enough and better than the merlots I’ve tasted in Australia.
Next, after a
look around Pomeral (the town only features a church and a school because the land is so valuable for vineyards!) we headed to the next stop in St. Emilion. This was Château La Gaffelière and the name comes from its history as a leper colony. It is a Grand Cru Class B in the St. Emilion classification (i.e. second best, which is pretty good) and the guy that showed us around was very knowledgeable and I learnt a few things that none of the other chateaus had talked about.
We headed into their wineshop in St. Emilion for the tasting. I surprised myself when I enjoyed the two cheapest wines the most; usually I have expensive tastes. What was even more surprising was that I really liked their white, a Sauvignon/Semillon/Muscadelle blend. I normally don’t like whites, but I bought myself a couple of bottles to enjoy over the next week before I leave France. At only 9 euro’s each, it apparently goes well with goat’s cheese and Henri tells me they make some good goat’s cheese in Nimes, my next destination, so that should work well.
I should mention that I decided to look up how much
wine I can bring back into Australia duty-free and unfortunately it is just 3 bottles. As I already have 2 Burgundians and a Bordeaux from Lynch- Bages, I am at the limit. With Australian duties being prohibitively high (about 44% all up for wine!) I don’t want to go over, considering how much those three wines cost me already.
Anyway, we then walked through St. Emilion up to the winebar where we were having lunch. It’s a really lovely town and quite the tourist destination. There seemed to be a couple of big tour groups in town, which Henri said were from cruises. Otherwise it was reasonably quiet, so it wasn’t too bad. After lunch we walked around taking photos and Henri was really good at pointing out photos to take, including some angles I would probably have missed on my own.
It was then onto the final tasting at Chateau de Ferrand. This was a fairly large operation owned by the Bic family. The chateau is under renovation, but the winemaking area is pretty new. For this stop I joined onto a public tour and the for the other people it was their first visit to a
chateau so the information was stuff I had heard before. I didn’t really like the wine much either, so I was ready to head back to Bordeaux.
Henri, however, offered to show me the chateau built on the site where the Hundred Years War ended. It was a lovely location and with the sun entering the photographic “golden hour”, we walked around and got some nice photos. Henri then offered to drive around to some more spots for photographs, which was really nice. This was essentially a bonus for the tour, so I really appreciated it. He was a great tour guide all in all, and he even asked for recommendations for my favourite Margaret River wineries which was cool.
And that brings my visit to Bordeaux to an end. It’s been a great four days, but it is time to move on. I would definitely like to come back someday. For now though, the wine tourism is finished and it’s back to see the Romans. I have a long drive to Nimes tomorrow.
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