Winner of the 2014 Great Wine Capitals Blogger Contest
This year’s New Year’s Resolution was simple: improve my knowledge of Bordeaux wines, turn a casual relationship into something more meaningful.
When it came to ordering or visiting the Bordeaux section of my wine store, I understood Bordeaux, but I didn’t really know it. Browsing this section has always been a standard “go to” for steak nights, pizza dinners, or just a general stock up, but with so many choices I never really felt like I really knew enough about what I was buying.
For years these names of villages didn’t mean that much to me – that is, until about three weeks ago. I vowed to book a trip to get my head around this wine once and for all. With a few connections I managed to pull together quite an impressive itinerary of appointments, from large to small producers. I dedicated four days and hit the main regions: Pessac-Léognan, the Médoc, Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and Sauternes. After all, with 8,000 châteaux in this one region you have to plan ahead and know where you want to go.
Bordeaux is so easy to get to from Paris on the TGV. If you haven’t tried the high-speed trains in France yet, I can promise you they are better than flying. I arrived at Gare de Bordeaux Saint-Jean in three hours, picked up a car and set off on my journey.
In my head I’d imagined I’d find plenty of elaborate châteaux, perhaps some pretentiousness, and even with three years of wine classes behind me, winery owners rolling their eyes at an amateur taster. What I found was quite the opposite. Everyone I met was so welcoming and extremely knowledgeable about their wines and the region. Here they are passionate about their terroir and they love to tell you about it. (You cannot go to a château without learning about the terroir, and how it differs every three feet.) Here, you really are in wine country. No pretentiousness – just real people with great stories.
Patrice Pages, owner at Château Fourcas-Dupré in Listrac-Médoc walked me around the winery stressing the importance of the terroir, explaining how even the barrels have a terroir. “Terroir” is a French term that normally refers to the soil types, climate, typography – unique characteristics of a specific area. I had never even thought about barrels having terroir before. But, yes, I can see this now. “We want to make elegant wines with soft tannins. We are not looking to make ‘body building’ wines” he joked with all seriousness. I really adore meeting owners and chatting with small family producers. This is when you can really realize the passion and dedication that goes into making these wines. Here wine is not only in their blood – it’s everything to them. Château Fourcas-Dupré has 43 hectares of vines.
By contrast, Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac is much larger. It has 120 hectares of vines and five horses that they use to plow and maintain the vineyard. Here they make wines that even Robert Parker can’t fault. Both the 2009 and 2010 vintages received 100-pt scores. But, what is really impressive is that Pontet-Canet is both a certified biodynamic and organic vineyard. What it takes in the vineyard and in the winery (and the expense of doing so) to make these wines is absolutely fascinating. I smile every time I see this wine on the shelves at wine stores. I can now see why it is worth every penny of the $70 or more you’ll see these listed for, depending on the vintage.
Château la Dauphine in Fronsac also topped my list of favorites. Here you’ll find a blend of modern sophistication and centuries of history. Just standing in front of the château itself on a quiet misty morning in February, I couldn’t help but think what it must have been like to arrive by horse and coach as its first owner, wife of Dauphin Louis Ferdinand de France (son of Louis XV) Marie-Josèphe de Saxe did in the 1750s. This is a mystical place that by contrast, has a sparkly, modern winery with a young, sophisticated feel. I had such a great time learning about the winery with my host Marion that I got carried away at the boutique buying carafes and wine accessories – but I have such great memories every time I use them.
Lunches and dinners also offered opportunities for memorable experiences. When no tourists are in sight, the restaurants in these towns are packed full of winemakers, winery staff and owners. The food here is exceptional and if you’re a foodie, places like Café Lavinal in Pauillac, La Table du Lavoir at Les Sources de Caudalie in Pessac-Léognan and L’Auberge des Vignes in Sauternes should be at the top of your list. If you can understand a little French you can amuse yourself by listening to their conversations like I did. If your French is not so good, you don’t need to worry either. Everyone I met at the châteaux and restaurants spoke perfect English. Make sure you get reservations at the restaurants as they are small places and only serve a certain number of guests.
I’d go back to Saint-Émilion in a heartbeat, as it’s the most impressive town you’ll visit in the Bordeaux region. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to 250 kilometers of limestone caves and 52 wine stores. Having visited many medieval hill towns in Europe I can tell you that this is a very special place. The vineyards are jarringly old and rustic, the caves are impressive and the wines are incredible.
Sauternes was another fascinating place. I have to admit I didn’t know a lot about the sweet wines of Bordeaux, but in less than 45 minutes drive from the city you can visit the likes of Château d’Yquem and neighboring vineyards of Château Guiraud and Château Suiduiraut. If you really want to impress your friends, I think showing off your Sauternes knowledge is an excellent idea.
The city of Bordeaux was another surprise. This is not a sleepy town. Amongst all the historic buildings, I found a young, hip vibe and an abundance of wine bars and great restaurants. I found it was a great place to base myself, and from here you really are only 30 minutes away from any of the wine villages. I loved Max Bordeaux, a wine bar where you can taste many of the region’s top wines by the glass and also attend a class.
My trip to Bordeaux was not only a magical escape to the home of wine, but a fantastic investment that pays off every time I look at a wine list or visit a wine store. Not only do I know what I like based on the village – but it brings back so many great memories for me every time I see these châteaux and villages mentioned. I only really scratched the surface in four days but it was enough to dramatically improve my wine buying knowledge, and to provide me with a lifetime of inspiration.
This article was written for Wines of Bordeaux newsletter. To learn more about the wines of Bordeaux sign up for their newsletter here.
Interested in visiting Bordeaux? A trip like this is not easy to do on your own and tasting reservations are mandatory. In fact, I strongly recommend booking everything through a local expert with personal connections at the chateaus. There are many companies that do this, but I worked with Caroline Matthews at Uncorked Wine Tours to plan my itinerary and arrange the tastings and lunch reservations. Caroline did an excellent job of designing my itinerary around the types of chateaus and areas I wanted to see, arranging lunches and preparing me for what to expect.