Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Exploring the Bordeaux Region of France

Bordeaux: the name conjures thoughts of legendary wines in hues of deep red, French châteaux and rolling vineyards whose names are associated with quality; that specially-shaped bottle filled with the nectar of the gods, the wine known the world over as the crème de la crème of wines.

Is it any wonder that anyone lucky enough to possess a bottle of Bordeaux wine feels blessed? Names like Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, or Latour are instantly recognizable even to the amateur wine connoisseur.

Like most areas that I have found in France, Bordeaux is an area where one should spend more that a few days in exploration. First comes the ancient and beautiful city of Bordeaux itself; the nearby coastline can be visited en route to the area if you want to sit on a beach and enjoy the Atlantic. I had never associated Bordeaux with the ocean until, in an interview with French designer Philippe Starck, I learned of his plans to one day retire there, to raise oysters of all things. I had to get a map out to see that it did indeed run along the Atlantic.

A fishing hut on the ocean

The region where the wine is grown is divided in two by the Gironde River. Great vineyards grow on either side in the soil, which is heavy with rocks and pebbles that drain water away from the grapevines as well as holding in the heat during the night, something that leads to the magic of the flavorful grapes’ becoming the region's signature wine.

On the west side of the Gironde is the Médoc region, where the some of the most famous vineyards are found, those with the stronger, more robust taste. On the east side, lighter wines are made, such as St-Emilion. The sweet white Sauternes are made further to the south, and the little town of Cognac lies to the north.

We didn't have a long time to stay in the Bordeaux area, but we discovered that a great way to see the region when driving south from Paris is to start at Royan. This town was totally destroyed during WWII, but has a great beach. Taking the ferry, which leaves every hour from the dock, gave us the pleasant experience of being mildly adventurous. Landing at the northern tip of Médoc 30 minutes later we took the small D2 road and headed south, passing fabulous châteaux that dotted the landscape. Many are private homes and can’t be visited, but you can take a tour or do a wine tasting at most that you see in the tourist areas.

The town of Paulliac, the name associated with one of the greatest Bordeaux of all, has a great tourist information/wine store that is a must. Hundreds of bottles of Bordeaux are offered for sale there, and every one of them is sold at the same price as at the châteaux themselves.

The problem we had was deciding which of the many bottles to buy. It was a little like throwing a dart and seeing where it landed, or just closing your eyes and taking whichever your hand landed upon. So we decided to taste and try and then settle on a budget, since the wines come in a great variety of price ranges. There was a small selection of open bottles where, for a small charge, you could taste some of the wines for sale. We walked around seeing names or regions that we recognized, but how to decide? We finally picked three middle-priced Bordeaux wines marked as ready to drink (but better if allowed to age), just to have a variety.

Continuing south we stopped at Château Beychevelle, where we got a free guided tour. There is a little Viking boat with a sail at half mast on all the château’s labels and the Vineyard does, in fact, lie on the Gironde River, where many ships through the years used to stop to load or unload or to wait for the tide to rise. For me, the surprise highlight of the tour was going to the back of the château to see the gorgeous grounds stretching down to the river, which have been given the name of Versailles of Bordeaux, with reason. No wine tastings were offered here, but we bought three bottles anyway, and they turned out to be excellent.

The grounds of Chateau Beychevelle

We reached Lamarque and caught a ferry again, this time to Blay, with its citadel, very much worth a visit. Our next stop was the medieval city of St.-Emilion. Besides having good wine (we bought three bottles from different vineyards to compare, on the recommendation of the owner of one of the many wine stores there), this city is a delight to explore, especially the cathedral built entirely underground; it was carved out of a huge rock and took monks over 300 years to finish. St. Emilion himself had a small chapel that he carved out in the soft stone.

The best way to see this region is to stay in the area for a week. Highlighting our own too-short stay too was the bed-and-breakfast called La Sauvageonne, where we stayed near the small town of St.-Cier-sur-Gironde. A little oasis in an ocean of vineyards owned by delightful Marc Rudat and Alain Bienfait, it is one of the nicest inns I've seen. The rooms were huge, with luxurious bathrooms to match. For those wanting a longer stay, a gite with a kitchen is available.

Strolling around the grounds was heaven, and best of all, there was a swimming pool that we took full advantage of during hot afternoons. Alain himself prepared and served us one of the best meals we had during our time in Bordeaux, consisting of braised pork tenderloin and vegetables, a crisp salad dressed in a tangy vinaigrette, and Poire Belle Helèn for dessert. As we just happened to have a great bottle of Bordeaux from Château Beychevelle to go along with our sumptuous dinner, we couldn't have had a nicer time. Bikes are available to wend your way through nearby vineyards or down to the Gironde Estuary to gaze at the water or maybe spot a bird or two.

The grounds of Les Sauvageonne

Les Sauvageonne (Bed & Breakfast)
2 les Mauvillains
St.-Palais, France
05 57 32 92 15

Getting there:
There are hourly TGV( high speed) trains from Paris to Bordeaux.
It is a 6 hour drive from Paris to Royan on highway A10, where a ferry can be taken to Medoc.

Médoc area:
Le St-Julien
4km south of Paulliac via D2, 05 56 59 63 87
Built in 1850, this old village bakery with beamed ceilings servs elaborate regional cuisine.

Le Bouchon
3 Place Marché, directly across from the underground cathedral
05 57 24 62 81
Simple meals in a great location.

Information on Bordeaux and its wine

If you are interested in a specific wine and vineyard, call or e-mail ahead for reservations; there is seldom space left in any of the tours on the day you arrive. Some vineyards, such as Mouton Rothschild, charge a fee for tours, with an additional amount for a wine tasting.

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