Hit the celebrated Châteaux and explore the prominent villages, but don't neglect the lesser known ones either when visiting Bordeaux wine cellars.
The World's Most Famous WineRegion
Bordeaux and its countryside is a treasure trove of the fermented grape and gastronomic delights. This region is the source of the world's greatest wines, a stalwart statement that might draw some argument from California or a snicker and appropriate gesture from Italy but there it is. For the most part, the native Bordelais refute the arguments and carry on with their noses indifferently aloft.
Bordeaux, in the southwest of France, is still a pilgrimage destination for wine lovers around the world. There are other reasons to visit the region in the French southwest. There's the varied landscape that's loaded with forests, crisscrossed by rivers and streams and covered with vineyards. There are also the picturesque villages, history, hospitable people and good but simple cuisine. Ultimately, the overwhelming reason to visit Bordeaux is its celebrated red and white wines.
Bordeaux produces both red and white wines but red is what sticks in everyone's mind and rouge comprises about 80% of total production. The Bordeaux reds of note are concoctions of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot with some Malbec and Carmenère also finding their way into the mix. The Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the major white varietals. The following are some helpful guidelines and tips to help get you organized when visiting Bordeaux wine cellars on your own pilgrimage to taste some of the world's most prized wines.
The renowned wine country is loaded with wine châteaux big, small and in-between, famous, unknown, and not-so famous. Bordeaux is actually divided into multiple sub-regions with the most important wineries located on the left and right banks of the Gironde River. The following is a general list of the most important sub-regions to visit.
This is the substantial Left Bank appellation with the southern section referred to as Haut-Médoc and Cabernet Sauvignon country. Margaux, St.-Julian, Pauillac and St-Estèphe are the most important and in the Haut-Médoc. Four of the Premier Crus (First Growths) reside here.
South of the Bordeaux and where the fifth Premier Cru, Château Haut-Brion, is located. Its best appellation is Pessac-Léognan. Graves is where both red and white are produced.
- Sauterne and Barsac
These regions are south of Graves and are renowned for their lush and sweet Sauternes.
On the Right Bank you will find Château Cheval Blanc.
A neighbor to St. Emilion on the Right Bank and home to Château Petrus. Merlot anyone?
Planning Your Visit
The starting gate for most people is the region's namesake city, Bordeaux. It straddles the Garonne River and is just south of its confluence with the Dordogne River which then turns into the large Gironde River that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Gironde becomes the divider that creates the left-bank and right-bank assignations for the different châteaux with the left bank ones being more prestigious. There are several options to get to Bordeaux. One can fly of course, or drive. The best way is to take the high-speed TGV train from Paris which takes 3 to 3 ½ hours and gives you a chance to see the French countryside. In Bordeaux you can rent a car to use to explore the wine country. For ideas on where to stay, where to shop and where to dine, you can try the Office de Tourisme de Bordeaux which is a good resource to help you plan your trips logistics.
Footloose or Guided
Your biggest dilemma is whether to go independent or to latch onto a guided tour and let someone else take charge. Both have merit. If you are an experienced traveler and enjoy doing research and planning then visiting Bordeaux wine cellars won't present too much difficulty. For those that don't, there are many tour companies that specialize in arranging wine tours in France. They usually offer fully guided tours taking over your travel headaches or let you customize your agenda. They however, will not suffer your hangovers for you. The benefit of a guided tour is there is somebody who speaks French, knows the best places in Bordeaux and may have "inside" connections to get you a special Châteaux tour and tasting or an impossible dinner reservation. These tours can be larger groups or smaller, private chauffeured jaunts. One recommendation is to combine independent travel with a few strategic guided tours.
There are several guidebooks available that are excellent. A couple of good sources are "official" French websites that can augment a guidebook. Check out the Office de Tourisme de Bordeaux for loads of information and links, including local guided tours. Also, CIVB has a good site to learn about Bordeaux wine. They are a private association of Bordeaux wine professionals.
The following are some sample guided tour companies that may suit your needs.
The first thing to know is that most châteaux will welcome visitors for tours and tasting by appointment only. Don't plan a surprise visit and expect to be welcomed. Also, keep in mind that many châteaux that offer tours may not provide any tastings or sell their wine onsite. Don't hesitate to ask questions of your hosts, the Bordelais are proud of their wine and heritage and love to engage in discussions about both.
Sipping the Bordeaux
The following listings are for the leading Châteaux in which the most people are familiar. As usual, in the wine industry consolidation of wineries is not unusual and many hold other wineries as well. Don't limit yourself to only the Premier Cru because there are many, many exceptional non-First Growth Châteaux waiting to be discovered. For something off the beaten path, visit the garagiste winemakers that buck the Bordeaux system. These are small independent winemakers producing wine their own way in a boutique or garage-like setting. Examples? Think of Le Pin or Jean-Luc Thunevin.
- Château Margaux
- Château Latour
- Château Haut-Brion
- Château Mouton Rothschild
- Château Lafite Rothschild
- Château Cheval Blanc
- Château d'Yquem
And how about Château Pètrus? Forget it; the Welcome sign is not hung out for visitors. "Mon dieu."