A Guide to Sipping Through one of France’s Most lauded Wine Regions
By Lanee Lee
Located in the southwest, France’s Bordeaux wine region is a big deal—possibly only rivaled by Champagne and Napa in the world of fabulous wine destinations. With 57 appellations comprising of over 9,000 wineries on nearly 300,000 acres of vineyards, it’s an even bigger deal to conquer in a lifetime—much less a holiday.
Barreling down the center of it is the Garonne River. This divides the wine region into Left Bank, home to those fabled wineries with expensive, collectible wines, and the Right Bank, wines not nearly as famous, yet in some cases, can match Left Bank reds in price and quality.
With so much to explore, follow this guide to Bordeaux’s appellations based on what type of wine you like to drink:
If you like Merlot blends…
Located on the Right Bank, two of the most esteemed Merlot-blend producing appellations are St-Émilion and Pomerol. Predominantly, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes are utilized in winemaking here. For an excellent sampling of wines from the area, visit Maison du Vin de Saint-Émilion, a wine school in the medieval city of St-Émilion, for wine tastings. Or, head straight to the sources at some of the Right Bank’s most prestigious wineries, such as Château Cheval Blanc (sporting an $18.5 million cellar), Château Angélus and Pétrus in Pomerol.
If you like Cabernet Sauvignon blends…
Home to all but one of the first growth wineries and all of the Cru Bourgeois, the Medoc is Bordeaux’s ‘celebrity’ wine region due to its prestigious chateaux. First growth or Premier Crus are some of the world’s most coveted and costly wines, such as wines from Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Haut Brion.
Within Medoc, there are eight appellations. If you’re short on time, focus in on visiting Margaux St. Julien, Pauillac, St. Estephe and the Haut Medoc appellations.
Hot tip: Best to hire a guide with connections in order to get access to those esteemed wineries, such as Bespoke Bordeaux tours, run by Alexander Hall—a highly knowledgeable Brit that knows the wine region as well as any Bordelaise. And most wineries are not one right after another, as in Napa. Just one more reason to hire a guide—being the designated driver in Bordeaux wine country is never ideal.
If you like dry white wines,
such as Sauvignon Blanc…
Although red wines outnumber white by roughly 10 to one, Bordeaux’s white wines, including its sweet white wines, are gaining in prestige and popularity. The four appellations that produce a majority of these lesser known, yet no less exceptional, dry white wines include Bordeaux Blanc, Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves and Pessac-Léognan. Wines from these regions are made predominately from Sauvignon Blanc grapes with Sémillon added for substance and character and sometimes Muscadelle for aroma on the nose. White Bordeaux wines aren’t especially aromatic, as a California Chardonnay, however—they are elegant and refined.
In general, whites from the Entre-Deux-Mers region are aged in stainless steel, uncomplicated sippers and should be consumed within a year or two of release, such as Chateau Sainte Marie—don’t miss their Vieilles Vignes 2013.
The more expensive whites, ideal for aging and wine cellar collecting, are usually from the Pessac-Léognan region, such as La Clarté de Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2010 or Les Hauts de Smith Pessac-Léognan 2011.
If you like dessert white wines…
Sauternes and Barsac, Bordeaux’s primary appellations of the golden elixirs, are wonderful to visit to learn an entirely different approach to winemaking. For instance, the same grapes are used to make sweet wine as in dry white Bordeaux, however, the best grapes that result in those intensely concentrated flavors are those with ‘noble rot’— a fungus (Botrytis cinerea) that attacks ripe grapes and causes an increase in their sugar content. The most famous dessert wine maker in Bordeaux is Château d’Yquem—the only Sauternes with a first growth classification. If in Barsac, Château Doisy-Daëne is a must-stop as one of the region’s stalwart producers of outstanding dessert wines since the 1920s. Their 2013 dessert wine is served at the French embassy in Washington D.C.
Here are few things to know before you go; from best months to visit, to special events worthy of making a special trip, and the best Bordeaux vacations:
School is Cool
Because the appellation d’origine controlee (AOC)—French wine designation based on the concept of terroir— is pretty complex in the region, take a two-hour to two-day class at Bordeaux Wine School in the city of Bordeaux before heading out to the vineyards. And what’s not to love about a lesson that includes wine tasting?
Wine n’ Dine
What the French wine regions, including Bordeaux, offer which is unique are private dining options in prestigious wine estates. Not a restaurant per se, just an opportunity to have an intimate dinner for you and your friends prepared by a talented private chef and pairings of the estate’s rare wines. Reserve well in advance if you decide to go this route—roughly a month or so. Although it requires more planning, here are three that are well worth the extra effort—especially if you’re an epicurean that enjoys learning the intricacies of wine pairings with a variety of dishes:
Château Haut Bailly, Pessac-Léognan
They have their own in-house chef and can cater for small intimate groups in the château or larger groups in their reception room. http://www.chateau-haut-bailly.com
Château Phelan Segur, Saint
The in-house chef works closely with the restaurants owned by the same family: Le Taillevent in Paris and Les Crayeres in Reims. http://www.phelansegur.com
Château La Lagune, Haut Medoc, Medoc
Dinner is served in an ornate vaulted kitchen. Guests can also stay in the château—a rare offering in France.
Timing is everything. Weeks or months to avoid when most wineries are closed include: January, it’s cold and many are in blending season; the first week of April when wineries see only wine industry or VIP clients; and August, when the entire country goes on holiday. If you plan to visit on the weekend, make sure to call ahead to verify weekend hours—many are completely shuttered on Sundays. Due to the pleasant weather and new bud growth on the vines, May and June are ideal months to visit for both the sunny days and stunning photo opportunities.
Two events worth making the trip for:
World’s Largest Wine Museum Opens
Spread over ten floors, La Cité du Vin museum will be like Spain’s Guggenheim or Sydney’s opera house—an architectural wonder in the city of Bordeaux. Like a colossal, golden decanter rising from the banks of the Garonne River, the ‘wine city’ is geared for visitors of all ages to discover the history of the world’s wines and its influence in shaping civilizations, dating back to 7,000 B.C. Slated to open in June 2016.
Both a costume party and an athletic feat of ‘dining and dashing’, Le Marathon du Medoc is playfully known as the World’s Longest Marathon. The route passes by 59 of the Medoc region’s most beloved wineries with 18 wine stops that include plenty of sustenence such as cheese, oysters, steak and sausage. This year’s race is September 10.
Luxury Bordeaux Holidays
Don’t have the time to plan a trip on your own? Here are three unforgettable trips, from biking to boating through Bordeaux:
Cox & Kings: Breathtaking Bordeaux
On this completely bespoke, privately guided trip with Cox & Kings, you’ll visit Grand Cru Class wine estates, explore the Cognac region and sample its famous brandy, and sample fresh oysters from the waters of Arcachon Bay.
11 days & 10 nights
From $4,720 per person
Viking River Cruises: Chateaux, Rivers and Wine
Sail down the Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde Rivers aboard an elegant small ship with stops along the way to explore famed wine regions. At night, you feast on finely prepared dinners paired with exquisite Bordeaux wines via a master sommelier.
8 Days / 7 Days
From $2,699 per person
DuVine: Bordeaux Bike Tour
Cycle amongst endless acres of vineyards from the Dordogne to the Gironde River while tasting fine vintages from the region’s premier wineries. Every night ends with a stay at a regal châteaux with a decadent (and well-deserved) meal.
6 Days / 5 Nights
From $4995 per person