Have you ever flown to Bordeaux from Paris? On a train? The TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse) will get you there in about three hours. Look at the map. That’s amazingly fast. But what does Paris have to do with an article about Bordeaux, you ask? Not much, really. Except that just about every foreign traveler’s journey in France usually begins in Paris. Yours will, too. And as fate would have it, so did this one.
I arrived in “the Paris of the South” on an early spring afternoon and soon discovered that I already had a soft spot in my heart for Bordeaux. Growing up among the vineyards of Central California probably had a lot to do with this. The similarities are sometimes uncanny. Bordeaux is, of course, the world’s most famous wine city, resting serenely on the banks of the Garonne, where it joins the Dordogne and flows out to the nearby Atlantic. It’s much larger than I expected, being the sixth largest city (and third largest port) in France, but it has little in common with that intimidating metropolis to the north and it has a certain local, almost small-town touch to it. Its world-famous châteaux are literally close enough to walk to. But I rented a car anyway, of course.
My room near the Place de Quinconces had a good location between the Esplanade des Quinconces and Bordeaux’s main shopping district and after a quick look around and bite to eat I wasted no time in unfolding my maps to plan the following day’s expedition. Gazing at the maps, it quickly became clear to me why the Girondins (local people) are so proud of their region. The countryside surrounding Bordeaux is packed with some of the greatest names associated with wine. Unfortunately, I would only have three days here. That wasn’t going to be enough. I would not have the time to see all of the vineyards I would have liked to, so I would have to plan carefully.
Luckily, the five most important wine districts are located in a relatively compact area and nicely divided between the left and the right banks of the Garonne. To the right are Pomerol and St-Emilion. To the left are Médoc, Sauternes and Graves. I knew that I would have to work systematically – and quickly. Sadly, I had to accept the fact that I would not be able to visit the other famous areas between the two rivers (Entre-Deux-Mers) and to the east of the Garonne (Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Bourg). In the end I decided to begin with the right bank. I suppose the main reason for this being that the best wine I had ever tasted had come from St-Emilion.
I started out early the next morning, around 11:00 or so – hey, I’m on an expedition, people, not on the run. It didn’t take me long to reach St-Emilion, however. St-Emilion is Bordeaux’s oldest wine region. The Romans cultivated wine here. It sits quaintly upon a small hilltop with a lovely view to the valley below. But I wasn’t particularly interested in any of that quaint and lovely stuff just right now. I was looking for wine. And I had no trouble locating dozens of shops, all apparently waiting for the arrival of cultureless souls like myself. After some intensive conversation with one particular shop keeper, he recommended a bottle of Grand Cru AC 1998 (Appelation Contrôlée) from the Chateau Ausonne (named after the Roman poet Ausonius). I bought it on the spot. He also gave me directions to the Chateau. I couldn’t find the place, however, exited as I was to continue on to Pomerol.
The inhabitants of Pomerol like to call their village “the Republic of Pomeral”. They consider themselves to be quite unique, you see. They have every right to. Their wines certainly are. Although “the experts” say that the Pomerols are not quite in the same league with the wines of St-Emilion or the Médoc (Pomerol’s wine culture is relatively new), this district is nonetheless home to some of the most famous châteaux, among them the world-famous Château Petrus. Pomerol’s location (as also with St-Emilion) has had a lot do with its great success. Because access to it was easier than to other wine areas and because most of the wine brokers traditionally had their offices in nearby Libourne, these districts were more effectively marketed than the others.
One says that that the best vineyards always overlook a church here. So I drove to the nearest one I could find, asked a few naive questions about this and other silly claims and was promptly directed to a “special” wine shop down the street. There is always a special wine shop down the street here. A tasting or two and a little friendly conversation was enough to sell me on a wine I would never have bought otherwise, being, well, much too expensive for me: a 1989 Vieux Château Certan. I drove off in a bit of a daze (it was the price, not the alcohol) and spent the rest of the afternoon purposely getting lost among the winding roads and countless, beautiful vineyards. I was back at the hotel in Bordeaux by nightfall.
The next morning I drove off to the Médoc. Unlike in Pomerol, they say that the best vineyards here are the ones overlooking the river. And pretty much everything is overlooking the river in this area, too. I headed straight for Pauillac in the Haut-Médoc (the Haut-Médoc is the southern part of this 50 mile long peninsula, the Médoc is the northern part). Pauillac is one of the most well-known communes here, ranking right up there with the world-famous chateaux Lafite Rothschild and Margaux. A friend of mine had recommended that I take a look at the fantastic wine museum there, which I did and really enjoyed. Before moving on, I did some quick tasting at the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and bought my next bottle: a bourgeois superieur produced at the Chateau Vieux Robin.
I drove from here to the district of Graves. Graves means gravel in French and these gravelly hills just southwest of town are known for producing some of the world’s great dry white wines. These are usually made by combining the Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Sémillon grapes. I stopped and asked directions to the village of St-Macaire and stopped to have a small glass of white and enjoy the famous view of the Garonne. After a leisurely lunch and quick snooze (in the car) I stopped at the next wine shop I could find and purchased a bottle of Château du Seuil – to go.
It only seemed appropriate to finish up my expedition with a dessert wine, so I took a quick drive on to the Sauternes region. This small, roughly 5,000 acre area of low-lying hills and tiny valleys near the Ciron (a small tributary of the Garonne) is most famous for producing the Château d’Yquem, though many other sweet and semi-sweet appellations abound here, as well. These wines rely more on the predominance of the Sémillon grape. I got to try one which particularly impressed me: a Sainte-Croix du-Mont. It was getting late now and I was exhausted and I would be returning to Paris the next day. I was also running out of money. But needless to say, I bought a bottle of this fine wine, too.
My flight back to Paris on the TGV that following afternoon was even faster than the first one. Or so it seemed. How should I put it? Let’s just say that, well, the part in the title about the five bottles of Bordeaux? Only four of them actually made it back.