Explore Poitou-Charentes and the Atlantic coast
Touring the local vineyards and sampling a few home-grown wines is one of the great pleasures of Bordeaux. The wine regions lie in a great semicircle around the city, starting with the Médoc in the north, then skirting east through St-Émilion, before finishing south of the city among the vineyards of the Sauternes. In between, the less prestigious districts are also worth investigating, especially Blaye, to the north of Bordeaux, and Entre-Deux-Mers, to the east.
You will quickly see that there’s more to the region than wine. Many of the Médoc’s eighteenth-century châteaux are architectural treasures, while a vast fortress dominates the town of Blaye, and there’s an older, ruined castle at Villandraut on the edge of the Sauternes. St-Émilion, loved by tourists, is the prettiest of the wine towns, and has the unexpected bonus of a cavernous underground church. For scenic views you can’t beat the green, gentle hills of Entre-Deux-Mers and its ruined abbey, La Sauve-Majeur.Read More
The landscape of the Médoc, a patch of land between the Atlantic coast forests and the Gironde, is monotonous: gravel plains, the brown water of the estuary, and gravelly soil. The D2 wine road, heading off the N15 from Bordeaux, passes through Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe, where many of the famous châteaux reside.
According to legend, the great Frankish hero Roland was buried in Blaye, which was a port of the Gaul Santones in pre-Roman times. The town played a crucial role in the wars against the English, and the French Wars of Religion. The citadelle was built by the great military engineer Vauban, but has never seen action.
Blaye has a long history of viniculture, as the area was originally planted by the Romans, and is also known for a messy-looking sweet confectionery, praslines, made here since the seventeenth century. Another speciality is caviar; legend has it that it was introduced to residents by noble Russians who fled to France during the Revolution.
The green slopes north of the Garonne were planted long before the Médoc. Wine here is powerful, richly coloured, fruity, and cheaper than on the opposite riverbank. The Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Blaye are quintessential pleasant, inexpensive reds. Visit the Maison du Vin des Premières Côtes de Blaye on cours Vauban to stock up. You can get a good bottle for around €5.
St-Émilion, 35km east of Bordeaux, and a short train trip, is an essential visit. The old grey houses of this fortified medieval town straggle down the steep south-hanging slope of a low hill, with the green froth of the summer’s vines crawling over its walls. Many of the growers still keep up the old tradition of planting roses at the ends of the rows, which in pre-pesticide days served as an early-warning system against infection, the idea being that the commonest bug, oidium, went for the roses first, giving three days’ notice of its intentions.
The best way to see St Émilion is on a guided tour. Tours begin at the grotte de l’Ermitage, where it’s said that St Émilion lived as a hermite in the eighth century, sleeping on a stone ledge. The tour continues in the half-ruined Trinity Chapel, which was converted into a cooperage (barrel-makers’) during the Revolution. Striking frescoes are still visible. Across the yard is a passage beneath the belfry leading to the catacombs, where three chambers dug out of the soft limestone were used as an ossuary between the eighth and eleventh centuries.
Below is the church itself. Simple and huge, the entire structure – barrel vaulting, great square piers and all – was hacked out of the rock. The interior was once painted, but only faint traces survived the Revolution, when it was used as a gunpowder factory. Every June the wine council – La Jurade – assembles here in red robes to judge last year’s wine and decide whether each viticulteur’s produce deserves the appellation contrôlée rating.
Entre-Deux-Mers (“between two seas”) lies between the tidal waters of the Dordogne and Garonne. It’s the most attractive area in the wine region, with gentle hills and medieval villages. Its wines, including the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, are mainly dry whites, produced by over forty caves cooperatives. They’re considered good, but not up to the level of Médocs or dry Graves produced to the south.
Around 25km east of Bordeaux is the ruined eleventh-century abbey La Sauve Majeure, an important stop for pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Thick woods once surrounded the abbey – in fact its name is from the Latin silva major (large forest). All that remains today are the Romanesque apse and apsidal chapels, and outstanding sculpted capitals in the chancel. The best illustrate stories from the Old and New Testaments; a pensive Daniel in the lions’ den is particularly winning. There’s a small museum at the entrance, with some keystones from the fallen roofs.
Sauternes is a slumbering village surrounded by vines and dominated by the Maison du Sauternes (wmaisondusauternes.com) at one end of the village, and a pretty church at the other. The maison looks like a treasure-trove; the golden bottles with white labels are beautiful. A non-profit organization, the maison offers tastings, expert advice and good prices.
The Sauternes region, which extends southeast from Bordeaux for 40km along the left bank of the Garonne, is an ancient winemaking area, first planted during the Roman occupation. The distinctive golden wine of the area is sweet, round, full-bodied and spicy, with a long aftertaste. It’s not necessarily a dessert wine, either; try it with Roquefort cheese. Gravelly terraces with a limestone subsoil help create the delicious taste, but mostly it’s due to a peculiar microclimate of morning autumn mists and afternoons of sun and heat which causes Botrytis cinerea fungus, or “noble rot”, to flourish on the grapes, letting the sugar concentrate and introducing some intense flavours. When the grapes are picked they’re not a pretty sight: carefully selected by hand, only the most shrivelled, rotting bunches are taken. The wines of Sauternes are some of the most sought-after in the world, with bottles of Château d’Yquem, in particular, fetching thousands of euros. Sadly that particular château does not offer tastings, but you can wander around the buildings and grounds, two minutes’ drive north of Sauternes.
The wines of Bordeaux
The wines of Bordeaux
The Bordeaux wine region circles the city, enjoying near-perfect climatic conditions and soils ranging from limestone to sand and pebbles. It’s the largest quality wine district in the world, producing around 500 million bottles a year – over half of France’s quality wine output and ten percent, by value, of the world’s wine trade.
The Gironde estuary, fed by the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers, determines the lie of the land. The Médoc lies northwest of Bordeaux, between the Atlantic coast and the River Gironde. Its vines are deeply rooted in poor, gravelly soil, producing good, full-bodied red wines; the region’s eight appellations are Médoc, Haut Médoc, St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Moulis en Médoc, Listrac-Médoc and Margaux. Southwest of Bordeaux are the vast vineyards of Graves, producing the best of the region’s dry white wines, along with punchy reds, from some of the most prestigious communes in France, like Pessac, Talence, Martillac and Villenave d’Ornon. They spread down to Langon and envelop the areas of Sauternes and Barsac. The sweet white dessert wines produced there are considered among the best in the world. East of the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne, the Côtes de Blaye produce some good-quality white table wines, mostly dry, and a smaller quantity of reds. The Côtes de Bourg, an area that spreads down to the renowned St Émilion region specialize in solid whites and reds. Here, there are a dozen producers who have earned the Premiers Grands Crus Classés classification. Their wines are full, rich reds that don’t have to mature as long as the Médoc wines. Lesser-known neighbouring areas include the vineyards of Pomerol, Lalande and Côtes de Francs, all producing reds similar to St-Émilion but at more affordable prices.
Between the Garonne and the Dordogne is Entre-Deux-Mers, which yields large quantities of inexpensive, drinkable table whites, mainly from the Sauvignon grape. Stretching along the north bank of the Garonne, the vineyards of the Côtes de Bordeaux feature fruity reds and a smaller number of dry, sweet whites.
The classification of Bordeaux wines is a complex business. Apart from the usual appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC ) labelling, the wines of the Médoc châteaux are graded into five crus, or growths. These were established as early as 1855, based on the prices the wines had fetched over the last few hundred years. Four were voted the best or Premier Grand Cru Classé: Margaux, Lafitte, Latour and Haut-Brion. With the exception of Château Mouton-Rothschild, which moved up a class in 1973 to become the fifth Premier Grand Cru Classé, there have been no official changes, so divisions between the crus should not be taken too seriously.
If you’re interested in buying wine, head for the châteaux, where you’ll get the best price and the opportunity to sample and receive expert advice before purchasing. To visit the châteaux, ask at the Maison du Vin in each wine-producing village. In Bordeaux, the best place to sample wines is La Vinothèque (wla-vinotheque.com) on 8 Cours du 30 Juillet. The tourist office runs guided tours, covering all the main wine areas (from €28 per person). The guide translates the wine-maker’s commentary into English and answers any questions. Tastings are generous, and expert tuition is included.