I vividly remember the first time I visited a vineyard as a travel writer. I was touring the Niagara Escarpment wine region of Canada and asked a group of winemakers what their work philosophy was. They told me they were anti-Bordeaux. Their disdain was such that when they traveled to the aforementioned French wine region for research, they actually took pictures of themselves flipping the bird at the famous chateaux. Message received. Bordeaux was snobbish, inaccessible, too big for his breeches.
I kept this story to myself during a tour of the Bordeaux vineyards this fall as part of a press trip. However, late at night and surrounded by many bottles, something inside me decided to share the story. (I think we can all agree that the “something” in question was the wine!) Much to my delight, the young winemakers at my table burst into laughter. And, to my surprise, they agreed with these Niagara producers. Bordeaux was too tight, they said, and they had pledged to make it more accessible. Suddenly, things in Bordeaux no longer seemed snobbish at all. Turns out you don’t have to be a wine expert to have an amazing time in Bordeaux. You just need a little orientation!
1. Know the name a bit
Researching a trip to Bordeaux can be a bit confusing at times, thanks in part to the many meanings of the word itself. Bordeaux is the name of a city, the ninth largest in France. It can also refer to the municipal region around the city. And, of course, Bordeaux refers to a wine region. And what a wine region!
The Bordeaux vineyard is the largest in France and one of the largest in the world. And its fans would make a passionate case that it’s the best. In his book Single Wine, sommelier Aldo Sohm writes, “When you ask the critics for their lifetime top ten, I promise there will be at less two Bordeaux in there.
And that leads to another meaning of the word Bordeaux. It may be shorthand for a good bottle of wine, usually red, that comes from this region. But the only thing it’s not is a grape. The region is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes but there is no ‘Bordeaux’ grape variety”.
2. Master the geography
The Bordeaux wine region is a bit like New York. The city is divided into boroughs further subdivided into neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own price and its own value proposition and it doesn’t matter how big or small it is, but everyone agrees that being near the river is always a big deal. Everyone makes pizza and you have distinct local styles and individual producers who stake their reputation on small details like nuance in ingredients and the preparation process.
This is Bordeaux for you. It has several large regions and within each there are smaller regions called appellations. “Appellation” comes from the French word “appel”, which means “to call”. Just as you can only call yourself a true Brooklynite if you live in Brooklyn and cheer on the Nets, in Bordeaux a wine is only part of an appellation if it grew up there — and follows certain standards. In this case, it’s not the sports team you are supporting, but how and how the grapes are used. Instead of pizzerias, there are wine estates called chateaux. In some of the smaller appellations, there could be a few half-dozen chateaux producing their namesake wine.
3. Appreciate the role of the river
These regions and appellations are strongly influenced by their proximity to water. Bordeaux is literally shaped by the Gironde estuary (the point where the Dordogne and the Garonne meet and then head out to sea). The Gironde bisects the region, creating a left bank and a right bank – as well as a pocket of land in the space between the Dordogne and the Garonne known as the Between two seas or “between two seas”. Generally, the Left Bank tends to produce more expensive wines and grows a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, while the Right is a bit more affordable and often produces Merlot grapes. However, the truth is that you can find bargains and splurges and different grapes just about anywhere.
In case you suddenly feel a little bamboozled by the thought of remembering riverbanks and appellations, it helps to know that Bordeaux, like all wine regions, is really all about agriculture. The quality of water, landscape, soil and growing conditions affect wine like any other crop. And in Bordeaux, you have amazing farmers bringing it all together!
4. You really don’t have to be an expert!
If you think the thought of visiting dozens of appellations, each containing a multitude of chateaux (aka wine estates) is overwhelming, you’re absolutely right. And this is where Bordeaux freedom lies. No one could know every wine, every year, every cellar, every appellation. You could spend your whole life knowing the wines of a very small appellation, the differences in the terroir of each château, the effects of aging in different barrels. As such, can one really call oneself a Bordeaux expert? It’s impossible! Which means it’s a region for everyone.
5. You can stay with the city
There is no right or wrong place to start a Bordeaux wine tour. However, it’s worth mentioning that if you can’t leave the city, you can still enjoy a wonderful wine experience. Bordeaux is home to an excellent wine museum, the Cité du Vin. A glass of wine at the rooftop bar is included with entry and there is also a superb restaurant on site.
Bordeaux is full of wine shops but the best of the best is L’Intendant. Located in the heart of the city, a few steps from the Opera, this multi-storey wine shop is built around a giant circular staircase and is a dream for photographers and oenophiles alike. You’ll find cheap bottles on the ground floor, as well as helpful staff who can arrange international shipping.
6. Explore Wine Country Guided Day Trips
There are dozens of guided tour options in the Bordeaux wine region and the tourist office has a well-organized page listing many of them. The cheapest excursions, starting from just a few euros, are designed for people with their own means of transport. Look beyond the prosaic vineyard tour and tasting combos to more inspiring activities, like this combination wine and chocolate tasting.
The more expensive items include transport from Bordeaux city center and often last a full day. You can expect to pay up to 150 euros (about $170) for a small-group tour that includes lunch, a village tour, and a visit to two wineries. I love this day trip to St-Emilion which includes a bike ride, walking tour and lunch in the vineyard.
A guided tour is a great way to see things further without having to worry about driving, navigating, and renting a car. However, you are limited by a tight schedule and a set route. A much more flexible and economical option is to design your own excursions.
7. You can plan a DIY wine tour of Bordeaux
It is entirely possible to explore on your own. In fact, you might not even need a car! You can use public transport to visit many castles just outside the city of Bordeaux. If you’re ready to add bike rental, your options expand even further. The tourist office has an excellent page describing the different options. I followed their instructions for traveling between the city center and Podensac and had a great experience.
If you are exploring the area on your own by car, plan to appoint a designated driver with a fully charged phone and GPS capability for navigation. With your own wheels, the world is yours (an apt cliche, as some of the best shellfish in the world come from the Bordeaux coast!) You can explore by interest or appellation. The Bordeaux Wine Trip blog (part of Pulp Magazine), offers listings of wineries by theme – like artistic wineries, eco-estates, historic wineries, etc. If you’re not sure where to start, consider adopting a theme to guide your journey.
Otherwise, choose an appellation and set off to explore. I would go with a toddler. It is much easier to get an idea of what wine is produced in Pomerol than in Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux, simply because you will spend much less time driving. Rest assured that each appellation produces excellent red and white wines and the wineries are keen to help you find a blend you like. You can expect a warm welcome that might even change the minds of these Niagara growers!
Pro Tip: Background Reading
There’s a great section on Bordeaux in Elizabeth Schneider’s fun and easy-to-read book, Wine for normal people.
For more information on Bordeaux and the delicious wine enjoyed around the world: