I’ve been a red wine lover through and through since almost forever (I admit to having preferred the white wine in my coming of age period) so spending a part of our summer holiday touring the Bordeaux wine regions seemed to be a straightforward, logical decision. I love champagne a lot too but I don’t think we’ll head to Champagne anytime soon. One huge French wine region, which Bordeaux area undisputedly and certainly is, with all its delights and weaknesses, was quite a handful.
St. Emilion is a pretty historic village of golden stone houses that stretch over the rather steep slope. Some of its winding streets and roads are almost vertical and paved in stones polished by centuries of use. The main attraction is wine and it is superb.
Other attractions include a monolithic church, vineyards growing as close as village pavements and within the courtyards, and several winemaking chateaux within the “city limits” of the village. It’s the only village in the Bordeaux area we’ve visited that actually exudes the village feeling of real people living and working there. It is terribly beautiful so you expect every other village nearby to be at least similar.
Pomerol on the other hand is not even a village. It’s a cluster of houses by the road full of blooming pots of flowers and an elegant church with an anorexic bell tower. It’s disappointing to have a fantasy about a place developed solely on the basis of the wine bottle labels. I remember loving Pomerol wines.
Another myth came crashing down: Pauillac is a dreary village with a large marina and immaculate riverfront of wooden boardwalks along the Gironde. EU-funded probably, amidst the wealth of the wine industry. It’s where we sat down in one of many generic tourist trap bars on the promenade (sadly no other choice) for a bottle of water at 7 f***ing €. No pigeons nor orchestral music in sight though. Here we were also turned away at a chateau with the words that it is not possible to visit at all.
Margaux, another village in Haut-Medoc, the mid-part of Medoc headland north of the city of Bordeaux, seemed kind of nice when we passed through. The strangest thing of all is that you never see any people (as in locals) around. Visitors on the other hand come in thousands.
Barsac and Sauternes, the micro regions south of Bordeaux, are where the white wine rules. Not a regular white wine but deeply and elegantly sweet white wine. Chateau d’Yquem ring a bell? Chateau Climens? Yes, that kind of wine. It’s so good! I could easily label it nectar.
The area of Bordeaux is full of manicured vineyards and dotted with fairy-tale-like chateaux. Truth be told, some chateaux are stretching it a bit. Not every shack with littered courtyard should have been allowed to use the word chateau in its address. But what do I know. I’m an amateur wine consumer enjoying its pleasures recreationally. I will continue to enjoy the great wines of Bordeaux although the experience killed the charm of the fantasy I had in my head about the region.
The city of Bordeaux is grand though. Built with the wine money, someone said, it’s almost regal. Tremendous townhouses and palaces, fantastic squares, exquisite waterfront, modern public transport, very lively, elegant. And huge.
My highlight? Definitely the magical Dune du Pilat. It’s Europe’s highest sand dune and I didn’t know about it before. I never knew there’s even an issue of height among European sand dunes (there must be many out there then).
Anyhow, this one is truly exceptional: its sand is golden and pure, it is about 117 m high, some 2,5 km long and about 500 m wide. It grows by 1 to 4 metres annually (in 1855 it was only 35 m high). On its inland side there’s a wide pine tree forest (imagine the smelling air!), on the other side there’s the vast, blue Atlantic.
In spite of many people visiting, the area seems to be perfectly and immaculately maintained. There are families with children, even adults get carried away and race the golden sand, lots of people bring towels and blankets for sun downer, mostly it seems to be a gathering point for wandering souls. The sand is pleasantly warm, although if you dig in with your toes you can feel it’s damp from the ocean. It truly is magical.
The great dune is located near the lovely coastal resort town of Arcachon, some 70 kilometres south-west from the city of Bordeaux.
The town of Arcachon is full of old-school purpose built villas, reminders of times past. We made it a day trip with oysters’ lunch in Arcachon included. The oysters were fantastic, fresh and plump and tasty. The Arcachon basin is namely one of the largest oyster harvesting areas in France.
It needs to be said that we did visit a gorgeous chateau while touring the Bordeaux wine regions. We discovered Chateau de Ferrand by chance when we drove off the quiet, ancient St Hippolyte church up on a plateau a stone’s throw from St Emilion.
Already at first glance it seemed to our tastes: an attractive but sober mix of traditional (17th century chateau) and modern (Italian design interior) with interesting both history and present: in 300 years it’s been owned solely by two families, it is still family run, has an unusual (for Bordeaux) but most appreciated pricing policy, and produces excellent wine. Believe me, we downed some bottles (hint: we loved 2009 best with 2010 following closely).
For what it’s worth, the distinctions of numerous appellations are clearer to me after this in situ experience. The French unquestionably know how to make wine. And cheese. And croissants.
Wikipedia on St. Emilion
St Emilion monolithic church via World Monuments Fund
Wikipedia on Bordeaux