Touring the Wine Regions of Bordeaux, France

Endless vineyards of Bordeaux
Endless vineyards of Bordeaux

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. 

Above the main village square of St Emilion with vineyards reaching to the courtyards
Above the main village square and the famous monolithic church of St Emilion with vineyards reaching to the courtyards

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.

View of Chateau Angelus, one of the most prestigious winemakers in Bordeaux
Chateau Angelus, one of the most prestigious winemakers in Bordeaux

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.

Alexander Calder’s artwork adorning a wall of golden stone
Alexander Calder adorning a wall of golden stone at Chateau de Ferrand

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.

Pomerol, home to several prestigious winemaking chateaux
Pomerol, home to several prestigious winemaking chateaux

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.

One of the best meals we had: moules frites. The food on general wasn’t a highlight though.
One of the best meals we had: moules frites. The food on general wasn’t a highlight though.

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.

Vineyards of world famous Chateaux Margaux
Vineyards of world famous Chateaux Margaux

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.

Bordeaux winemaking areas as seen in Decanter

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 most expensive wine in the world grows here: Chateau d’Yqem vineyards in Sauternes
The most expensive wine in the world grows here: Chateau d’Yquem vineyards in Sauternes

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.

Downtown Bordeaux, a wonderful city of many splendid townhouses and palaces. In the distance a landmark statue of Place des Quinconces.
Downtown Bordeaux, a wonderful city of many splendid townhouses and palaces. In the distance a landmark statue of Place des Quinconces.
Bordeaux Cathedral glowing in the late afternoon sun
Bordeaux Cathedral

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).

The gorgeous Dune du Pilat, the tallest dune of Europe
Isn’t it simply gorgeous?
The pine trees bordering the dune
Only pine trees beyond this point

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.

Dune du Pilat: starting point. This is where you drop your jaw.
Dune du Pilat: starting point. This is where you drop your jaw for the first time.

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.

Best possible time to ascend the dune is late afternoon - the light does additional magic.
Best possible time to ascend the dune is late afternoon – the light does additional magic. Pure gold.

The great dune is located near the lovely coastal resort town of Arcachon, some 70 kilometres south-west from the city of Bordeaux.

Taking a walk along the promenade and the boardwalks in Arcachon
Taking a walk along the promenade and the boardwalks in Arcachon

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.

Arcachon beach, one of many
Beach, beach!

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.

View over vineyard from within the Chateau de Ferrand
The view

It is a grand cru classè Saint-Emilion property owned and run by Pauline Bich Chandon Moet. The personnel at  Chateau de Ferrand was so welcoming and friendly we decided to book a tour.

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).

One can get excellent wine for a fraction of the price of Chateau d’Yqem too
One can get excellent wine for a fraction of the price of Chateau d’Yquem too

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.

Bread, croissants and the rest in a boulangerie
The best croissants we had were those from this artisan boulangerie in Castillon la Bataille
Oysters in Arcachon, delicious!
Oysters in Arcachon, delicious!
One of the few truly memorable meals: beef tartare in a lovely restaurant with lush garden in Creon
One of  truly memorable meals: beef tartare in a lovely restaurant with lush garden in Creon

 

Related:

Wikipedia on St. Emilion

Pauillac wine

St Emilion monolithic church via World Monuments Fund

Wikipedia on Bordeaux

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *