Exploring the Bordeaux wine region of France
This week’s topic is about a fascinating wine region of France that is well worth a visit…
Exploring the Bordeaux wine region of France
When you think of France, many things come to mind. Fresh bread, gorgeous alpine scenery, flaky pastries, and the Eiffel Tower. One of France’s most famous exports, however, is wine. And Bordeaux is arguably the French wine capital.
Located in the south-western corner of the country, Bordeaux and its surroundings are renowned for their wineries and tasting tours at elegant chateaux scattered throughout the countryside. In this article, we’ll answer some of your questions about what to expect from a wine tasting trip to Bordeaux, and the different ways you can plan a visit to the city.
What does Bordeaux wine tasting involve?
A typical Bordeaux wine tasting will involve visiting a gorgeous chateau in the countryside areas surrounding the city. Built in a Renaissance style, with round towers and tall chimneys, French chateaux are large manor houses, usually owned by a single family for generations.
Surrounded by lush vineyards, each chateau produces its own wines, from Merlots to Sauvignon. Typically, each chateau will produce a unique “Chateau wine,” the premier house beverage if you like. Other wines produced at the chateau will each have different names. This means that planning which chateau to visit is important because each produces its own selection of wine.
Wine tours typically include guided tours of the chateau and vineyards, led by a member of the family who owns the estate. You’ll see the wine cellar and discover how wine is produced. This is then followed up by a tasting session of many of the chateau’s own wines. There are wonderful little towns throughout the region to explore that offer architecture and historic buildings of interest.
What are some of the best chateaux?
There are around 6,000 wine chateaux in the region around Bordeaux, so which ones should you visit? Well, it really depends. Bordeaux’s wine region is separated by the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne and Garonne rivers into the Left Bank and the Right Bank. The dominance of certain grape varieties is decided by this geography, which can help to inform the chateau you visit.
On the Left Bank, the soil tends to be rockier, with fewer nutrients. This lends itself to grapes that are prime for aging, whereas the Right Bank grapes tend to produce smoother wines, which can be drunk much sooner. So if you like an aged wine, then you’ll probably want to consider the Left Bank.
Do you know your wine grapes? Chateaux of the Left Bank tend to produce wine which are mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, fleshed out with Merlot. Right Bank wines are the other way around, Merlot balanced with a smaller hint of Cabernet Sauvignon.
As for the chateaux themselves, if you want to visit a grand, sprawling manor, then head to the Left Bank. The chateaux here tend to be more impressive, like mini castles on larger plots of land. The Right Bank still houses lovely chateaux, but the estates tend to be smaller.
If you decide that the Left Bank is for you, some of the best chateaux to visit are found in the appellations (geopolitical boundaries defining wine categories) of St-Estephe, Pauillac, St-Julien, and Margaux, collectively called the Medoc area.
On the Right Bank, you’ll want to check out Pomerol and Saint Emilion. All of these towns and regions house numerous chateaux, each offering something different.
For those that don’t drink, the chateaux and vineyards are beautiful across Bordeaux, so you don’t need to be a wine drinker to appreciate them. Most chateaux will happily provide soda or other soft drinks to guests who don’t want to taste the wine, and they won’t be offended. There are also plenty of other things to see and do in Bordeaux, so if you want to skip the wine tour and head to a nearby attraction, there’s always that option.
Bordeaux itself is packed with places to visit. There’s the glamourous Place de la Bourse square, the cathedral, or the Quais de Bordeaux – a stunning river walk along the banks of the Garonne. Bordeaux is also known for its public gardens and parks, as well as the old city walls, many of which are well preserved and stunning to view.
What’s the best way to visit?
A true wine lover could easily spend a week or more milling about the Bordeaux region, sampling different wines at numerous chateaux. There are multiple options for small group shared tours or private guides to explore the area, either staying in the city of Bordeaux as a home base or else staying in the little towns along your route.
Alternatively, you could make use of the city of Bordeaux’s riverside location and experience Bordeaux by cruise. River cruises sail the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers to visit small port towns to take you to the center of four or five of Bordeaux’s main appellations over the course of a week, as well as taking in the other cultural sights of the city and its surrounds.
Bordeaux is also a popular port for small ship ocean cruising. Ships under 837 feet in length can dock in the center of town, about an eighth of a mile from the downtown area, so it’s perfect for walking right off the ship to explore the city (see my picture looking from the ship into town). I was fortunate to sail on a Seabourn cruise from Lisbon to Amsterdam, where we made an overnight stay in Bordeaux, so we had two days to explore – perfect for checking out both the Left Bank and Right Bank areas. If you are an ocean cruise fan, several itineraries include Bordeaux, and I highly recommend one with that overnight experience.
Bordeaux is France’s premier wine region, producing some of its best and most expensive wines. It is also an absolutely beautiful part of the world, with gorgeous scenery and incredible chateaux scattered across the countryside. Wine tasting in the middle of summer, sitting outdoors in the fresh air, is a fabulous vacation idea. And even if you don’t drink, Bordeaux itself is well worth a visit.