One day over a dinner, our friend Francis told us about a trip to Bordeaux organized by his friend Bill, who owns a vineyard in Vancouver. Without really knowing what to expect, we signed up, as we don’t want to miss exploring the Big 5 of Bordeaux in the heart of the French wine country. So here we are on a Sunday afternoon in late June 2015. Our wine adventure is about to begin.
The tour doesn’t start till Monday morning so we drop our bags at the hotel and take the tram into town. It’s a warm and sunny Sunday so the town is filled with people. We stroll along the river Garonne and watch kids and adults splash in the water in front of the Bourse. Later we learn that this place is the biggest water mirror in the world, we just see happy people playing in the water. A group of young adults spontaneously start a song. The air is filled with joy and laughter. We meet Francis at the Basilique St Michel, where a young orchestra is performing Beatle’s songs. We buy ice cream and enjoying the sweet cold treat, we continue our walk around town, watching people along the way.
First dinner in Bordeaux
Sometime later that evening, we sit down outside at La Tupina for a beautiful first dinner in Bordeaux. After we finish our appetizers and our first bottle of wine, Fidel shows up. Our waitress thought we were joking when we ordered for four, pointing at the backpack in the free seat, trying to convince her “backpack” would join us. As “backpack” is here, this calls for more wine and food and several hours later, we close the place down
It’s Summer in the city
The night is young; today is midsummer night – it is still light at 11PM – and the town is full of music. We learn that there is a music festival so bands are playing all over town. We go from “action –jazz” to EDM until we finally decide to call it a night. We hop on the tram back accompanied by a marching band serenading us on our way home. We started our trip to Bordeaux with a bang. My ears are ringing when my head hits the pillow, and my dreams are full of anticipation of what still lays ahead.
Day 1: North
Monday morning we meet our host Bill at breakfast. He tells us that today we are going to visit the big wines of the Medoc region. I have been reading up a bit about the history of Mouton, Lafite and Latour so I know these are viewed the kings of Bordeaux red. And this is only our first day. Just before nine we board our coach, and we are introduced to our driver Pierre and Caroline, our guide. Our fellow passengers get on board as well and soon we are in conversations with Angela and Lawrence, from Vancouver and Andrew from Taiwan. The group has 16 people, an eclectic mix of Chinese, Canadian and the four of us.
On our way to the Medoc, Caroline gives us more background on the area, before our first stop at Chateau Margaux. Unfortunately the Chateau is under reconstruction so we can only see it from outside the closed gates. We will have to come back again to visit.
We continue our trip north and enter the region of Pauillac.
Our next stop is Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Caroline tells us Napoleon classified the vineyards of Medoc in 1855. 4 Chateaux received the first growth, or “premier cru” application. Mouton was not one of them but Baron Rothschild of Mouton-Rothschild did not agree and after endless lobbying, he managed to get their status changed from second growth to premier, the only ever change in the history of the system.
Tasting wine at 11 AM
Our host shows us the grounds before guiding us inside the cellars. The cellars have been built by the late baroness and are a piece of art. She successfully managed to create a cellar that is a stylish mixture of wine making and art. In a private tasting room we taste 2 different wines: a 2010 and 2007 Premier Cru Mouton Rothschild. It is 11 AM…I can get used to this lifestyle….
Lunch in Saint Julien
It is time for lunch in the quaint restaurant le Saint Julien, downtown Saint Julien. Our table is set outside on the patio. Lunch is a 3 course meal, served with local wines: we start with a refreshing white followed by a smooth red. We get to know more fellow travelers: 6 year old Charlie and his parents. Charlie sits across from me and when I ask him how old he is he tells me very proudly 6…..and a half. He is the only child in our group and I can’t help but wonder how long he is going to last on a trip like this: wineries, lunches, dinners etc., etc.
Our next stop after lunch is Lafite Rothschild. I am so excited as I have read so much about Lafite that I can’t wait to actually visit. It’s a huge contrast with Mouton: from clean, artsy and sophisticated, here we are down to the real art of wine making. We walk around the cellars where workers are cleaning the tanks. They warn us not to touch them as it might burn our skin. Comparing the 2 Chateaux is like comparing a show jumping horse to a racehorse.
Caroline explains that they started to have concerts here and I try to imagine what it would be like to listen to a concert while tasting these incredible wines. Our tasting is down in the underground cellars cum theatre. We taste a 2001 Chateau Lafite… the first sniff….then a deeper smell before the first taste…this is incredible….it is subtle but deep, it is smooth but complex.
And we eat again
Dinner tonight is in La Brasserie Bordelaise, downtown Bordeaux. The menu: foie gras, entrecote, magret de canard, a selection of cheeses, followed by 6….yes that’s correct, 6 different desserts. All washed down with fabulous local wines from Medoc and Pessac Leognan. Day 1; 3 more to go: anticipation and fear….
Day 2: West
To prepare for another day of eating and drinking we decide to start our day with a walk/run, skip breakfast and just grab a tea to go. Today we are heading West, to the Bay of Arcachon and Pessac Leognan area. We make a short stop at the village of Gujan Mestras, famous for their oysters, before we pull in at our lunch destination. La Co(o)rniche. Why have I not known this place?? It is a little piece of heaven on a pristine white beach. I can live here and never leave…but for today I am satisfied being served lunch.
White beach, blue ocean, food and wine
Our table is outside on the terrace, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean and the famous white dunes of Pylat. Lunch is amazing: fresh oysters, followed by two courses of fish: a carpaccio of coquille St Jaques and a blanquette de lotte, served with a champagne, a fresh regional white wine and a crisp rose gris blanc. What more can you ask for Tuesday lunch??!! The only regret we have is not having an opportunity to take of our shoes, run to those amazing dunes to either surf down, or put on wings from a paraglider and take off and float over the magnificent blue of the Atlantic Ocean. We will just have to come back for that and spend more time at La Corniche.
But not today, because today Chateau Haut-Brion is waiting for us. Chateau Haut-Brion is the only Premier Cru Classe outside the Medoc region and as the Chateau has been closed to the general public for several years, we do not want to miss this visit. The first thing we notice is that the château has a much smaller, intimate feel.
Hand made Oak Barrels
Our guide Charlotte has to come to unlock the doors to start our tour, which starts in the caves where the grapes get into the vats and get crushed and start the aging process. We notice that all the vats are made of steel, unlike yesterday where it was a mix of oak, steel and concrete. Next we are guided to a building next door. Here they are still making their own oak barrels from original French oak, each one of them hand-made. There are only 4 châteaux left that still do this.
From the barrel making we are guided to cellars. Little Charlie has found a new best friend. We watch him walk hand–in-hand with Francis across the courtyard. We are impressed at how well he is doing.
Tasting the third of the Big 5
We enter the cellars and are exposed to rows and rows of beautiful handcrafted barrels. It’s the first time we see barrels that are painted partially in red, giving it a complete different look. It’s beautiful.
The tasting is next in an equally beautiful tasting room.We taste wine from Chateau Haut-Brion and from neighboring owned Chateau Mission Brion both from 2007. I am pleasantly surprised; I didn’t think anything could top the Lafite I tasted yesterday but the Haut-Brion is unbelievable. We are three out of the big 5 on day 2.
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte
From Haut-Brion we continue our adventure to Les Sources de Caudalie for a wine tasting at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, followed by dinner at Michelin star restaurant “la Grand Vigne”. Caudalie has been on my bucket list for years, not for the restaurant, but for the spa, as I have been using their cosmetic line of grape based products for a long time. I did not realize the property included an amazing winery and restaurant.
We have a funny incident when we enter the château. A big St Bernard comes out, eager to play. He picks Charlie as his playmate, probably because Charlie is about his height. Charlie, however, is not impressed and tries to get away, but the harder he runs, the more the dog thinks he wants to play. It ends with poor Charlie in tears and poor dog, hiding underneath a bush with his paw covering his eyes, wondering where he went wrong…
The hidden cellar
We enter the cellars. They are impressive and we learn they are the largest cellars in Bordeaux. From the cellars we move to the tasting room. It’s been a long day so we gratefully lower ourselves into the comfy chairs. But we are in for a surprise: with the press of a button, the floor next to our chairs splits in 2 and a staircase appears, leading into a hidden cellar below. Magnificent. I want this in my living room. Down in the cellar we admire the collection of wines. The oldest bottle is from 1878. Yesterday they told us the oldest bottle they had was from 1797, we did not see it though. Here I am touching a bottle from the 19th century….over 150 years old and supposedly still drinkable. Unbelievable.
Les Sources de Caudalie
After the tasting we stroll over to the hotel for drinks and appetizers on the terrace of Les Sources de Caudalie. We try just for a minute to take over the bar. We are probably not the best crowd to be trusted behind the bar…
The hotel and gardens are beautiful and we decide right there, that we have to come back and spend more time here. Dinner is in a private dining room and it is taste extravaganza: subtle combinations of flavors, all beautifully presented.
Dinner at La Grande Vigne
Foie gras, followed by one of the best sea bass dishes I have ever tasted. This is followed by a duck filet that melts on your tongue. I am in food heaven. Dessert follows a selection of local cheeses. I don’t do desert, I really don’t, but this desert deserves a premier cru application for both look and taste: a strawberry meringue with a basil sorbet. I simply have to try…just one bite….maybe 2…..We drive back to the hotel in a food and wine induced coma. The 100 point Parker wine we bought for a nightcap will have to wait till tomorrow.
Day 3: East
Today we are heading east to St Emilion and Pomerol. The scenery is different: rolling hills and more quaint villages. At 10.30 AM we roll into Chateau Pavie owned by Gerard Perse. St. Emilion is not part of the 1855 Medoc classification, they have their own and Chateau Pavie is one of the few Premier Grand Cru classe A vineyards of St Emilion. It’s a gorgeous winery but somehow I don’t have the same feeling as the châteaux we visited the previous days. It feels too perfect, too orchestrated. Although I love the old windows from the old railway station they have installed in the cellars and the massive barrel, made from a very old oak tree felled by lightning.
The lovely village of St Emilion
Lunch is in the hillside village of St. Emilion. Walking through the cobblestone streets I am glad Caroline warned me last night to wear flats instead of heels. Our table is set in the courtyard of L’Envers du Décor. Charlie decides that he wants to sit with us for lunch. He is delightful and entertains both us and the waiters. We enjoy another great meal. Gravad lax on waffles…OMG…brilliant, followed by a local white fish.
Michelin star restaurant Hostellerie de Plaisance
Cocktails are served at the terrace overlooking the village, before we retreat to the dining room.
Charlie is again determined that he will join the “English” table and we are happy to have him. We are served another amazing 6 course dinner: mussels, lobster, beef and another strawberry meringue dessert. Charlie works his way thru all 6 courses. Really, this kid is a champ. We stumble back in the bus and back in the hotel lobby we crack open the $256 100 points Parker wine and drink it out of our hotel bathroom glasses. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic, but I think that’s where Francis’s quote comes in “this is like a high school spring break trip, the only difference is that we have money”.
Day 4: South
It’s our last day and today we head south to the Sauternes region. Today is not really exciting for me as I am not a big sweet wine fan, but I am happy to spend another day in Bordeaux, eating and drinking. Our first stop is Chateau Guiraud. The château is beautiful, our host Caroline impressive as she switches back effortlessly between French, English and Chinese. Our friend Andrew comes alive. As today is merely a bonus for me, for him Sauternes was the main reason to join the trip. After the tour of the winery, we have a tasting in the garden of their G, the dry white wine. It is a great wine and a nice change from all the reds we have been tasting. Lunch is at Chateau Guiraud as well, so we can try their sweet wines. Although Sauternes is not in the Medoc, they are part of the 1855 classification for sweet wines and Chateau Guiraud is a Premier Grand Cru Classe
Foie gras and sauternes: a match made in heaven
I am a bit skeptical: sweet wine with food, but I am willing to give it a try. The first course is 2 different types of foie gras, served with their second growth sauternes. Oh my….I hate to say it but the combination is just perfect. The sweetness of the wine, with the saltiness and smoky flavor of the foie couldn’t be any more perfect. Our second course is a French version of fried chicken: chicken coated with an almond gremolata zucchini crust, served with a 2008 and a 1998 premier cru classe Sauternes. Where the past 3 days the wines were chosen to match the food, here the food is chosen to highlight the wines. I have to admit that I was wrong about dessert wines. You can server me a meal like this with Sauternes wine any day.
The finale: The Queen of Bordeaux
It’s Thursday afternoon and our tour is coming to an end with one last winery to visit: the Queen of Bordeaux wines, the famous Chateau D’Yquem. And the grand dame doesn’t disappoint, in fact she exceeds all expectations. A gorgeous winery, gardens and cellars and after tasting the 2005 Chateau D’Yquem I am converted… I am a Sauternes lover.
I didn’t think I could eat or drink any more, but that night we have dinner at l’Exploit in Bordeaux and we end our trip the same way we started it: with good wine, good food and good friends. This is what life is all about.