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How to visit Bordeaux

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Pichon Lalande, looking to Latour

Published July, 1995, France Today; written, Fall, 1994. Minor revisions September, 1996; February, 1997

If the only wine region you've ever visited has been Napa Valley, you might not realize that Bordeaux presents some difficulties and challenges. Of all the wine regions I've been to, Bordeaux is the least tourist-friendly--which I don't mean as badly as it sounds--and, on the other hand, at least among the major regions I've visited, the least crowded and most calm. That means, if you play your cards right, that it can also be the most rewarding wine tour you will ever take.

There really is no Bordeaux equivalent to the great tourist sites of places like Napa Valley's Mondavi Winery or Burgundy's Hospices de Beaune. These are places where tourists arrive in droves and many of those who arrive have only nominal interest in wine. While you are not exactly in undiscovered country in Bordeaux, it is also true that even in summer you are not likely to find many other tourists on the road. Many of your visits to chateaux can be private and personal. You may go the better part of each day, or even several days in a row, without bumping into other tourists coming up behind you.

There are several reasons for Bordeaux's private nature. First, it has been said that the Bordelais themselves tend to be rather private. For example, they tend to insist on reservations and appointments (something newer Napa wineries have begun to do, but often under governmental duress). A second might be that many of the Chateaux are still also the personal and private homes of the owners. A third surely has been that Bordeaux was a bit more isolated than some other well-traveled routes, i.e., farther from Paris than Burgundy, farther than from San Francisco to Napa. Whatever the cause, there is no doubt Bordeaux is a bit different.

To be sure, some Chateaux are more accessible and tourist-friendly. Some minor Chateaux like Lanessan cheerfully solicit tourists and charge tasting fees. Mouton Rothschild, with its museum and its reputation, attracts unusual amounts of people. And Pichon Lalande, majestically planted right smack on the main route (D2, Route du Médoc), and highly regarded as well, seems busier than many other better hidden or less famous places. Still, there was only one other person (with his family) waiting for a tour the last time I visited Pichon; a handful in the museum at Mouton and none at Lanessan.

Then, there is the attitude one might perceive at first growth Chateaux Margaux. On my first trip to Chateau Margaux, which makes one of the greatest wines of France, I was in a tour with four people, three of whom were together (and at that I had been dissuaded from coming since there were already "too many"). As the tour ended, the spokeswoman made a mental cut, separating the tourists from those who were actually wine lovers. The latter, me included (what a relief!), got to taste the new vintage (1987) from the barrel. The others were shown out. While we were there, tasting with the door locked, someone knocked. I started to open the door, but the other tourist/wine lover who made the cut, wagged his finger knowingly. "This is not for you, Monsieur." The tour guide ignored the knocks. I confess to a certain guilty pleasure in having been ranked with the elite, but felt sorry for the excluded nonetheless.

On my second trip to Chateau Margaux, with the same woman acting as guide, there was no one else present and a private tasting was prearranged. Again, there were unscheduled knocks from unreserved visitors. This time, she deigned to answer the door at least. But as to their request for a tour, even though she was almost done with me, there was no mercy. "Do you have a reservation? No? Sorry. We are full." She simply shut the door. She volunteered no information on how or when to reserve. After all, they were interrupting someone who had reserved properly. I again felt some guilty pleasure in all of this, as I personally was exceptionally well treated. She made me feel welcome. The others will have to speak for themselves.


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Chateau Margaux

While few Chateaux projected quite as much snob appeal as would seem apparent from these episodes at Chateaux Margaux (which is well hidden but not well sign posted from the main road), there were rules to play by at all of those worth visiting. Even, or perhaps especially, the visits to Chateau Margaux were rewarding if you played the game well. The Bordelais are prepared to welcome tourists and can be very accommodating--but play by their rules. Here are some basic tips:

  1. Be interested in wine. Really, Bordeaux isn't Burgundy or Napa. There aren't really many, if any, tourist sites in the vineyards. The city's OK, but not fascinating. The Chateaux are mostly private homes and not open for touring. In other words, if you don't care about seeing some of the great wineries, don't go--although you ARE just a couple of hours from the fascinating Dordogne region to the West.
  2. Make reservations in advance. Before I go to Bordeaux, I always make reservations by phone or letter in advance. There are several books available with winery addresses and numbers, including Birnbaum's France and Philpott's The Vineyards of France. Tourist Bureaus are helpful, too. For the Medoc, write to the Conseil des Vins du Medoc for a great listing of virtually every winery in Paulliac, St. Estephe, St. Julien, and Margaux, among others. (1, cours du XXX-Juillet, 33000 Bordeaux, tel: 56-48-18-62; fax: 56-79-11-05.) Ask for the "Decouverte Médoc" Booklet.
  3. Speak French. I joke. A little. As noted, All the Chateaux will have someone available with sufficient notice who can speak English. But if you can handle a reasonable amount of French, it may affect who you get to talk to. Last trip, I had several tours by cellarmasters and one owner who spoke little or no English.

    pbar88.jpg (13160 bytes)Sun-drenched Pichon Lalande
  4. Plan carefully. The reason I sometimes make some reservations on the spur of the moment is that I don't want to risk squeezing in too many long planned visits to the most important Chateaux I really want to taste at in a single day. So when extra time appears, sometimes I try to fill it, sometimes I have a long lunch. This is because the Bordelais do. The hours of the Chateaux are generally not long and they will often be closed from 12 to 2 for tours. As practical matter, no matter what the posted hours, many seemed to like to start at 10, go to noon, and not resume until 2:30 or 3, ending for the day at 5. That was by no means always the case, but you can plan for sure on one tour in the morning and one or two in the afternoon. After that logistics may be tough. And if a tour that was supposed to last 20 minutes suddenly becomes an hour because the cellarmaster wants to bring out more wine to taste, you want the flexibility to stay, don't you?
  5. Buy no wine. Well, if you find something really rare, OK. But trust me. Bordeaux is an international commodity. You will be hard pressed to find anything there that can't be found here for less money and also is worth the hassle of safeguarding in France while you travel and lugging onto the plane. Last trip, I brought back a 1961 Ducru Beaucaillou that the owner of the Chateau graciously gave me ( a long story...). If you can do that, by all means, do so. Otherwise....

    cos.jpg (4423 bytes)Cos d'Estournel from D2


    If you're interested in wine, you probably have ideas. But all Chateaux are not the same. Mouton, Ducru and Latour I found especially attractive for various reasons, and the terrace at Pichon is gorgeous. It's a long list.


    I wish I knew. By that, I mean that I have this ongoing debate with myself as to whether it's better to stay in the city and drive out (fifty to sixty minutes, say, to Pauillac, depending on traffic and fifteen to twenty less to Margaux), or in the Médoc vineyards. I lean to the latter, but it's not clear. If you stay in the vineyards, you're definitely closer to the Médoc wineries. Obviously. You also have a base nearby for pit stops and down time. On the other hand, choices of things to do after 5 p.m. or to see in the vineyards area are rather limited. You could drive into town for evening entertainment, but you really don't want to be driving the sharp turns of D2 from Bordeaux back to your hotel in the vineyards late at night.

    issan88.jpg (11487 bytes)Chateau d'Issan

    Staying in Bordeaux is more interesting (and there are more wine stores if you want to buy), but it's a tedious drive out to the Medoc every day. On the other hand, it's equally if not more convenient to Sauternes and St. Emilion. Perhaps the final answer is a few days in each depending on which region you visit.

    Here are some reliable hotel choices: The two best hotels in the vineyards are the Relais de Margaux, behind Chateau Margaux, 33460 Margaux, tel: 56-88-38-30; fax: 56-88-31-73 and the Relais et Chateaux affiliated Cordeillan Bages (Route des Chateaux, [D2] 33250 Pauillac, tel: 56 - 59-24 24, fax: 56-59-01-89), owned by the people who also own the fifth growth Lynch Bages. These are both very expensive (around $200 nightly), and both feature fine restaurants. I prefer the Relais de Margaux, better food, bright, airy, friendly and informal. Cordeillan Bages reminds me more of a stuffy old private club, with furnishings and service to match. The Relais de Margaux is beautifully set in a park; Cordeillan Bages has its own atomospheric view of its own vineyards from the restaurant.
    This article was originally written in 1994; Cordeillan Bages, I'm informed by Jean-Michel Cazes, has a new chef who does wondrous things. Experiment accordingly.
    A perfect moderate choice is the Hotel de France et d'Angleterre, 3 Quai Albert Pichon, 33250 Pauillac, tel: 56-59-01-20; fax: 56-59-02-31. This is right behind the Maison du Vin in Pauillac, on the river and about two minutes from Cordeillan Bages.

    In Bordeaux, I always stay at the Hotel de Normandie, perfectly situated for seeing Bordeaux or driving to the vineyards. 7&9, cours du XXX-Juillet, 33000 Bordeaux, tel: 56-52- 16-80.

    If you stay in the vineyards, the only top places to eat are Cordeillan Bages and Relais de Margaux. There are a number of good, but more modest restaurants, lining the waterfront near the Hotel de France et d'Angleterre (which, itself has pretty good food). In Bordeaux itself there are numerous choices.

    Finally, transfers from Paris to Bordeaux have been made infinitely easier by TGV service these days, around three hours, reservations required.

    There are other personal experiences to be had in many other wine regions. Yes, you can get beyond the commercialism of Napa and Burgundy if you look hard and go to smaller places. But there's something very old fashioned, calm and reassuring about Bordeaux. You leave with the feeling that they really do care about the wine. It's worth the effort.

    P.S: French area codes changed dramatically in October, 1996 and prior to that, some Bordeaux area codes changed from a 56 to 57 so you need to order the appropriate tourist info and reverify the phone numbers.

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