Back in April, I visited the Bordeaux wine region in France for some much needed post-marathon R&R with my friend Catherine (you know, the one who also runs marathons, eats pizza and drives a car named Galina). We originally had a really hard time deciding what region to visit in France. From Burgundy and Champagne to Rhône and Provence, the options for high quality wine and picturesque scenery are endless.
We ultimately settled on Bordeaux near the southwest coast of France. The region is famous for its grand chateaus producing some of the world's best wine. Neither Catherine or myself would ever admit to being wine connoisseurs. Our discerning taste buds can differentiate between white and red. That's about it. When your pre-existing knowledge is limited to red vs. white and cork vs. screwcap, there's nowhere to go but up! Needless to say, we learned (and drank) quite a lot during our 4 day jaunt in and around Bordeaux. Scroll on to read about some highlights from our trip, or click on the link below to see the full photo gallery.
Bordeaux the City
Our time in the city of Bordeaux was fairly limited. We only spent half a day exploring before flying back to London. While I wouldn't consider Bordeaux to be one of my favorite city's in France, La Perle d'Aquitaine does have its charms. Located on the banks of the Garonne River, Bordeaux is a showcase of grandiose, monumental architecture with a bit of grit creeping in around the edges.
The Place de la Bourse is Bordeaux's most famous and unmissable landmark. The buildings create a gorgeous and imposing wall along the western banks of the Garonne. If you stand opposite la Miroir d'eau, you'll be treated to breathtaking views of the neoclassical architecture and its reflection in the pool. Otherwise, I highly recommend crossing over to the opposite bank of the river. From the east, you can take in the full scale of the city and get a sense of what it must have looked like centuries ago. While there, make sure to stop by Magasin General - Bordeaux's epicenter of hipsterdom. The eclectic mixed-used space houses a delicious restaurant, coffee roaster and market.
Bordeaux the Wine
Word of caution for any true wine connoisseurs: please forgive any gross misrepresentations written below. My knowledge of wine is severely limited, so the descriptions rely heavily on my now blurry memory...and wikipedia.
Most visitors come to Bordeaux not to visit the city but to explore its immediate surroundings. The region is home to many of the world's most famous and revered wine producers. Bordeaux is the largest wine growing region in France and produces nearly 500 million bottles of wine exceeding 2 billion euros in revenue each year. Red wine (typically a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes) accounts for the vast majority of production in the region.
Within the region itself, there is a great deal of diversity and variation in wine production depending on the precise location of the vineyard. The easiest way to comprehend it all is to segment the region into dozens of sub-regions in geographical relation to the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Each appellation can produce vastly different qualities of wine depending on varying factors such as terroir, soil, climate, etc.
Given our limited time in Bordeaux, we only had a chance to explore the Pessac-Léognan and Saint-Émilion areas. We didn't have a chance to venture north along the left bank to Médoc, which is home to many of the regions most well known chateaus
We did manage to visit a handful of vineyards during our trip (see Google map above). For those of you accustomed to the "drop in" wine tasting at many Napa Valley vineyards, please note that most places in Bordeaux are not open to the public. Instead, you must book private tours and tastings in advance. Don't be deterred though. Most places are extremely accommodating. For 10 - 20 euros per person, you get a private guide and tasting. This creates a much more intimidate and hands-on experience. We also happened to visit in April right before peak season. Therefore, crowds were nearly non-existent.
It was fascinating to not only taste the wine but also learn about the history of each chateaux. Many date back centuries and once belonged to monks. Bordeaux wines are steeped in tradition and seemingly governed by a stringent classification system (which can vary by sub-region). We quickly learned that not all wines are created equal. Next time you're in the store, make sure to avoid 2013 vintages.
Bordeaux Beyond the Wine
Bordeaux isn't just about its wine. The region is home to so many attractive towns and chateaus, we couldn't stop ourselves from belting out "Little Town" from Beauty and the Beast every now and then. Our home base was Les Sources de Caudalie. This 5 star hotel and spa is only a 15 minute drive from the airport but manages to feel worlds away. The hotel is located in the heart of Pessac-Léognan, so you can grab a bike and visit dozens of surrounding chateaus. If that doesn't sound enticing, you can easily spend your days lounging poolside, getting massages at the world-class spa or eating at their Michelin-starred restaurant, La Grand'Vigne Restaurant.
Slightly further afield is the picturesque hilltop town of Saint-Émilion. This idyllic French village makes for a perfect day-trip. Once you have arrived, you can walk the entire town and explore every nook and cranny along its tiny cobblestoned streets. There are no bad views to be had here. It felt like no matter where we stood, we were treate to picture-perfect views of Saint-Émilion and its surrounding vineyards.