Bordeaux, UNESCO registered since 2007, is undoubtedly the world’s wine capital. It is well worth visiting along with its vineyards which are France’s largest with 60 different appellations and around 8,000 châteaux. Although the region produces a range of wines including dry and sweet white, rosé and even sparkling – Bordeaux is known for its red wines.
The best way to visit is with a local wine expert to show you around ‘the best of Bordeaux’, peeking behind the scenes and to make it a trip of a lifetime. There are other options like bus or minibus tours or you can DIY of course.
Here are some tips from a local wine lover guide to get you set on your way and give you a taste of this wonderful region.
Bordeaux being such a big region and so much choice, where should one go and how many days are needed?
In simple terms Bordeaux produces two red wine styles a softer fruitier style on the Right Bank and a more full-bodied red on the Left bank. The landscape of these two regions are contrasting too.
It is best to dedicate two days to visit the Bordeaux wine regions, one for the Left Bank (Haut Medoc) and one for the Right Bank (St Emilion and Pomerol) – it refers to the Right and Left bank of the region’s Rivers and Estuary. A third day which is highly recommended to visit the Graves/Pessac Leognan and Graves appellation which is often overlooked and is the birthplace of ‘claret’ as red Bordeaux was called in olden times. Part of this day is worth dedicating to the Sauternes wine region, famous for its magical sweet wines and full of fairytale châteaux. Also set some time aside to visit the beautiful city of Bordeaux and its interactive wine museum (City of Wine).
If you have only one day I would choose St Emilion with its rolling hills centred around the medieval village.
How do we book to visit these famous châteaux and what is the format once there? The châteaux of Bordeaux were traditionally open only to the wine trade and it is only relatively recently over the last 15 years or so that many are now open to the general public to discover. Saying that, visits are only on reserved in advance and best booked by email by contacting the châteaux at least a few days in advance (better chance of availability two or three months in advance). Visits last one hour and a half and include a tour of the winemaking facilities, barrel cellars and ends with a tasting of one or two wines. The price is around 20€pp.
It is difficult to get the right mix of châteaux during the day and to get the right timings if you don’t know the area. As a private wine guide, I like to visit three properties per day of a range of styles to show some of the different aspects involved in Bordeaux vine growing and wine making. Most of my favourite properties are still family-owned, most are classified and all produce great wine.
I like to include if possible a smaller independent producer (SIP) where we meet the winemaker to see the ‘other side’ (there are 8000 properties in Bordeaux and only around 200 of them belong to the elite group called the Grand Cru Classé).
The two main regions to see are the Medoc on the Left Bank and St Emilion/Pomerol on the Right. They are located around 45 minutes from Bordeaux city which makes a good base to stay for wine tours. They take a day each to visit. A third day would normally include the Graves/Pessac Leognan regions (dry white and reds) and Sauternes (sweet wines) which is a often overlooked but wonderful place to visit too.
In the Medoc (Left Bank) Wine Region; it is good to see an example of the key terroirs in the famous village appellations of Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estephe. Impressive grand châteaux are located here in the flattish landscape of this peninsular. My favourites include a biodynamic classified Pauillac growth and another in St Julien with bottles dating back to 1815…There are also smaller properties to visit here in lesser known appellations (such as Listrac, Moulis or the interesting Haut Medoc) on the ‘wrong side’ of the border of their famous neighbours (at a fraction of the price).
St Emilion and Pomerol (Right Bank) Wine Region; is a beautiful wine region with its vineyards planted on rolling hills around its medieval village. The properties are smaller here and many are still family-owned. It is known as ‘the hill of a thousand châteaux’ and it is important to visit some contrasting styles from the classified property where we go under the vines in limestone caves and another, which has been ‘organic forever’ and is run by the 14th generation of the same family today who we would meet. Also leave time to visit the fascinating medieval town and its cobbled streets and pass through Pomerol where Bordeaux’s most expensive wines are found including Petrus.
Graves/Péssac Léognan and Sauternes Wine Region; this is the area where it all began with lots of fairytale châteaux (lived in by real families) and the only region in Bordeaux where you can taste wonderful dry white, sweet white and red wines. Get off the beaten path and you’ll love this area. Often we enjoy a picnic in a Chartreuse châteaux in a rare sweet wine appellation and its grounds bumping into the family and the family dogs (they love it when there are visitors!). We also visit a typical Grand Cru Classé château with its complex dry whites and rounded reds (here the blend is half and half usually Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) so they make great food wines. And a biodynamic Sauternes property to see how the magical sweet wines are made.
When is Best Time of year to Visit Bordeaux’s Vineyards? Temperatures start warming up at the beginning of April. Try to avoid the ‘Primeurs’ (1st week April) châteaux are busy with their futures tastings to the professionals but some of the larger and all of the smaller châteaux are open for visits still. The best time in the Spring/Summer is from around the flowering of the vine Mid May to mid July. August is hot and it is holiday time for many though châteaux geared up for wine tourism will stay open. Most people in France are on holiday in the first week of August. The first week of September is the ‘rentrée’ of the children to school and life restarts again. It is a very busy time and producers start to prepare for the harvest (dry white harvest is around this time – Péssac-Léognan, Entre Deux Mers, Bordeaux Blanc). Sweet wine is harvested throughout the Autumn.
The month of September is a good time to visit as temperatures are less hot and there is a build-up of excitement before harvest – it is probably the busiest time for châteaux visits and gets busy. Harvest is around start October. Producers will be very busy at this time but it is a very interesting time to visit if you can. Many properties will not receive visitors during this time so it is best to check.
It starts getting cold around end November so visiting cold cellars is not that much fun, but do-able if you are really into wine (saying that the most beautiful time to see the vineyards for me is mid November once the grapes are in and the leaves are turning autumnal colors before the first frost).
Today it is possible to visit all through the year (even between Christmas and the New Year there are some options particularly in St Emilion). With the development of wine tourism there are a range of good châteaux that are open during weekends now (particularly during the summer period) and even on the many French national holidays – but book early!
What should I wear? Visiting the vineyards and cellars of wine properties is not a fashion show. Wine is an agricultural product and you are there to understand how it is made and revel in its flavours! Cellars are around 16°C throughout the year so make sure to bring along a light pashmina, jacket, cardigan however hot it is. Wear comfortable suitable shoes without high heels so you can get around even if the tour takes you via the vineyards (that is where it all starts!) You will see there is no pretension in the châteaux, people are very down to earth (particularly my favourite ones!).
Where to stay?
The City of Bordeaux is the best base for wine tours being equi-distant from both St Emilion and the Medoc – about 45 minutes. The city of Bordeaux is beautiful full of limestone buildings and history. It was designed with its streets particularly wide which gives the city plenty of light and space. Its old town behind the ‘Palais de la Bourse’ with its cobbled streets and corners to discover. Since Alain Juppé became Mayor in 1995 the city has had a facelift. Its stone facades have been cleaned to reveal the creamy tints of the limestone quarried from nearby St Emilion. An efficient tramway glides through the city and the quayside is accessible to all and has become alive with restaurants, cafés and shops. It has been UNESCO world heritage site registered since 2007.
The small village of St Emilion with its medieval buildings, views of the vineyards and cobble-stoned streets provides an alternative place to stay – busy with tourists in the day, and very quiet at night. Do note that visiting the Medoc vineyards and far from here (one hour and a half).
What is the best way to get from Paris to Bordeaux? The best way to get to Bordeaux from Paris Montparnasse is by TGV train in 2 hours (there are around 20 a day).
Forgetting the wine!, what else is there to see in Bordeaux? (saying that though, the history of this beautiful city is so intertwined with wine it is difficult to divide the two…as any French city; Farmers’ Market, Antiques markets (St Michel and Chartrons), Art museums, Parks and Botanical gardens plus its Port and maritime focus and Submarine base from II World War.
What else is there to visit when staying in the Bordeaux region?
Going South…Many of my clients combine Bordeaux with a few days in San Sebastien a few hours south of Bordeaux into Spain’s Pays Basque, renowned for its Michelin star cuisine (and Pintxos tapas!).
The French Pays Basque this side of the Pyrenees mountains is where the espadrille was created and its stripey linen cloth, espelette chilli pepper and ewes milk cheese (brebis) are its famous emblems.
There are many fun and diverse day’s out from your base in Bordeaux city
Going West…the beautiful sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast runs alongside the Médoc so 30 minutes from the D2 route de château! The world’s largest dune ‘Dune de Pyla’ is near Arcachon, a beautiful sea-side town full of seafood restaurants and an attractive amble along its promenade. The best view ever is to be had from ‘La Coorniche’ restaurant and Philip Starck hotel near to Pyla.
Visit the fashionable (you might bump into a French film star) Cap Ferret for the best mussels at Chez Hortense. The horse-shoe shaped ‘bassin’ is alive with oyster sheds and little bays and harbours.
Going East…the Dordogne with all of its history, beautiful buildings and prehistoric caves
Going South …les Landes with its famous foie gras and Armagnac
Going North…the Charentes, the world of Cognac and historic navel city of La Rochelle