Swanky Sips: Bordeaux
Bordeaux. It might as well be the first and the last word in French wine. From Château Lafite Rothschild to Château Latour, the world’s finest wines are produced in this famed region of southwest France. The UNESCO listed city which gives the area its name has the highest concentration of preserved historic buildings anywhere in the country, and once you step outside the urban areas, every other field seems to be decorated with a castle or mansion. There’s good reason that they call the winding road through the Medoc vineyards Rue des Châteaux.
My wine weekend began in Bordeaux itself. The city is well on course to become one of Europe’s first City of Cycling, which is fabulous if a) you love being outside and b) you rather enjoy stopping here and there for a drink along the way. Hôtel de Normandie (www.hotel-de-normandie-bordeaux.com; from €136 per night) is right in Bordeaux’s 18th century centre, just moments away from the impressive Grand Théâtre, the interior of which inspired the Opéra Garnier in Paris.
With wine definitely on my mind, I biked along the newly renovated promenade alongside the Garonne River. The riverside wharves — derelict a decade or so ago — have been sensitively renovated in recent years and now house all manner of cafes, bars, and chic boutiques.
My destination, visible on the skyline for almost the entire journey, was La Cité du Vin (www.laciteduvin.com; entrance fee €20). This contorted metal tower — a mesmerizing twist of silver and gold — opened in summer 2016 is far more than a museum. It is a vibrant celebration of the wine cultures and civilizations of the world.
Inside the body of the museum, the architecture is such that it seems that you are walking within the ribcage of a whale. Your sense of scale and reality is distorted by wine bottles a storey high (Alice in Wonderland springs to mind…), video projections which enable you to sit down and “chat” with renowned winemakers and sommeliers, and all manner of glass domes and funnels which allow you to sniff the ingredients drinkers purport to taste in wine. It is, without doubt, a multi sensory experience which whisks you through 8,000 years of wine making — from pre historic Georgia to modern France — in a tour a little over two hours’ long.
Such an intensive educational experience is thirsty work, so it is just as well that the entrance ticket includes the tasting of a wine of your choice. The wine bar is at the very top of La Cité du Vin, a location with panoramic views across all parts of Bordeaux. There are a dozen or more wines to choose from, including unexpected choices such as labels from Georgia and Armenia, the countries where archaeologists believe wine making first place originated.
City sightseeing is all well and good, and indeed Bordeaux has more than enough to keep you ably entertained for a long weekend, but there is no space in built up areas to plant vines. A true wine lover must therefore venture further afield.
Following my palate as much as the map, I ventured to the Medoc, a region rightly renowned for its rich red wines. The village of Bages in Pauillac has been beautifully restored and is becoming quite a centre for oenotourism.
The centrepiece of the village is Cordeillan Bages (www.jmcazes.com; from €279), the kind of chateau that looks so manageable in size that any one of us would be delighted to move in tomorrow. The golden stone buildings — including a photogenic tower — surround immaculately kept gardens and a pool, and beyond that the lines of vines seem to stretch for miles.
Today, Cordeillan Bages is a family owned boutique hotel, part of the celebrated Relais & Chateaux group. The decor is an eclectic mix of medieval, 1930s vintage, and contemporary design, with strong prints and vibrant flowers. Natural light flows through the rooms thanks to large sash windows, and the light is emphasized further by striking mirrors situated above the mantelpieces.
The pleasure of wine is not just in its drinking but in the way it can be paired with food and enjoyed with friends. It should come as no surprise, then, that Cordeillan Bages’ Executive Chef has won a Michelin star for his restaurant, triumphantly blending local, seasonal ingredients into mouthwatering — and often remarkably beautiful — creations.
We picked up a pair of electric bikes in Bages’ central square and cycled the quarter of an hour or so along the road to Château Pichon Baron (www.pichonbaron.com), producers of one of the most celebrated Grand Crus in Medoc. The chateau — magnificent even from the road, but sadly now uninhabited — is the kind of palatial residence of which every Disney princess surely dreams. Its picture postcard facade has turrets, an impressive stone staircase to the main door, and a vast drive where you could park a dozen gilded carriages plus horses. The building is flanked by two equally remarkable modern structures, which house the winery and were built to the winning designs of an architectural competition.
At Pichon Baron, the magic happens in two places: in the vineyards where the grapes are grown, and underground. The cavernous winery is Tardis like: only a fraction of it is visible from the drive. Guide Marion shares its wonders with visitors only by appointment, but it is well worth booking a tour in advance. Over the course of an hour or so you move steadily from the fermentation room dominated by huge steel vats to the cool cellars filled with endless oak barrels. It is here that the best wines are aged. A visit without the opportunity to try the nectar made here would be a tragedy, so of course the tour concludes with a horizontal tasting of four different fine wines produced by Pichon Baron.
The cycle back to Bages is considerably more wobbly than the outward journey, but at a slower pace you have ample time to enjoy the views. Window shopping is certainly in order: if money was no object, which chateau would you want to be yours?