by Victoria Moore, The Telegraph, June 5, 2018
Many of the world’s most famous wines come from Bordeaux, but so do vast numbers you will never have heard of. It is a huge wine region, with thousands of producers, nearly five dozen different appellations and several different regions. I visit two or three times a year, cramming in several chateaux on each day, and barely feel that I have scratched the surface. But, happily, it’s easy to dip in and out, so here I’ve suggested five producers that would make a good visit. Each is in a different region and offers a different style of wine.
In each case I’ve also added other recommendations that would turn a quick wine pit-stop into a more in-depth discovery of that particular area. But my top tip, if you really love wine, would be to buy a map and spend some time pootling around in the car.
Yes, rely on the satnav for directions, but with a good, old-fashioned paper map and the view from the window, you can really begin to understand how the vineyards fit together, and how one set of flavours begins to meld into another as you move, say, from St Julien to Pauillac, or from the limestone plateau in St Émilion to the sandy lower ground.
Even if you’re not interested in wine, Bordeaux is in so many ways the perfect mini-break destination. Don’t just confine yourself to the vineyards. The city itself, with its neoclassical architecture, gracious boulevards, and long trading history, has been transformed by a huge regeneration programme.
Now you can stretch your legs with the skateboarders and runners on the remodelled quais; admire the water mirror opposite Place de la Bourse; call into the central market for oysters and a glass of wine; and eat at one of the city’s many hip restaurants.
Cap Ferret – where the Bordeaux chateaux owners go to unwind on summer weekends – is only an hour’s drive away. This beautiful headland has vast sandy beaches; pine trees; a lighthouse; Atlantic surf; and a fabulous beachside moules-frites restaurant (Chez Hortense) where you can sit drinking a chilled bottle of under-rated white bordeaux while looking out across the bay to the Dune du Pilat (the tallest in Europe).
If the weather is clement, you’d be crazy not to go.
Essentials stops for wine lovers
Château Pichon Baron, Pauillac, Haut-Médoc
The fairy-tale turrets and towers of Pichon Baron make it one of Bordeaux’s most recognisable chateaux. Ranked as a second growth in the famous 1855 classification, under the stewardship of Christian Seely this Pauillac giant is now making wines that can almost be said to rival the first growths. Appointments must be made in advance (pichonbaron.com). A short vineyard tour followed by a tasting of three wines costs €15 (£13).
Take the D2 north through the communes of Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and right up to St Estèphe, ticking off famous names as you go. Note how the land gently rises and falls, with all the best chateaux perched atop a gravel bank. Do not miss out St Estèphe – you can stop at Pichon Baron on the way back.
The Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Museum of Wine in Art (chateau-mouton-rothschild.com) and Léoville-Poyferré (St Julien), which offers walk-in tastings as well as a more elaborate programme by appointment.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac-Léognan
The commune of Pessac-Léognan lies just to the south of, and very close to, the city of Bordeaux. It is home to some of Bordeaux’s greatest white wines, made from sémillon and sauvignon blanc, and aged in oak barrels, giving them a slight flavour of dill and roasted grapefruit. Smith Haut Lafitte is one of the big players here, and a beautiful place to visit. It is owned by former ski champions Daniel and Florence Cathiard, who built careers in advertising and retail before selling everything to buy the chateau in 1990. The older Cathiard daughter, Mathilde, created the Caudalie cosmetics and spa brand, while the younger one manages the five-star spa hotel (Les Sources de Caudalie) among the vineyards. Six different packages are offered by the vineyard, priced from €18-€715 (smith-haut-lafitte.com).
The grounds of Smith Haut Lafitte are studded with magnificent modern sculptures. “Every time there is some money left over, we buy one,” says Florence. The 26-strong collection includes a giant bronze hare by Barry Flanagan that watches over the cabernet franc; and a Chuck Hoberman sphere – Nouaison – that expands and contracts before your eyes. Book the “When Arts Meets Vines” tour to view them.
The immaculate and beautiful Château Haut Bailly makes excellent red wine and its hospitality is second to none (haut-bailly.com).
Château Bauduc, Entre-Deux-Mers
For affordable wines and the best inside track chat, seek out this estate in the peaceful Entre-Deux-Mers region (situated between two rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne). It’s owned by Gavin and Angela Quinney, who bought the place in 1999 and moved their family to France to run it. Gavin gives most of the tours himself, and is an extraordinary and interesting fund of information about everything from the best local restaurants to the two plagues of hail and frost. Château Bauduc has been a big restaurant hit back home – the sauvignon blanc is now the house white at Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein. You can buy it direct at bauduc.com for £11 a bottle.
Tours run from May to September, Monday to Friday at 11am, with the tasting (of six wines) at 11.30am. It costs €15 for 90 minutes, or €10 for just the tasting (bauduc.com).
This tip is one of Gavin’s: “The excellent market on Wednesday mornings in Créon is one of the best in Gironde; it has taken place every Wednesday since 1315, allegedly.”
Château Canon la Gaffelière, St Émilion
The Médoc is all about men in suits and long, slightly bleak, vinescapes with big skies and views of the estuary. Bordeaux’s right bank – on which you find St Émilion, Pomerol, and so on, is completely different – bucolic, rambling, green, pretty. The wines mostly rely more on merlot than cabernet sauvignon, and are often plumper and richer.
Château la Gaffelière, run by Errol Flynn lookalike Stephan von Neipperg, is a class act, with an excellent sister estate in Castillon, Côtes de Bordeaux. Tours cost €12 per person (neipperg.com).
Stop in the town of St Émilion and have a wander and a coffee. Be warned – the slopes joining the top of the town to the bottom are steep and no good for dodgy knees, but there’s a very good restaurant called L’Envers du Décor (envers-dudecor.com) at the top, and that’s where you need to be to admire the view, too. The local tourism office and its website have advice on which other chateaux it’s possible to go and see (saint-emilion-tourisme.com).
Château Guiraud, Sauternes
The beautiful grounds of this Premier Grand Cru Classé in the commune of Sauternes are a wonderful place to while away a summer afternoon. Guiraud is extremely visitor-friendly, happy to receive spontaneous drop-ins or those who book in advance (though I would err on the side of caution with that). There’s a restaurant too – needless to say the menu comes with wine pairings.
Guiraud offers five different set visits, including a cheese and sauternes tasting, priced from €20 to €150. The chateau also offers bespoke experiences (chateauguiraud.com).
The wines of Château d’Yquem are a kind of holy grail for sauternes drinkers. You can book various tours (yquem.fr) – though prices are steep, starting at €75 for the “Discovery” which includes a tasting of 2016 Y and 2015 Château d’Yquem.
Where to stay
Château Le Pape (haut-bailly.com). The luxurious new guesthouse here in the Graves region is excellent. Doubles from about £400 per night.
Hôtel de Sèze (hotel-de-seze.com). Beautiful four-star in central Bordeaux. Doubles from £300.
Hôtel Côté Sable (hotel-cotesable.com). Small hotel on the Cap Ferret headland. Doubles from about £150.
Eating in Bordeaux
Hâ Restaurant (50 Rue du Ha, ha-restaurant.fr). Tiny, very chic, serving exquisite food. Five-course menu fixe £52.
L’univerre (40 Rue Lecocq, univerre-restaurant.com). A phenomenal list of wines from all around the world.
Garopapilles (62 Rue Abbé de l’Epée, garopapilles.com). Tiny, so book well ahead. Menu du Marché for lunch £30, tasting menu for dinner £80).
La Brasserie Bordelaise (50 Rue Saint Rémi, brasserie-bordelaise.fr). Old standby for classic dishes. Main courses £20-£25.
Bella Wine Tours (bellawines.co.uk). Hamish Wakes-Miller runs exclusive tours for small groups.
Bordeaux Tourism has many wine – and other – tours (bordeaux-tourism.co.uk).