Bordeaux Wine Country – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Every traveler with an interest in wine and food owes himself or herself, at some point in life, a pilgrimage to Bordeaux, a gustatory shrine.

A glass of well-aged red wine from one of the better chateaux of the Medoc or a sweet white wine from one of the best Sauternes chateaux are two of the exquisite taste pleasures that life offers. Drinking these wines at their place of origin, after seeing how the grapes are grown and the wine vinted, is a satisfying and joyful experience. Pairing the wine with delectable regional cuisine is an added pleasure.

The memories of a trip to Bordeaux can last a lifetime, flooding back whenever you subsequently have an opportunity to open another bottle of Bordeaux wine.

For many travelers, whose most accessible wine drinking experience may be California wines, the trip to Bordeaux is an exhilarating search for the origin of the Cabernet and Merlot vines that create some of the most satisfying California red wines. Bordeaux is also the first home of the Sauvignon and Semillon grapes that constitute so many attractive white wines in California.

The budget traveler should note that monetary savings spent on drinking a week’s worth of good Bordeaux wine in Bordeaux, where the wine is cheapest at its place of origin, can contribute substantially to the cost of a charter flight to get you to Paris.

Train to Bordeaux

From Paris I caught the train to Bordeaux, which is situated in the southwest of the country. The trip on high speed trains now takes only a little more than three hours. Catching the train from Paris is the convenient way to get to Bordeaux for most travelers. The excellent service and many comforts of the European trains will come as a surprise to some who would be less inclined to consider this mode of travel in North America.

Once in Bordeaux I spent a day exploring the city, which resembles a provincial Versailles, because it is the repository of so much 18th-century architecture. The Place de la Bourse, with its Three Graces Fountain, is one of the finest examples of this classically graceful style. Bordeaux is also a busy port, exporting wine and other products. As with many world ports, the character is one of openness and tolerance. With its wavering historical allegiance between England and France, it should come as no surprise that moderation is the cornerstone of the Bordeaux temperament. It is no accident that the measured essays of Michel de Montaigne, a mayor of Bordeaux and a grape grower, are the celebrated contribution to world literature from the Bordeaux region.

In Bordeaux I rented a car, necessary for excursions into the regions around Bordeaux. Within the city, the one-way streets and mazelike medieval passageways are forbidding to negotiate, so I left the car at my hotel during urban exploration. I stayed at the Normandie Hotel, a first-rate establishment, centrally located near the Maison du Vin, the House of Wine. The House of
Wine offers all the information a visitor could want on how to see the region and visit various chateaux. Visits should be arranged in advance. Both the House of Wine and the Normandie Hotel are striking examples of 18th-century architecture. Across the street is a remarkable shop called the Vinotheque, a library of wine, selling bottles from the most prominent chateaux of the Bordeaux region in many different vintages.

In the city of Bordeaux I also had my first encounter with the gastronomy of the region. At a restaurant called La Belle Epoque I dined on Gambas Grille, boiled and slightly grilled shrimp, and Fillet de Saint-Pierre, a fish fillet in a sauce of egg, lemon, and mustard. The Bordeaux gastronome has access to a variety of fresh seafood, especially fish and lamprey, as well as wild mushrooms, and a plentiful supply of cow, sheep, and goat cheeses. More of this will be recounted, deliciously, as this tale unfolds.

The Medoc

A visitor to the Bordeaux region has three main wine locales to explore: the Medoc to the north, St. Emilion to the east, and Grave-Sauterne to the south. I found that each area merits at least one day of active looking, with perhaps two days preferred for the Medoc. The principal chateaux are all an hour or less drive from Bordeaux. Each area has strong defining characteristics that make it distinguishable from the others.

The gracious director of the House of Wine made an appointment for us to visit Chateau Prieure-Lichine in the Margaux commune. This winery was set up in the modern era by wine aficionado Alexis Lichine. I had followed the career of the late Alexis Lichine, who had been something of an upstart on the local scene. He was a marketer. Some of the aristocratic owners of the large estates tended to presume that future consumers are born with an innate knowledge that Medoc wines are superior. Lichine felt otherwise. Any general traveler can be received by some chateaux for a tour of the cellars if appointments are made in advance. If no such arrangements are made, the traveler can drive the roads and see the vineyards and buildings.

My car climbed through ridges and forests on high hills that protect the eastward-facing vineyards, then descended into the gradual plain of vineyards approaching the Gironde River. Here lie the great houses whose wealth benefits from the wine trade, but whose opulence could not be accounted for solely by wine sales. In the Medoc there is an underlying anti-commercial temperament that caused some chateaux in the 19th century to surround the houses with gardens so the vines, tainted by commerce, would not be visible. That attitude is changing today.

Alexis Lichine was a singular man, which is a story in itself. But suffice to say that this Russian-born, but Americanized promoter of wine, who lived much of the year at his wine property in Bordeaux, probably did more than any other individual to acquaint North Americans with the civilized pleasures of wine drinking in the post World War II era. He crisscrossed the land (America) preaching that wine was indeed a delightful drink, an alternative to the whiskey-and-water drinking culture. Winemakers at the time were not seen as artists but as bootleggers whom many thought ought to be controlled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Those of us who drink wine every day can scarcely conceive how odd and un-American we would have been then. Lichine’s books, The Wines of France and his Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits were among the best-selling wine books.

So it was pleasing to see this legacy property associated with a wine-promoting pioneer. Chateau Prieure-Lichine in the Margaux commune. Lichine bought the property in 1951 and gradually refurbished and upgraded both the house and vineyards, originally run by Benedictine monks. The location of Chateau Prieure-Lichine is just behind the church in the village of Cantenac. Through numerous land trades Lichine gradually upgraded the vineyards, switching sandy alluvial soil that produces less distinctive tasting grapes for the more gravelly terrain so highly prized in the Medoc.

With the estate guide, I walked into the cellars and, as is the custom in Bordeaux, and tasted the young wine from the past season.

“There are four factors in good wine production,” the guide reminded us. “The soil, the grape variety, the microclimate, and the winemaker behind the bottle.”

We tasted and spat out the vigorous, full-bodied, most-recent vintage. Though appropriately hard and tannic at this tender age, the wine promised the backbone and complexity that maturity brings to Medoc wines. The wines are drinkable after three years, but peak anywhere from 5 to 25 years, with some having longevity to last 100 years.

The Prieure-Lichines operation was a mix of respectful tradition, innovation, and a strong artistic flair. The vat room where the grapes are received had been tiled in colorful red inlaid small squares. The cement holding tanks for the wine, built right into the walls of the property, were covered with antique cast-iron firebacks, which once were used to reflect heat in fireplaces. I was told that Lichine, before he died in 1989, had scoured the antique stores of Europe for these covers and once found several being used as manhole covers in a Mosel town.

The scene, however, was not one of antiques alone. The floor was clean enough to eat off of. Everything was whitewashed or stainless steel. There were no picturesque cobwebs or piles of gray dust here.

My guide mentioned how one of Licine’s favorite sayings was, “The one tradition I detest is the fascination many winemakers have with picturesque filth in wine aging rooms.”

Among grape varieties in the Medoc, Chateau Prieure-Lichine has a stronger appreciation for Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is the required backbone grape of the Medoc red wine, but a percentage of Merlot is desired. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are the other allowed grapes. Merlot makes a softer wine that can be drunk earlier, but the authorities, to whom a grower must apply for permission when replanting grape varieties, have a great appreciation for Cabernet. The art of the blend is important in Bordeaux wines. For wine drinkers who believe that 100 percent Cabernet is the best wine, it may come as a surprise to learn that Merlot is so prominent in some Bordeaux wines.

The microclimate of the Medoc is affected by sizable hills and forests behind the vineyards, protecting the fields from Atlantic storms. The gravel soil absorbs the sun’s warmth and radiates it back to the vines at night. The one excess of nature that causes most concern for growers, aside from occasional hailstones, is frost.

Onward in the Medoc

My next appointment was at Chateau Margaux, where I walked through a vast cellar of barrels. Barrel making in Bordeaux is a prominent art because many of the chateaux prefer new barrels for each new vintage. The idea is that the tannins and taste of the oak is strongest with the new barrels. In California, a mellower, older barrel might tend to be preferred.

The countryside of Medoc is picturesque, as captivating as the Cote-d’Or in Burgundy, the Napa Valley in California, or the Mosel in Germany. Vines in the Medoc are on gradual hillsides or flatlands, facing northeast to the ever-widening river, the Gironde, which spreads out like a swallow’s tail, as the name in French suggests, while running to the sea.

As a general visitor without appointments, I meandered and looked at the vineyards and buildings of Chateaux Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, and Lafite-Rothschild. Latour, as the translation from the French suggests, had indeed a quaint white tower. Mouton-Rothschild included elegant and manicured gardens. At Mouton-Rothschild I watched a man walking the vineyards with a machete, slicing off the vine branches. He was reducing the leaf growth to concentrate more energy and sunlight in the berries. This commitment to small volume production of choice wine makes Mouton-Rothschild able to command such a high price among consumers.

On another day I had an appointment to stop in at Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, farther north in the Medoc at the commune of St. Julien. The name of this property, “beautiful pebbles,” tells much about the ideal soil sought in St. Julien to produce their dark, almost black, perfumed wines. The Borie family took over this property in 1942 after the previous owner had let the wines descend in reputation. Through energetic attention since then, the Borie has brought the winery back to its earlier peak.

As we strolled over the estate above the Gironde, my guide said, “To make great wine, we say in the Medoc, ‘The vines must see the river.'”

Surrounding the palatial home, an 18th-century edifice with added Victorian towers, were 100 acres of vines planted 65 percent in Cabernet, 25 percent in Merlot, and 10 percent in Cabernet Franc/Petit Verdot.

My guide confided how difficult it was to make this Bordeaux wine profitably.

“There are many good wines to be consumed from Bordeaux,” he said. “But the last and highest bit of quality is extremely expensive to produce.”

In the cellars I tasted the most recent vintage, which had a rich bouquet, lovely deep color, and the strong tannins that would enable it to age well. With a silver tasting cup that had a convex surface, a cup style favored in Bordeaux, I was able to see the fine gradations of wine color that are a concern in selecting Bordeaux wines.

While walking through the cellar, I noticed one rack with bottles from 1879. If ever therewere a visible expression to me on this trip of the maxim, “Wine is the past, always present,” this was the moment.

St. Emilion

The ironically perfect contrast to aristocratic Bordeaux provide to be the more accessible St. Emilion. After traveling 18 twisty miles of back roads, I arrived at the House of Wine, in this charming, small medieval town, and was greeted by a guide for whom I had arranged. The guide was dressed in a printed T-shirt and sneakers. The T-shirt read in French, “I love St. Emilion.”

This informality of the guide was a fitting manifestation of the spirit of St. Emilion. While the chateaux of the Medoc are large, sometimes 500 acres, the average St. Emilion property is merely 25 acres, more democratic than aristocratic, more like Burgundy than Bordeaux. The St. Emilion wine people are  receptive to the average traveler and perhaps have more fun in life and take themselves less seriously than the highborn Medocians.

The guide had a special sense of humor and was filled with the spirit of the wine region.

“Churches are the dead monuments of St. Emilion,” he asserted. “Wines are the living monuments.”

I spent a busy day rambling around the town and countryside of St. Emilion with my guide. The town itself is one of the postcard wine towns of France, comparable to Beaune. The red-tile roofs of St. Emilion descend in a natural amphitheater shape. There are churches from the 12th-century medieval times. On a hillside near the town is Chateau Ausone, which is named after, and may have been the property of, the 4th-century Roman poet and politician from the Bordeaux region, Ausonius. He sang the praises of Bordeaux wine at an early date, but the exact location of his property in the 4th century excites scholarly passions. Near St. Emilion, following my energetic guide, I walked to the middle of a field where I could see clearly discernible trenches in fallow ground. These trenches were the style of cultivation, my guide indicated, that were used by the Romans, chopping gashes in the soft chalk soil to set out vines. Underneath the city and under the main chateaux, such as Ausone and Beausejour, there are miles of caves cut in the soft rock, over centuries. The caves are now used to age wine, and in some cases to grow mushrooms.

I had arranged with my guide to visit to Chateau Beausejour, perhaps a half mile from town. The winery and vineyards sit on a slight rise and the property is indeed aptly named a “beautiful residence.” From Beausejour I journeyed to Chateau Cheval Blanc, which is one of St. Emilion’s most highly ranked wines. At Cheval Blanc I happened to get a tour from the manager, and I appreciated his humor when I asked how they developed such award-winning wines.

“How can I talk about my child?” the manager said. “It would be immodest to praise her. But look at our vineyards and those of our neighbors.”

We were standing on a balcony above the cellars.

“We have the same climate as our neighbors,” he continued. “They have vinting skills equal to ours. But the difference is that we have on our property, which is large by St. Emilion standards, fully 35 hectares, three kinds of soil: sand, gravel, and aliosse. The difference is the ground and our capacity for blending the three flavors of wine. This option is not open to our neighbors. I can see no difference but the soil between us.”

I had a memorable “chef tasting” meal that night at La Plaisance restaurant in town. This encounter was my most memorable meal in Bordeaux. The meal began with a liver pâté. Then came a course of lampreys and leeks in a red-wine-of-St.-Emilion sauce, a local specialty. The lampreys were caught in the Gironde River. The next course was a salmon fillet, cooked quickly over vine clippings, another regional specialty. Then, after a beef brochette, came a platter of large black wild mushrooms found in the region. Cheese followed, a Camembert, a Brie, and a cheese I didn’t know, from the Massif Central. Dessert was a macaroon cake, for which St. Emilion is well known.

It is an understatement to say such a meal is an occasion. The ease and delight with which so much good food could be consumed was stimulated by the wines. The wine pairings began with a three-year-old Saint Christophe from St. Emilion, to illustrate how drinkable and pleasant the St. Emilion wines are when young. Their faster-maturing qualities are quite different from the Medoc wines, partly accounted for by the higher percentage of Merlot grape in the grape mix. Then the chef opened an older Beausejour, which was a magnificent wine, robust yet subtle, authoritative yet delicate. The wine was worth swirling on the tongue, savoring every drop of it.

Grave and Sauterne

The next day there lay before us the third region, south-east of Bordeaux, known as Grave and Sauterne.

Grave, as the word indicates, salutes once again the gravelly soil that is so highly thought of in Bordeaux. Grave begins right at the edge of the city where Chateau Haut-Brion stands. When the great Medoc wines were classified in 1855, the Bordeaux wine people included this one Grave holding at the top of the list, although it was not in the Medoc. Grave was, historically, the earliest and the most prominent of the Bordeaux wine-growing areas, but by the 18th century a political shift in Bordeaux emphasized the wines of the Medoc. Grave fell into a decline from which it only recently recovered.

Unlike the Medoc or St. Emilion, Grave produces a red and a white wine, the white from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes. The more northerly vineyards tend to produce dry whites, while the southerly favor the sweeter whites made famous in neighboring Sauterne.

My first stop was at Chateau Carbonnieux and a visit with the cellarmaster. Carbonnieux produces 50 percent red, 50 percent white, about 33,000 gallons each annually.

The cellarmaster showed me the cement vats where he ferments the red, leaving the skins with the juice for three weeks. He ferments the white in stainless steel tanks where the temperature can be controlled, unlike some other white wine producers, such as Chateau d’Yquem, which ferment the white right in the barrel where it will age. Carbonnieux’s reds were 60 percent Cabernet, 30 percent Merlot, and 10 percent Cabernet Franc.

“To make a great wine in Grave we need much sun,” said the cellarmaster, as we tasted his dry, clean white and his agreeable red.

The cellarmaster was quite articulate about Grave wines, so I quote him at length.

“We also hope there will be no rain at the wrong times, as the flowers set or as we harvest,” he said. “The gravel soil here is especially good for our white wines. Soil here is made of light sand and stone. Sauvignon grapes give to the white a wild, fresh, and nervous taste. Semillon gives the white more roundness, a more subdued taste, and some sweetness. The mixture of the two makes a pleasing wine. Sauvignon alone would be too wild. Cabernet Sauvignon gives the red its color, tannin, and strength. Merlot adds to the red more sweetness, suppleness, roundness, and lightness.”

“Bordeaux wines are like a deck of playing cards,” he concluded. “You need all of them to play. To me the reds of Grave are the great kings. The reds of the Medoc are the delicious queens. And the reds of St. Emilion are the witty jacks.”

As we walked through the vineyards, he explained why roses were planted at the ends of his vine rows. Certain pests, such as oidium, a mildew fungus, attack the roses before the vines. When the roses become infected, preventive strategies are used to save the vines. When no pests are present, the roses are maintained as an attractive presence in the vineyard.

My last stop in Bordeaux was, appropriately, the dessert for this gustatory pilgrimage. I went to an appointment with the manager at Chateau d’Yquem, producer of a sweet white wine that some connoisseurs consider the ultimate wine-drinking experience. Among the sweet Sauterne wines, d’Yquem was rated highest in 1855 and continues to enjoy the top reputation in the region.

The area of Sauterne, I found, is a pleasant circuit of small back roads to drive.

Chateau d’Yquem looked truly picturesque, featuring an fairytale castle appearance. The chateau overlooks a sweeping vista of vines extending toward the Garonne River, a tributary of the Gironde. Anyone can drive to d’Yquem and walk the grounds. With advance arrangement a tour of the cellars is possible.

At the chateau, many art objects and wine-related graphics on display are the property of the Lur-Saluces family, which has owned d’Yquem since 1786.

The wines of Sauterne are produced in a unique way. In the Garonne River microclimate autumn mists alternate with sun over the fields. These conditions stimulate a kind of mold, botrytis cinerea, sometimes called “noble rot” to distinguish it from the ordinary gray rot that destroys grapes. The botrytis mold shrivels the grape volume to as little as 20 percent of the original size and concentrates the sugar level so that the juice pressed from the grapes has a high sugar level. At d’Yquem the 320 miles of grape vines are harvested by hand sometimes as many as five times during the fall season as individual clusters or even individual berries achieve this shriveled state. The final volume of wine amounts to only one glass per year per vine, perhaps 20 barrels of wine on a big harvest day, only 80,000 bottles per year from 225 acres of vines. The procedure is extremely costly, of course, but the resulting wine attains a full alcoholic level and yet retains a high residual sugar taste. A glass of this wine is an exquisite experience.

The same type of noble rot sometimes occurs in the Mosel or Rhine in Germany and in Monterey Valley in California, but growers there have more options open to them. The Mosel winemaker can harvest his grapes at any of several levels of sugar attainment before they shrivel, making fine wine. So can the California grower. But the identity of d’Yquem is such that if this sweet wine is not achieved, there is no other alternative, there is no d’Yquem, and indeed in some years the harvest was either lost completely or was of insufficiently high quality to merit the name d’Yquem. Another difference between Sauterne and the other wine areas is the grape variety. At d’Yquem and throughout the Sauterne the grape used is Semillon and Sauvignon. D’Yquem has 80 percent Semillon, 20 percent Sauvignon.

I asked the manager why he thought d’Yquem wines were ranked higher in 1855 and continue to be valued higher than most other Sauternes.

“Vinting skills of other growers are as good as ours,” he said. “But I think we have a special quality because our large vineyard has three types of soil. We have some clay, some loam, and some very deep gravel. Because we are a large holding and can blend grapes from these three parcels, which each have component tastes, our wines achieve a peak the others don’t.”

After surveying the fields we entered the cellars to see d’Yquem wine, which is started in new barrels with each vintage. Fermentation takes place right in the small barrels, not in a large stainless steel tank. Of the wine in the barrels, when bottling time comes three years after the vintage, only a portion will merit the label d’Yquem.

“In some vintages only 30 percent will get the title d’Yquem,” said the manager. “In an easy year perhaps 80 percent of the wine will be called d’Yquem.”

The rejected wine is sold in bulk to a Bordeaux bottler who, pledged to secrecy as to the source, can only sell the wine as regional Sauternes.

Once d’Yquem is bottled, the wine has unsurpassed longevity.

“There is almost no limit to the aging,” added the manager.

At the end of the cellar, on a white table, stood several bottles of this glory of France. The bottles showed the deep golden color aged d’Yquem achieves. The manager poured the glasses, and we slowly sipped the nectar, watching the “legs,” as the alcoholic viscosity on the sides of the glass is sometimes called. The wine had a pleasing a balance of acidity and sweetness. Luscious, perfumed, almost auburn in color, it looked like a jewel in the glass and left a memory in the taste, long to be savored.

So ended, with a d’Yquem dessert, my gustatory pilgrimage to Bordeaux. Anyone with an interest in food and wine can re-create, when the time is right for them, this Bordeaux adventure.

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Bordeaux: If You Go

For further information, contact French Government Tourism, www.francetourism.com.

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