Wine touring in Bordeaux is a bit more formal than in the New World. You don’t just rock on up for a tasting and maybe an alfresco lunch. You generally have to make an appointment (which can often be done on-line) and wine tasting will include a winery tour. But Bordeaux is certainly jumping on the bandwagon of welcoming visitors. The chateaux listed here are particularly interesting to visit because they offer something extra including blending workshops, wine and food pairing, great art, architecture and more. Remember, though, in France only a few chateaux are open on weekends.
The first stop for wine lovers should be the Bordeaux Wine Trade Council in an ornate 18th century triangular building in the heart of the UNESCO Heritage-listed city of Bordeaux. Here you can enjoy wine workshops and taste dozens of wines by the glass at the classy wine bar. You can also taste a range of wines at each of the Bordeaux region syndicats. Check out the Maison du Vin de St Emilion which offers summer wine workshops and free tastings, Pauillac and Margaux, Planete Bordeaux for Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines, and lesser known regions, including Fronsac, Entre Deux Mers, Blaye, and Bourg.
Bordeaux in southwest France is arguably the most famous wine region in the world. The word Bordeaux means on “the edge of the waters” and its wonderful wine is a result of its very famous ‘terroir’ which is a combination of soils and climate…it’s sense of place. Its vines scrabble through ancient well-drained gravelly and clay soils alongside the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. These join to form France’s largest estuary, the Gironde, which divides the region into Bordeaux’s very own wildly different Left and Right Banks, the Medoc and St. Emilion. And, even if you can’t see the sea, the nearby Atlantic’s mists and squalls imbue the air with ever-present moistness and temper the long summer evenings and slow ripening autumns to deliver richness and structure that befits this Grande Dame in a glass.
A predominantly red-wine region, Bordeaux is the largest AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlle) in France with 8000 producers on 112,600 hectares stretching 100 kilometers North/South and East/West from the city of Bordeaux. There are 60 Bordeaux appellations and four different systems of classified ‘growths’.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the key red varieties, with the gravelly soils of the Medoc and Graves on the Left Bank more suited to Cabernet and the clay soils of Pomerol and St Emilion better for Merlot. Bordeaux’s most famous white wine growing region is Sauternes, in the south, whose sweet wines are made from botrytis Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Smaller quantities of dry white wine blends from the same grapes are made predominantly in Graves and Entre Deux Mers.
12 Great Bordeaux Chateaux to visit
The elegant and powerful wines of Second Growth Chateau Cos d’Estournel in St Estephe are the reason to visit but on a tour you discover their distinctive vineyard sites and visit the cutting-edge winery housed in the pagoda-like folly of Louis-Gaspard d’Estournel, dubbed the Maharajah of St Estephe.
The Tesseron family own Fifth Growth Pontet Canet in Pauillac and Fourth Growth Chateau Lafon Rochet in St Estephe. Both offer personal tours of the winemaking facilities and terrific tastings. At Pontet Canet they have golf-buggy tours of the biodynamic vineyards, which are worked by horses.
Second Growth Pichon Longueville Baron in Pauillac features delightful winery visits in spectacular cellars underneath the ornamental pool which reflects the spires of its exquisite neo-classical chateau.
Initially a Saint Augustine priory, Fourth Growth Chateau Prieure Lichine in Margaux has no chateau but an impressive vegetation-covered barrel-shaped winery and an expansive visitor program seven days a week, including tasting workshops, terroir tutorials and wine and food pairing. The most ambitious tour, Gourmet Day in Margaux, offers food and wine pairing with three other chateaux: Rauzan Gassies, Kirwan and La Tour de Bessan.
Chateau du Taillan, a Cru Bourgeois in the Haut Medoc, has some of the oldest cellars in the Medoc, now a French national heritage site. Tours are available seven days a week including blending workshops and harvest days in September as well as picnic hampers in the pretty grounds and wine and food tastings.
No great corporate bells and whistles here, but family-owned Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Beau Sejour Becot offers a sommelier-led tour of the vines and the estate’s remarkable cellars in limestone grottos that weave all the way to St Emilion before a wine tasting in an elegant reception room.
The spectacular new red stainless steel winery of Grand Cru Classe Chateau La Dominique juts across the St Emilion plateau offering an intriguing upside-down reflection of the vineyards and clouds. Designed by Jean Nouvel, the winery sports floor-to-ceiling windows for vineyard inspiration. Above, La Terrace Rouge bistro extends along a red-glass-baubled terrace with sensational views over the vineyards to neighbour Le Cheval Blanc and on to Pomerol. English language winery tours and tastings can be booked on line.
The delightful Grand Cru Classe Chateau de Ferrand (owned by the Bic family, inventors of the ubiquitous pen) with its classic 17th century castle offers some of St Emilion’s most interesting sommelier-led wine tours. There are barrel tastings in the limestone cellars, vertical tastings of six vintages going back 20 years, wine and cheese pairing, blending workshops, cooking classes with chef Nicolas Magie from the Hotel St. James, picnics and meals served with estate wines.
Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Soutard offers wine adventures in its impressive new winemaking facilities while also restoring the chateau to its former glory. In addition to tastings, vineyard and cellar explorations, there are immersion winemaking programs and cooking classes followed by lunch with matched wines. There is even a mapmaker’s treasure hunt and grape-juice tasting for kids. Picnics too.
Located in the small, great-value appellation of Fronsac, adjacent to St Emilion, Chateau La Dauphine offers an exceptional wine touring experience. You not only get one of the most informative wine tours of this biodynamic vineyard, complete with iPad-illustrated description of each step of the winemaking process, but can also visit the 18th century Chateau for a casual lunch or formal dinner.
Smith Haut Lafitte’s atmospheric ivy-covered winery built around a 16th century tower offers a terrific range of winery visits including tours of the cellars and cooperage and tasting of its first and second wines, visits to a hidden James Bond-style cellar housing antique vintages, wine tasting with dried fruits and chocolates, an art tour of the contemporary sculpture collection, and even spending a day as vineyard manager or cellar chief.
Perhaps Bordeaux’s most famous unclassified growth, Chateau de Reignac located at the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers at the top of Entre Deux Mers, has done well against Bordeaux’s big names in blind tastings. Owned by inventor Yves Vatelot, you can book online for a tour of the cellars and a tasting in the beautiful pigeon tower, which offers a terrific view over the vines. The chateau and the greenhouse designed by Gustav Eiffel aren’t that bad either.
Bordeaux Wine tasting and buying tips
The price of wines from the Bordeaux classified growths is in the stratosphere and traded more as luxury brands. Remember to consider their second wines, often from younger vines, and to look at other producers who today create exceptional wines in both the famous and less well-known Bordeaux appellations.
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