Judging by my inbox, a lot of you are turning your minds to touring the Bordeaux vineyards, maybe it’s the spring weather. What could be nicer? The professional tasters have left Bordeaux after ‘en primeur’ week and the season is now open for the enthusiast. So if you’re planning a trip, here are a few tips to help organise your visit.
When planning your trip, have a think about what you are looking for: Do you want to be educated in wine, terroir and blends? Is it just the wine or are you interested in the local food as well, with a trip to a classic French market or a cooking class perhaps? Do you want to visit some of the beautiful towns and villages? If this is your first time and you are not sure, you can always prepare with some background reading such as Bordeaux Bootcamp!
Allow at the very least three days to even try to experience the region and it’s wines. Bordeaux is big: over 111 000 ha under vines tended by almost 6 800 growers/winemakers. I’m not suggesting that you will cover all that ground in three days but it will allow you to visit the three main regions: the Medoc in the northern peninsula, Graves and Sauternes in the South and Saint Emilion and Pomérol (or the ‘right bank’) to the East.
Visitors try to squeeze a lot into a short time; if you can spare a few extra days to see the lesser-known regions such as the Entre Deux Mers and Côtes it will be time well spent. They offer not only spectacular scenery but also excellent value for money wines. Not a term everyone associates with Bordeaux, prepare to be surprised.
It’s not just the vineyards, there’s the city of Bordeaux itself, recently named the No. 1 place to visit by the LA Times, with its monuments, restaurants and excellent shopping. And of course the delightful medieval town of Saint Emilion, I could go on………
Plan to use a driver so you can taste without too much spitting, Drink driving rules in France are draconian and a night in a cooling off cell should not be part of the tour. A driver will also ensure you don’t get lost on the country roads; ‘turn right at the vines’ is not a useful direction.
Local knowledge is important, so hire a local (me when I’m free). Explain what you have in mind; see above, they can then ensure your itinerary allows the time for transfers between properties as well as making sense geographically. Insider knowledge will also explain the why and wherefore of the soils and souls of the vineyards; their history and the stories as well as technical explanations behind the Chateaux, the classifications and background on the vintages. Touring around on your own, you miss a lot of these details that make Bordeaux so fascinating.
You can expect to visit three to four properties a day depending upon your enthusiasm, maybe including a lunch or dinner in a Chateau. Tasting rooms are not the norm in Bordeaux; visits will include a detailed tour of the vines and the cellars where you can ask technical, economic, or even less discrete questions of the winemakers, owners or guides. Of course you will taste the fruits of their labours. Properties often offer different tastings options: different vintages and perhaps a second wine or a white as well as the red depending where you are. Allow about ninety minutes per visit and tasting. Some Chateaux will also welcome you to stay overnight in guest rooms or cottages amongst the vines. You’ll be spoilt for choice from grand starred hotels to ‘Chambres d’hôtes’ either in the city of Bordeaux or the surrounding countryside.
If you have a favourite property (or several) your guide or tour planner can try and incorporate them in the programme but please be aware, not all Chateaux welcome visitors and those that do only receive so many visitors each day (they do need some time to make the wine after all). A few months forward notice is really helpful if you have a specific wish list. Follow the advice of your local guide; the emphasis of the visits changes from property to property, the choice will very much depend upon the experience you are looking for.
Don’t visit just the top dogs. Yes it is exciting to enter the hallowed halls of the classified growths but they account for less than 5% of Bordeaux. Some of the most memorable visits are to smaller, family-run, properties where you are sure to meet the people behind the product. After twenty plus years I have my favourite properties I know will offer a very warm welcome and I’ll be happy to share.
Shipping wines home is something I am often asked about. Not all château sell their wines directly, some sell exclusively to merchants, but more and more offer wines for sale in on-site boutiques. Some will ship, although it’s complicated, especially if you are shipping back to the US. Several local wine merchants have shops in Bordeaux, Saint Emilion or Margaux and will ship mixed cases for you; the sales tax you save usually about covers the shipping cost.
When to visit? Each season has its charm; the weather is normally lovely from April through October. Harvest period (September-October depending on the year) is great fun but the Chateaux are very busy and are not always available to receive visitors at this time. In August the French are on holiday, some properties stay open but most owners are at the beach!
How much? The most affordable option is to join a ready-made group tour such as those organised by the Bordeaux tourist office or you can organise a tailor-made tour with a guide or agency. This allows you to choose how long you want your days to be, in what style of accommodation to want to stay, the type of restaurants you want to enjoy, etc. You can add on a cooking class perhaps or even a day on the nearby coast. The budget will depend on the options you choose.
If you fancy a more hands on approach to organising your stay, a new wine tour concept, Wine Paths, could be just what you need. Just launched, it is designed as the first digital platform for wine lovers from all around the world who want to visit vineyards all around the world.
Members of Wine Paths include wineries, distilleries, restaurants, hotels and local travel agencies with expert knowledge of their wine region. They are all featured on the website which allows you to choose how much you want to get involved with planning your tour. If you want to be hands on and organize everything, all the tools are there, you can contact the featured members directly, be they hotels, restaurants or wineries. It saves searching through the Internet as the pre-selection has been made of tried and tested services categorised by region.
If you do prefer to have your trip organized for you, you can contact the local experts directly and let them take the strain.
Wine Paths has been created by Stéphane Tillement who runs Mauriac Voyages, one the top five luxury travel agencies in France, specialised in tailor-made wine tours. The inspiration came as he noticed that clients wanted to be more proactive in organising their own tours, both in France and abroad. Wine Paths was born.
The Bordeaux region has everything you need to create an unforgettable, educational as well as fun wine trip, but once you have Bordeaux under your belt perhaps you’ll venture further afield? Wine Paths can take you across France, onto Spain and Portugal and as far away as South Africa, with more to follow.
What are you waiting for?