Ah, Bordeaux! VIP has been banging on about Bordeaux for as long as I’ve known him. How pretty it is, the vineyards, the wine, the weather…you name it.
And when he said ‘Bordeaux’ I’d rip him to shreds on his pronunciation. Not that it was wrong of course – he would know being a French teacher, but I couldn’t help but dissolve in a fit of giggles when he pronounced it with a thick French accent, more so because he wasn’t doing it for comedy value.
So you’ll be surprised to find out that VIP has never actually been to Bordeaux, despite knowing a lot about the area. And so, as part of his 40th birthday present, I set out to change that.
Taking the 09.23 train from Montparnasse in Paris (we enjoyed a quick 20 hours in the capital beforehand), we headed southbound for Bordeaux station.
The nice people at SNCF had booked us into First Class; the spacious seating arrangements (with power) offered for a very comfortable journey.
The only thing that could have been better was that we were travelling the direction of travel – VIP and I are not great at ‘going backwards’.
Having said that, the journey was smooth, fast and quiet, and three hours later we found ourselves pulling into Bordeaux.
Less than half an hour later (after being picked up from the train station), we were checking into the five-star Saint James, a Relais Chateau property, which is located in Bouliac – about 15 minutes’ drive of the centre of Bordeaux.
Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived so we had a quick mosey around the hotel (which incidentally features some amazing furniture and also has its own vineyard), before taking a stroll into town.
The town of Bouliac features a café, a patisserie and a church. And I think that’s about it. It’s a tiny picturesque village that offers postcard-worthy scenes around every corner.
Its nickname is The balcony of Bordeaux and it is easy to see why with its panoramic views of the city the other side of the Garonne river. As you can imagine, I got a little trigger happy with my camera.
As it was a Sunday, the only thing that was open was the café/restaurant, which we would be eating at that evening, so we strolled back to the hotel to grab something to eat – mozzarella and tomato for me and charcuterie for VIP.
The Jean Who? Suite
By the time we finished lunch, our room was ready and we were led to the other side of the hotel, up some iron stairs which led to just one room – the Jean Nouvel suite, which costs from 500 euros a night.
And you could see why. This was the epitome of urban chic, with an industrial vibe and a bit of art deco thrown in for good measure. VIP said it minded him of a New York loft apartment.
It was certainly an eclectic look – possibly not for everyone, but VIP and I were blown away. We felt…..well, trendy.
And for a couple in their 40s who typically lived a monotonous lifestyle, this was something to be appreciated. And the best thing about our suite? The outdoor Jacuzzi on our spacious, private terrace.
So once we’d clapped eyes on our room, we didn’t really want to leave. We had a great view of Bordeaux, comfortable surroundings and free Wi-Fi.
And as we knew we were going to be out on a full day tour the following day, we resigned ourselves to chillaxing in the suite until it was time for dinner.
For dinner we strolled across the road to the Café de l’Ésperance, which was affiliated with the hotel and where guests can grab lunch and dinner.
We made friends with our Spanish waiter who had come to Bordeaux for a holiday back in 1974 and decided not to go back home.
The food was wholesome and delicious. I particularly like the wine that our Spanish friend picked out for us to enjoy with our meal, as well as a lovely ‘buffet-style’ selection of desserts, which meant I could have more than one.
Oh, and Jean Nouvel? He is a French architect responsible for a number of renowned buildings and monuments around the world from the Doha Tower in, well, Doha, to One New Change in London. He was also responsible for the transformation of the current hotel from an 18th century farmhouse back in 1989.
After a decent night’s sleep, we were fit and ready for our full day tour the following day.
When in Bordeaux….
To miss out on taking a vineyard tour in Bordeaux would be a crime in itself – this was VIP’s view. It was a toss up between the full day tour or a two hour visit to the new Cité du vin Wine Museum which had recently opened.
As we wanted to push the boat out we opted for the full day exploration. So at crazy o’clock in the morning we set off to catch the bus to Bordeaux, followed by a tram and a quick walk to the offices of Rustic Vines – I like what they did with the name there.
Standing in the office we introduced ourselves to others on the tour – three other couples making us a total group of eight. We were going to be visiting two chateaux that day – one traditional and one modern, with a departure of 10:00 and a 4.30pm return.
Sarah was our guide and, despite her erratic driving – not helped by a windy, rainy day – was a great tour leader.
On the way to the first vineyard we were visiting, Sarah suggested we choose our lunch options so she could call ahead and make sure we got what we wanted before the lunchtime rush ensued.
Chateau de Pressac
After lunch orders were placed, we walked round the side of the chateaux to admire the views, taking in rolling hills as far as the eye could see, with a landscape dotted by cute little farmhouses.
It did cross my mind as I was taking pictures that I might be able to enter some award for ‘the most picturesque view in France’, despite my amateurism and the fact that the sky was grey.
The chateau housed a family apparently. I say apparently as we didn’t meet them; instead we were introduced to a wine helper, Leah, who sat us down in an outbuilding to taste some wines.
She also produced little plates of cheese and biscuits that looked like mini cheddars to aid our wine tasting which, if I’m honest, I found more appealing than the wines.
As you can probably guess, I’m no wine connoisseur. In fact, I’m not much of a drinker at all. I put this down to my amazing personality and being able to have a good laugh without it needed to be alcohol-fuelled.
This was more VIP’s bag and I could tell by the sideways glances at him that he was thoroughly enjoying it.
The wine-making process
Following the tasting we were given a tour of the site, but not before the opportunity to purchase merchandise from the little shop. I chose the lid from a wine box as a memoir of our trip.
It was 4 euros and I gave Leah 5 euros – but didn’t get any change. I waited thinking that she was waiting to get some change from the other purchases people were making, but it just never came. And before we knew it, it was time to leave and Leah had disappeared.
For some reason this then bugged me for the next hour of the tour. We had paid 94 euros each for the day (including lunch) – 188 euros in total – and regardless of the fact that we’re talking about just a euro, I don’t like being short-changed full stop.
Apart from this little hiccup, what I did find really interesting was the actually wine-making process – and we were lucky enough to see this – from the grapes being picked by seasonal helpers right through to when it went into the barrels.
Here’s a quick video showing the process…
It was then time to head indoors to take in the pipes, machinery, huge wine vats and store room.
I have to say, I was particularly intrigued with the heady-scented barrels. I would have liked to have taken one home to turn upside down and use as an occasional drinks table in the garden, but the 1,000 euro price tag put me off.
Other wine barrel facts: - A little fire is made inside of each barrel to 'toast' the wood prior to it being used to house wine. - Filled with wine, it is estimated a full barrel costs around £9,000 excluding VAT! - Every 6 months barrels are cleaned thoroughly and each one lasts around two years.
A pretty little town…
So we had seen how a traditional chateau worked to produce wine and it was now time for lunch.
We headed to the pretty town of St Émillion – and when I say this place was pretty, I mean it was a place where you could sit down at a café and just absorb the scene without the need for a phone, magazine or laptop to ‘keep you amused’.
The original residential buildings in the town stretch back as far as the end of the 13th century. What Sarah told us that was particularly fascinating was the fact that the church had been carved from one gigantic piece of limestone.
The downside to this is that limestone is quite porous so it had to undergo regular restoration.
Also of equal interest was the fact that below the church were seven layers of tunnel networks, which in total, would stretch out to 200km. The French are certainly not silly; they use this space wisely to store wine. And most of the shops in St Émillion are wine shops – naturally, with the odd souvenir shop thrown in.
We visited one of the wine shops and continued with the tastings. VIP continued to enjoy himself, especially as he was getting ‘two for the price of one’; I was feeling a bit light headed after all the tastings and decided to pass my samples to him.
Each time I slipped him my glass he’d roll his eyes and acted like he was doing me a favour, but of course we both knew this was an act; it was me doing him the favour – and I haven’t seen him look quite so happy in a while.
What would have made my day was the opportunity to wander round the town to visit some of the cute little shops that I was admiring from afar – and possibly enjoy that sit-down coffee that I was craving.
As if reading my thoughts, Sarah announced that it was time for lunch and led us to a secluded old well area where we could sit on a wall and munch away.
This was followed by a brief visit to the cathedral and then it was on to our next and final vineyard tour – this time to Queyron Pindefleurs, a modern vineyard.
The modern vineyard
Peter, a native Australian with the accent to match, owned the vineyard. Well, to be fair, it had been handed down to Peter’s wife, along with the chateau in which they lived, but the wife was indoors looking after their kids, so it was down to Peter to take the tour. I guessed this was the role he played anyway.
After a brief look at the vineyard (it had started to rain), we headed indoors to check out the super-duper machinery.
It all looked rather technical to me, but what I did find out was that the machines used sticks that vibrate and literally shake the grapes off. These are then collected and put onto tables to be sorted; any remaining sticks/leaves are removed, along with snails and sometimes even lizards!
This particular vineyard had 14 hectares with around 80,000 vines, which produce about 70,000 bottles of wine a year. We wondered if Peter ever got together with his neighbours to compare wines, but as suspected, if you work in the wine industry the last thing you do when socializing with close friends and family is to discuss it.
I also discovered that once a vine gets to around 50 years old, the quality of production reduces so they are taken out and replanted. It then takes three years to start producing and ten years before you get nice rich flavours.
It was here that VIP and I decided to purchase a couple of bottles of wine – from the ones we tasted of course. At 20 euros a pop, we’ll save them for a special occasion.
Once the tour and tasting were over we went back outdoors to enjoy chocolate, cheese and more wine to end the day.
We met some great people, enjoyed some of the best wine and learnt how the whole wine process works – from field to table.
Here’s what else I learnt about Bordeaux and wine production that day
– The Bordeaux region produces twice as much wine as the whole of Australia
– There are around 125,000 hectares (or 400,000 acres) of vineyards and between 850 and 900 chateaux in St Émilion alone.
– Most of the wines produced are red with merlot blends and there are 60 appelations in Bordeaux.
– Grapes are usually hand-picked as it’s more gentle on the earth, even though the process takes a lot longer than machine-harvested grapes.
– The weather directly affects the quality and taste of the wines produced.
– Each barrel can hold 225 litres – and can produce 300 bottles of wine.
– Wine grapes are different from normal fruit grapes. Wine grapes taste sweeter, have a thicker skin and a bigger seed.
– Every 10 years chateaux can pay for an assessment to be made – and they can gain points for classification to become ‘Grande cru classic’.
– A challenging year is a year with lots of rain as it overwaters roots so they are not forced to seek out nutritious soil. Rain also dilutes the grape.
– Ideally vines should be kept on for a long period of time – sometimes as long as 85 years.
– It’s the actual grape skin that gives wine its colour.
– Screw tops do a better job in terms of keeping the wine, however, public perception is that screw tops are seen as cheaper wines.
– Lots of sunlight usually means more tannin in the wine.
– And possibly my favourite fact: Cheese and dark chocolate go well with wine as the dairy fat in cheese coats your mouth and makes the wine smoother. This in turn means that it goes down better – and it’s why we can drink more when pairing with cheese or chocolate!
Church bells, toilets and snoring
Church bells, toilets and snoring; the three things that I was woken up by on our final day – two of them caused by VIP and the church bells went off at around 8.15am.
Just as well though – we had to be up for the long day travelling back – first back to Paris and then the Eurostar back home.
AlI in all, we were really impressed with Bordeaux – its city centre, aesthetically pleasing architecture, picturesque surrounding countryside, the shops and of course our hotel stay.
I’m glad that we booked the wine tour as I really don’t feel that our trip would have been complete (or quite so good) had we not gone.
So, would I return? Absolutely. And next time I might just up the wine allowance to bringing 4 bottles back. Spread the joy as they say….!
Check out the video about our two-day adventure!