Our experience traveling to Bordeaux was far from planned out ahead of time. Instead, we made our way to this world renowned French wine region to house sit, or more accurately, dog sit, for a friend. We had no idea what opportunities existed for wine tourism in Bordeaux, and we were indeed surprised.
When accepting the invitation to take care of Emma for almost two weeks, we sort of assumed we could get some work done, explore a new city, drink Bordeaux wine, and eat cheese. After all, wine and French cheese, how could we go wrong?
Without a car, and with needing to be there to take care of Emma each morning and each evening, I figured we wouldn’t really get to explore the region of Bordeaux, or to learn much about their famous wines.
What is Bordeaux
Bordeaux is on the west coast of France, and has one of the longest, and most prestigious of wine histories. The region surrounded the city of Bordeaux, and includes over 50 wine appellations, or wine regions, surrounding the city. It’s the largest wine producing area of France. And, other than Champagne, Bordeaux probably gives off an impression of wealth, of luxury, and perhaps in pretentiousness.
I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about wines, particular Spanish wines, Italian wines, and even Portuguese wines. But, I am a mere novice when it comes to any French wine, outside of Champagne. This is what I learned, at a very high level, about Bordeaux wines. Most wine produced in Bordeaux is red wine, which is also called Claret in Britain. It’s always made with a blend of grapes, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The region also produces white Bordeaux, a white wine called Sauternes, and a small amount of rose and sparkling wine.
The classification system for Bordeaux is complicated, and I am only beginning to understand it. Whereas Italian wines are classified as either IGT, DOC, or DOCG, depending on their quality, there are 4 classifications for Bordeaux wine, predominantly based on the sub-region of Bordeaux. There are “first growth” Bordeaux wines, which are considered the best, and include famous wine houses like the Châteaux Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion, Mouton Rothschild, and Lafite-Rothschild. But, there is so much more to Bordeaux than these famous names. Labels might also read Grand Cru, or Grand Cru Classe depending on the classification received by that Château.
Yes, it’s all complicated. Let’s just say another visit would certainly be warranted.
La Cité du Vin
We visited Bordeaux just a year after the inauguration of La Cité du Vin, or City of Wine, a museum dedicated to the world of wine. The architecture alone is stunning, looking almost like a carafe of wine, on the banks of the Garonne River, which winds through the city.
Over two levels of museum exhibitions, we learned an amazing amount about wine. What surprised me was that the museum is not merely dedicated to Bordeaux wine. Instead, only 2 short exhibits towards the end focus on Bordeaux. Instead, the museum focuses on educating people about wine, including wine regions around the world, the history of wine, how wine is made, and how to taste wine. The museum tour itself ends with a trip to the top floor, where a taste of wine is served along with a view over Bordeaux.
I was shocked at how interactive the museum was. We generally have a no museums rule when we travel, but we make an exception for wine and food focused museums. And, we’ve never been to a wine museum like this. It’s a must-see pilgrimage for any wine lover.
Training to Saint-Émilion
Once we learned about La Cite du Vin, I figured that would end our experience with wine tourism in Bordeaux. After all, the wine regions extend away from the city, and we didn’t plan on renting a car.
Then, we found out it is possible to take the train from the center of Bordeaux to Saint-Émilion, in less than 30 minutes. Then, it’s just about a ten minute walk into the village of Saint-Émilion, where it’s possible to have a little taste of wine tourism in Bordeaux.
Immediately after stepping foot off the train, I felt like we were in another world. From the parking lot of the station, I could see old wine houses, and hills of vineyards. It was an entirely pleasant walk into the village. We grabbed a quick lunch at Chai Pascal, up the hill, and well off the tourism trail, before starting our mini Bordeaux wine adventure.
Wine Shops in Saint-Émilion
Let me tell you a story about the day we trained to Saint-Émilion, to learn about Bordeaux wines from an Irishmen. Yes, that’s exactly what we did.
We learned about Paddy O’Flynn through a friend of the family during our stay in Limerick. When we arrived in Saint-Émilion, we visited his wine shop, called the Wine Buff. There are loads of wine shops in Saint-Émilion, where it’s possible to taste some wines, and definitely purchase. I think there might be more wine shops than there are cafes, and in France, that’s a little strange.
But, Paddy’s shop is a little different. He has a unique way of viewing wine in general, and has a rich knowledge of Bordeaux wines in particular, having lived in the area for over 20 years. And, perhaps because he is Irish, he offered a refreshing, and less, well, pretentious way of tasting wines. And, we tasted some good ones too. So much so, that we bought 4 bottles and lugged them back with us on the train to Bordeaux. What I will note is that many of the Bordeaux wines we tasted with Paddy were very reasonably priced, with great bottles ranging from €15-30, although he carries, and we tasted, more expensive wines. It just goes to show that Bordeaux wine is not solely for the collectors and wine snobs.
Wine Tasting at Bordeaux Châteaux
We thought this quick trip to see Paddy at The Wine Buff would be our only experience with wine tourism in Bordeaux during this trip. But, we were invited by Great Wine Capitals to head back out to, of all places, Saint-Émilion. Great Wine Capitals is an organization of, well, some of the best wine cities in the world. They choose one wine region, associated with an amazing city, in each of 9 countries, with a goal of promoting wine tourism. They had a meeting of Bordeaux wineries in Saint-Émilion during our time in Bordeaux and invited us. How could we pass it up?
Our first official Chateau experience in Bordeaux involved walking up the long driveway to Château Soutard, just outside of Saint-Émilion. It is everything you imagine a grand French château to be. Parts of the house date to the 16th century. The main castle was built in 1741. They offer tours that end with tastings in their history wine cellar, as well as a few rooms for overnight guests.
After a tasting, and an outdoor French-style grill lunch with lovely, crisp, summery rose at Château Soutard, we continued with the Great Wine Capitals group to a second tour and tasting at Chateau De Candale. Smaller, and more contemporary than Château Soutard, Chateau De Candale offered an entirely unique Bordeaux tasting experience. Their contemporary labels have included a wine under the label “Scandal” where each year they dedicate the artwork of the bottle to one of the main news stories of that year.
As much as these were two short Bordeaux tasting experiences, I already felt that I was learning more about Bordeaux. Eric and I were already planning a trip back.
Where To Experience Wine Tourism in Bordeaux
Overall, I was impressed with how much we were able to experience without having a car, and with our Emma-sitting responsibilities. Yes, it’s possible to have a few unique wine tourism experiences in Bordeaux, even in a short amount of time. Here’s how to experience wine tourism in Bordeaux.
La Cité du Vin
La Cité du Vin is located at 134 Quai de Bacalan in Bordeaux. Just take the tram along the river, which drops you right in front. La Cité du Vin is open daily from 9:30-7:30. Tickets are €20 and include a tasting at the end, along with a rental of an interactive headset to explain the permanent exhibit. They also offer special temporary exhibits for an extra cost.
The Wine Buff
The Wine Buff is located at the end of Rue du Marche in Saint-Émilion. The main part of their business is exporting wines to shops across Ireland. But, their Saint-Émilion shop is open 6 days a week from 10-10:30pm. They are closed on Sundays. Paddy is pretty liberal with his time, and tastings, and offers wines for every budget. And, there is a little terrace off the shop as well. If you are in Saint-Émilion in the off season, it’s better to call ahead.
Château Soutard is located on Lieu dit Soutard, on one of the roads heading out of Saint-Émilion. But, it’s easily walkable from town in just a few minutes. They run a English tour each day at 2pm during the season, which runs from roughly April to November. Tours and tastings last approximately one hour and cost €10. Rooms start at €200 a night in the off season.
Chateau De Candale
Chateau De Candale is located a little farther out, and would require a car to visit. It’s located at 1 Grandes Plantes in Saint-Laurent-des-Combes, only a 5 minute drive from the village of Saint-Émilion. They are open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10am-6:30pm. Visits and tastings are by appointment only. In addition to tastings, Chateau De Candale has a very reputable restaurant, L’Atelier de Candale, onsite.
Have you been to Bordeaux? Where should we go during our next visit?