A Guide to Bordeaux: How to Plan the Perfect Weekend
First time visitors to France often plant themselves in Paris for the entire length of their vacation, overlooking important cities with rich histories and amazing opportunities to explore what makes France so unique. Because of the wonderful high-speed trains and readily available flights, side trips from Paris can be accomplished easily.
Travelers can be in the vibrant, unique city of Bordeaux, the world’s wine industry capital, in less than four hours from Paris’ Montparnasse train station. Another option is to arrive via Air France from Paris’ Orly Airport to the Bordeaux Airport on a one hour and five minute flight. Taxicabs are plentiful and private sedans are available for hire through hotel concierges. While wine tasting is the best part about Bordeaux, history lovers will become enamored with the evolution of the villages surrounding the vineyards and lineage of the winemakers. Each Chateau is a study in architecture, interior design and botany. And, as in most of France, gastronomy is also a high priority for the Bordelais people.
Intro to the Wine Region
The nearly 300,000 acres of Bordeaux wine country is naturally divided by the Gironde Estuary into a Left Bank area that includes the Médoc and Graves regions and a Right Bank area which includes the Libournais, Bourg and Blaye regions. The Médoc is itself divided into Haut-Médoc (the southern portion) and Bas-Médoc (the northern portion).
There are various sub-regions on both sides of the Gironde; the Haut-Médoc, includes St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St.-Julien and the celebrated Margaux. Graves has the sub-regions of Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes. The Libournais includes the well-known sub-regions of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. Pomerol’s illustrious Château Pétrus is located here and is accessible by appointment.
Planning the perfect weekend in Bordeaux can be a breeze. Dress is chic casual for the daytime—or a little black dress for women for evening fine dining—and classic blazer and tie for gentlemen. Comfortable shoes are imperative for all when touring vineyards, and keep in mind when choosing heel height that many of the streets in town are cobblestone.
To allow time to adequately explore the region, I suggest a minimum of two nights and three days. After you have chosen where to stay, book an all day wine tour to hit the highlights of the wine region for one of the days and a half day tour of the city of Bordeaux, leaving room for off the beaten path exploration on your own for the other. Make dining arrangements for dinner and lunch and book any tickets to the arts to complete your preparations. Here are some pro tips to get you started:
Where to Stay
Begin with determining whether you desire to stay in the city proper and commute to the villages or prefer to experience the country roads and serenity of boutique hotels in the heart of the vineyards, away from the hustle and bustle. Historic hotels like the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux & Spa ((25, Place de la Comedie 33000 Bordeaux) offer in-town luxury, conveniently located in the heart of the golden triangle near posh boutique shopping, trendy cafés and wine tasting classes. For those who wish to throw open the window sashes and see the vines first thing in the morning, Hotel ChâteauCordellian-Bages (www.cordeillanbages.com)(Route des Châteaux, 33250 Pauillac) has a location that can’t be beat. In the heart of the Pauillac region (left bank Haut-Médoc), this hotel is part of the Relais & Châteaux family and offers the peace and serenity of nature with the thrill of being in such close proximity to one of the best Bordeaux producers in the world, Lynch-Bages.
Hotel Château Cordellian-Bage.
Wine Tours: Private and Small Group
Private guides give visitors the ability to tailor their adventure into wine country towards their personal preferences as well as allow you to remain free to taste, knowing you will not be drinking and driving (the legal limit is .05% – much lower than in the U.S. and the penalties are more severe). Communicate in advance with your guide whether you want to taste wines from your favorite producer, are looking to add to your wine cellar, want to learn about wine production, or simply desire to concentrate on the beauty and architecture of the villages and chateaux.
On my trip to Bordeaux, I used expert sommelier Dominique Garcia who was the head sommelier at Mouton Rothschild for eleven years until he started the exclusive wine tour company Les Sommelier et Les Vingerons ([email protected]). Dominique picked me up at my hotel in the city of Bordeaux and acted as my chauffeur, guide and wine consultant for a magical day of touring vineyards, chateaux, and best of all tasting important wines from the region. He is an excellent resource for hunting down vintage wines and helping you stock your wine cellar back home. The full day tour lasted eight hours, which included a history lesson of the area’s winemaking and stops along the way to capture photos of estates just outside our grasp (some of the most prestigious chateaux were on winter hiatus).
Bordeaux Saveurs ([email protected]) is another private wine tour company that doesn’t just plan your wine tour, but your entire stay from start to finish. They specialize in combination trips for wine and golf, wine and spa, or wine and gastronomy that appeal to many couples that share a love of wine but prefer to have a wider range of activities available.
Many Chateaux are located in isolated areas, and during peak visiting time, spots at local bistros are nearly impossible to book, so plan ahead. An added benefit to booking a private guide, Dominique called ahead to reserve a table for us for lunch at Le Lion d’or (11 rte de Pauillac 33460 Arcins) where notable French Chef Barbier dominates the scene. He greeted us with an admonishment for being late and then a huge Cheshire cat grin to let us know he was only joking. His great sense of humor lasted throughout the fantastic gastronomic feast. An overwhelming act of warm hospitality awaited us as Chef Barbier informed me that Monsieur Jean-Michel Cazes, of Lynch-Bages fame had called ahead to insist that we be given the keys to his private wine bin at Le Lion to select a wine to pair with our lunch. The world of good food is small in the Pauillac region. To give you an example, I had interviewed Melanie Tesseron of Chateau Pontet-Canet earlier in the morning and ran into her having lunch upon my departure from Le Lion.* French born Chef Maxime Deschamps of Château de Mirambeau (1 avenue des Comtes Duchâtel, 17150 Mirambeau) brings his breadth of experience of having been French trained in the culinary arts and working under Michelin rated chefs in both the United States and St. Barthes to the Cognac and Bordeaux regions. Fresh local ingredients with an international flair are his specialty.
Bordeaux the City
A pedestrian friendly city, but with a modern Tram system, Bordeaux has more to offer than its love of grapes; it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with 350 classified buildings and historic monuments. Popular with visitors and locals alike, is the Grand-Thêatre. This significant building, completed in
1780, is home to the Opera (season is from September to May), the Ballet (season runs from October to June) and musical concerts that are held monthly with the exception of July and August. I toured both sections of town, the old city that is being lovingly restored to its former beauty, building by building, and the more modern side with hip cafés and university students milling about. I was able to see the highlights of the city on a three-hour tour, but at least four hours is needed to take in the breadth of the area. You can split it up into two, two-hour halves, following self-guided routes from maps you can pick up at the Office of Tourism(www.bordeaux-tourisme.com). They have excellent docents who can arrange private tours for any size group and customize the outing to fit your interests and time available.
Michelin-star restaurants, bistro’s and petit cafés coexist, offering tourists excellent options for fine dining, more casual local cuisine, and excellent bars serving the best of the best Bordeaux wines. One Michelin-star chef Nicolas Frion, of the popular Le Chapon fin (5 Rue Montesquieu, 33000 Bordeaux), showcases his culinary talents at this uniquely designed restaurant interior. During my recent gourmet experience there, I was seated under an interior grotto, which provided the illusion that I was dining al fresco. Alex Morin, has been their head sommelier for the past three years and impressed me with his command of the 6,500 bottles of over 850 different varietals in the cellar. At the ripe old age of 25, Alex is the youngest, most sought after sommelier on the scene in Bordeaux.
Michel’s Bistrot (15 Rue du Passage Saint-Georges, 33000 Bordeaux) is an eclectic place known for its quiet outdoor seating but mostly for its over-thetop festive decorations attached to the upper façade. Café d’Utopia is part of the Bordeaux Utopia Cinema which is a movie theater housed in what was formerly an old church. It has a canteen feel indoors and a typical French café flair outside.
Whether you are a city or a country person, Bordeaux makes a strong case for leaving Paris behind to enjoy its abundance of cultural events, exceptional wines, beautiful Châteaux and bounty of culinary establishments.