Long before it established a reputation as the largest and oldest fine wine-producing region in the world, Bordeaux was a thriving port. Situated on the river Garonne and close to its confluence with the river Dordogne, it enjoys easy access to both the Gironde estuary and the Atlantic, while remaining sheltered from the occasionally tempestuous weather of the Bay of Biscay.
Bordeaux’s prosperous past is evident today in its classical 18th century architecture, its broad streets and its large open spaces, which surround the riverside quays. The finest example of this, and the hub of the city, is the area around Esplanade des Quinconces and the Allée Tourny. The neoclassical architectural masterpiece, the Grand Théâtre, designed by Victor Louis, in la Place de la Comédie and the old royal palace dedicated to Louis XV in la Place de la Bourse on the banks of the river form a tremendous backdrop.
Head east from here along the rue Sainte Catherine and you enter the old part of the city. The recently renovated Place du Parlement and its surrounding warren of narrow lanes predate the more grandiose merchant quarter. In these less formal surroundings, which have been restored over the past twenty years, you will find a plethora of interesting restaurants and bistros selling every imaginable type of cuisine.
Head back up towards Place Gambetta and suddenly the narrow alleys open up into Place Berland and the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Saint-André. This was where, in 1154, Eleanor of Acquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, making Bordeaux a part of England for the next three hundred years.
After the Battle of Castillon in 1453, which marked the end of English domination, Bordeaux went through a difficult time. The city lost its autonomy under the yoke of a French king, yet the wine trade revived its prosperity.
It was in the 18th century when Bordeaux enjoyed its ‘Golden Age’. The city was transformed to embrace its newly-acclaimed standing as the premier port of France and the medieval walls surrounding the city were taken down and replaced with wide tree-lined avenues. Since then, Bordeaux has undergone a series of modernisations, the most recent being the new tramway system and revamped parks and public squares.
Today, each district within Bordeaux retains its own special character and is definitely worth exploring on foot; Saint-Michel is very cosmopolitan, with a colourful market on Saturdays and a flea market on Sundays; Saint-Pierre – often referred to as ‘Old Bordeaux’ – contains a myriad of narrow, charming streets and is currently one of the city’s most ‘bobo’ (bourgeois bohème) districts; the Grands Hommes, also known as ‘the triangle’, is full of elegant townhouses, luxury boutiques and fine restaurants; and Les Chartrons is the former heart of the Bordeaux wine trade and the city’s port activity.
Despite its fascinating history and charm, it is wine that makes Bordeaux tick. It is undoubtedly the world’s best-known wine region, and even those who can’t tell their Arbois from their Échezeaux know that Bordeaux is the capital of the wine world. The vineyards here cover an area of over 100,000 hectares and produce around 660 million bottles of wine per year – representing one quarter of the total Appellation Contrôlée production of France.
To the southeast, the vineyards of the Graves and Pessac-Léognan district run right to the edge of the city. The recently formed Appellation of Pessac-Léognan is home to some of the world’s finest wines. Grand estates such as Haut-Brion – the only wine outside the Médoc to be included amongst the first growths in 1855 – and Domaine de Chevalier make outstanding red and white wines. For those looking for something a little different, Château Smith Haut Lafite has a hotel and spa offering aromatherapy treatments using grape-derived products. It is also one of the few estates with its own cooperage, where you can witness the fascinating process of barrel making.
Further east lies the region of Sauternes, home of luscious white wines made from the noble-rot-affected Sauvignon and Semillon grapes, grown in its unique meso-climate. Château D’Yquem is the apogee of this style, but a visit to any of the châteaux in the region makes for a memorable experience.
However, the heartland of Bordeaux is undoubtedly the Haut-Médoc. This is the low-lying gravel land running along the south bank of the Gironde, and until Dutch engineers drained it during the 17th century it was mostly marsh. Today it is amongst the most treasured vineyard land on the planet. To drive through this region is a miraculous experience for a wine lover; legendary châteaux stand amongst acres of neatly manicured vines: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Pichon-Longueville, Palmer and Léoville-Barton are near mythic names, and all live up to expectations.
For those whose expectations come with a smaller price tag, it is well worth taking a trip across the Gironde on le bac from Lamarque to discover the vineyards of Bourg and Blaye on the right bank, where vines have been cultivated since Gallo-Roman times. These regions take some beating, not only for their variety of landscapes, but also their special combination of quality wines, fantastic value and great hospitality. It is here that you will find our vineyard Château Monconseil-Gazin.
The Côtes de Bourg covers 15 wine-growing towns, and the many châteaux, Romanesque sanctuaries and fortified sites illustrate the rich past of the region. Its entire coastline offers a myriad of different landscapes predominated by vines, oaks and chestnut trees, growing between quaint brooks and natural springs. The magnificent ‘Green Road’ down along the riverbank offers a wonderful sight of Bordeaux emerging from the distance along with other magnificent views of the estuary. Bourg itself is an old fortified town that is great to wander round – particularly on Sundays when there is a flea market on the quayside.
Continue west to Blaye, a town full of history and wonder, famed for its purpose as a military defence against the English. This is home to Vauban’s wonderful 17th-century architectural masterpiece, the citadel, which now welcomes the English to explore the 17-hectare fortress. Each July it is the venue for a three-day International Show Jumping event, which culminates in a spectacular firework display. The town has a great choice of restaurants and a fantastic Saturday market.
Head east and you will find yourself in the other notable area of Bordeaux, Saint-Émilion, which considers itself very much apart from the region. Indeed, this is a very different area; the grape mix – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – is the same, but whereas Cabernet dominates in the Médoc, here Merlot is king. Here you will find our vineyard Château Cardinal Villemaurine.
The geology and topography are also different. In heading to Saint-Émilion we have left behind the marshy gravels of the Médoc to move onto a limestone plateau. All this is reflected in the wines, which are softer, suppler and altogether more approachable than their austere counterparts in Bordeaux. The towns too, could not be more different. The opulent formality of Bordeaux is replaced by the rambling rustic charm of Saint-Émilion. This is a splendid hilltop village full of quaint buildings in narrow, cobbled streets with two village squares, one at the top of the town, with panoramic views over the vineyards, the other, at the base of the plateau, containing an unusual troglodyte church hewn from the limestone beneath the town.
Saint-Émilion can boast a history equal to that of Bordeaux, and in fact its winemaking history predates Bordeaux by some time. This was a Roman settlement and remains can still be seen; in fact one of Saint-Émilion’s finest châteaux, Château Ausone, is named after the Roman poet Ausonius who had a vineyard nearby in 379AD.
Saint-Émilion is a glorious, atmospheric place in which to relax, but it is small, and after a few days there you will certainly have visited all the available restaurants and bistros. If you only have one meal here, make sure it is at L’Envers du Décor, just off the higher of the two squares. It is run by the owner of Château Soutard – the food is superb and the wine list is very reasonable.
Saint-Émilion is not only a perfect base for exploring vineyards such as Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc, it is also within striking distance of the ultra-fashionable and ultra-expensive Appellation of Pomerol, home of Château Pétrus and Château Le Pin.
Finally, for those who have now had a surfeit of things wine related, there is an escape route to a very different world. Go west out of Bordeaux to Arcachon, where you can relax on wonderful, if wind-swept, beaches or walk in the largest pine forest in western Europe. The perfect location to unwind and relax over a bottle purchased at your favourite château – Monconseil-Gazin or Cardinal Villemaurine perhaps?
Photo credits: Bordeaux Tourism
Place de la Bourse, Thomas Sanson
Place du Parlement, François Poincet