Be it vines at the airport, the intoxicating bevy of bar à vins (wine bars) in town or exploratory wine routes that waltz and tango seductively between chateaux and gold-stone villages in the vast wine-growing area around the city, Bordeaux wine is all-consuming. Along with Burgundy in central France, Bordeaux is the country's most important producer of top-quality wine and learning about, and enjoying, the fruits of a wine culture that harks back to antiquity is an experience to savoured – slowly à la Bordelaise.
Bordeaux's rich swathe of vineyards covers an enviable 120,000 hectares on both sides of the River Garonne, prompting the eternal debate over which bank – Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and Rive Droite (Right Bank) – is best. Robust and generous, the vines are tended by 6300 vignerons (winemakers) who produce up to 5.7 million hectolitres of red, white, rosé and sparkling wines each year using a blend of several grape varieties. Every second, 21 bottles of Bordeaux wine are sold around world. Vineyards fall into a handful of sub-regions.
Graves & Sauternes
Bordeaux's beautiful viticulture adventure began in Graves, immediately south of Bordeaux city on the Garonne's Left Bank, where the very first vine stock was planted in 1 AD. One of Bordeaux's best known whites, Pessac-Léognan, is produced here, as are its finest world-famous vins liquoreux (sweet wines): the slow, labour-intensive grape harvest for Sauternes and Barsac wines is performed exclusively by hand in October and November and grapes are sorted thrice to ensure world-class quality; 2014 is an outstanding vintage.
On the opposite side of the Garonne, southeast of Bordeaux city, is the 'Between the Tides' wine-producing area, named such because of its unique 'sandwich' location between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. More than 50% of Bordeaux wine, including notable whites, come from here.
Planted on both banks of a trio of rivers (the Dordogne, Dronne and Isle) east of Bordeaux city, this interesting region includes hot-shot names like Pomerol, Fronsac and St-Émilion. The latter, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is renowned for its full-bodied reds and, with its alluring medieval village to boot, is the most magical of Bordeaux's handsome wine towns.
Blaye & Bourg
Moving north, still on the right bank of the Dordogne River and also the Gironde Estuary into which the river spills en route to the Atlantic, this wine-growing sub-region produces red and dry whites from a blend of the most staunchly traditional Bordeaux grape varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon). Its notably hilly vineyards trap bags of sun.
Across the water, on the Left Bank of the Garonne and Gironde Estuary immediately northwest of Bordeaux city, is the celebrated Médoc – a vast, exclusive red-wine producing zone with an oceanic climate and wine hub and port town, Pauillac, at its heart. A relatively 'young' wine-growing area in Bordelaise speak, vines were only planted here in the 18th century.
The entire Bordeaux region is divided into 65 appellations (production areas whose soil and microclimate impart distinctive characteristics to the wine produced there). Each geographic subregion produces at least two or three different appellations – some produce up to a dozen.
Unusually for a wine-growing region, almost all Bordeaux wines have earned the right to include the abbreviation AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) on their labels. A stamp of quality, this indicates that the bottle's contents have been grown, fermented and aged according to strict regulations that govern a mind-boggling variety of viticultural matters such as the number of vines permitted per hectare, acceptable pruning methods or harvesting technique.
Several red AOC wines are produced in the celebrated vineyards around St-Émilion (www.vins-saint-emilion.com), including the prized AOC Grand Cru St-Émilion and the original AOC St-Émilion, first planted by monks in the 8th century. These intensely aromatic wines, velvety and powerfully structured, are made for keeping – up to 30 years.
Eight appellations come out of the Médoc region, some of the finest wine territory in the world bolstered by mythical powerhouses like Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Lafite Rothschild. AOC Margaux (www.maisonduvindemargaux.com) and AOC Pauillac (www.pauillac.com) are powerful, complex reds best aged for five to 30 years. The finest AOC St-Estèphe (www.saint-estephe.com) – the most northern Médoc appellation – is good to go after half a century.
This single red appellation (www.vins-pomerol.fr), produced not far from St-Émilion in Le Libournais, is produced from one of the few Bordeaux vineyards without river or estuary access. This means a more Mediterranean climate and fruity wines with red berry, violet and game aromas. An AOC Pomérol needs less ageing than most, and can usually be drunk after five years.
Grown just 4km southwest of downtown Bordeaux in the urban suburb of Pessac (www.pessac-leognan.com), there is no easier appellation to sample at source. Balanced tannic reds, best drunk after five to 10 years, and fruity dry whites are both AOC Pessac-Léognan. State-of-the-art, Philippe Starck–designed tasting rooms resembling an elegant boat afloat a pool of water at 16th-century Château Les Carmes Haut Briond provide the perfect tasting op.
It was at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855, thrown to effectively show of France's prowess to the world, that Napoleon III asked wine merchants from Bordeaux to come up with a classification – effectively quality ranking – for the wine they were exhibiting to help visitors sort the wheat from the chaff. This was the first time wine had been so blatantly ranked and the resultant list thrown up by this now-legendary 1855 Bordeaux Classification remains a Holy Grail in the wine world.
Further classifications have been added since, but it is the 60 chateaux from the Médoc and Graves on the original list producing the best reds, for example, that remain the most venerated today. The top five chateaux classified as premier cru ('first growth') – Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Lafite-Rothschild (all AOC Pauillac), Château Margaux (AOC Margaux) and in Graves, Château Haut-Brion (AOC Pessac-Léognan) – are the gods of Bordeaux winemakers, with price tags to match.
Sidebar: Wine Tasting
- Bar à Vin
- La Cité du Vin
- La Grande Maison
- École du Vin de Bordeaux
- Château Les Carmes Haut Briond
- Rustic Vines
Sidebar: Claret vs Clairet
Under English rule from the 12th to 15th centuries, Bordeaux shipped barrels of claret (red wine) to England. While any Bordeaux red is still known as a claret in the UK, the term doesn't exist in France. AOC Bordeaux Clairet – a fresh, light, dark-pink wine – is something completely different.
Sidebar: Bouteille Bordelaise
Every self-respecting wine buff knows his wine bottle. While the Burgundy Bottle has gently curved sides, the bouteille bordelaise (Bordeaux Bottle) has straight sides and high rounded shoulders, designed by Bordelaise glass-makers to catch the sediment when decanting a well-aged Bordeaux.
Wine-rich Bordeaux has a seminal cuisine to match. The very notion of cuisine Bordelaise has its roots firmly tied to the local terroir (land) while modern Bordeaux's innovative spirit bubbles over into the kitchen with young chefs not afraid to occasionally cast away from the classics. In keeping with the city's staunchly locavore spirt, the finest chefs work with fresh, seasonal ingredients: springtime asparagus, strawberries, black radishes, milk-fed Pauillac lamb, sturgeon caviar – all from local farms or the nearby ocean.
À la Bordelaise
The easiest way to dine local is simply to go for any tempting item on the menu that includes à la Bordelaise (Bordeaux) in its name. This said, there is no one straightforward interpretation of à la Bordelaise which means different things depending on the dish. Cèpes à la Bordelaise translates as some of France's finest mushrooms oven-baked in an earthenware dish with butter, garlic and the juice of green grapes. Entrecôte à la Bordelaise, more predictably, sees a feisty steak served with a rich red-wine sauce laced with shallots and herbs, while escargots à la Bordelaise are local snails cooked in tomatoes and white wine.
Eels & Oysters
No dish is more emblematic of Bordelaise cuisine than lamproie à la bordelaise, a devilishly unique dish starring slippery lampreys (a type of eel, practically prehistoric in appearance) that are fished in abundance in the nearby Gironde Estuary. Local myth says that when slaves in Burdigala (Roman Bordeaux) fell out of favour, the Romans fed them to the lampreys. A sucker fish, lampreys attach themselves to the bellies of other fish to feed on their blood. In the Bordeaux kitchen, they are chopped up into small pieces and slowly cooked over three successive days with leeks and spiced red wine. The resultant stew is traditionally conserved in jars, stored in the larder and eaten months later – in the honourable company, bien sûr, of a medium-aged St-Émilion or Pomerol red perhaps.
Bordeaux also has oysters, shoals of them, brought into market fresh each morning from nearby Arcachon and Cap Ferret. Not quite as exotic as they might sound, huîtres à la Bordelaise are simply freshly shucked oysters served on a bed of crushed ice, with hot crépinettes (little sausages) and a glass of fridge-cold, white Entre-deux-Mers.
It is said that Bordeaux's signature cake – the tiny, sandcastle-shaped canelé – was first cooked up by frugal nuns in the 16th century who scraped up spilled flour from the quaysides and mixed it with the dozens of egg yolks going spare (the whites were used to clarify the red wine) and a splash of cheap rum from the colonies to make cakes for the poor. True or not, the bite-sized cake is frequently served with coffee at the end of a meal or as as goûter (the traditional afternoon snack) and is found all over Bordeaux today. Cooking classes at iconic Bordelaise patisserie, Baillardran, still use the traditional, shiny copper moulds. The perfect canelé is crunchy and caramelised on the outside but creamy like set custard inside.
One of Bordeaux's most fantastic desserts, soupe aux cerises au vin de Bordeaux sees fresh plump cherries cooked in local red wine with sugar, vanilla and star anise. Once boiling, the soup is instantly removed from the heat and left to rest for three days. The resultant wine-buxom cherries are sublime. Le Millas is another equally old dessert, baked in many a chateau kitchen with eggs, sugar, flour and milk subtly perfumed with lemon zest or almond.
A Cake for Kings
On 6 January (Epiphany), to celebrate the Three Wise Men arriving in Jerusalem to pay homage to the infant Jesus, much gaiety is had around the family table with a galette des Rois. A puff-pastry tart filled with frangipane in the rest of France, the Bordelaise 'cake for kings' is a crown-shaped ring of brioche studded with candied fruits and sugar crystals. Recipe aside, the game remains the same. Who will bite into the single fève (literally 'the bean') hidden inside the tart? Whoever does is crowned king with a gold paper crown sold with the galette. 'The bean' these days translates as a thumb-sized porcelain miniature. Boulangerie Pâtisserie Lachenal, well known in Bordeaux for its brioche galettes, recently produced 14 different fèves to collect, each a miniature of a different famous Bordeaux monument.
Bordeaux's precocious wine culture predictably inspires the city's chocolatiers (chocolate makers). Baies de Bacchus (Bacchus' Berries) are exquisite shells of chocolate – milk or dark – shaped like a tiny bunch of grapes. Each shell is filled with a sweet non-alcoholic ganache evoking the aromas of one of eight different grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon is blackcurrant- and liquorice-flavoured; Pinot Blanc is apple and hazelnut; and Merlot is cherry and strawberry, for example.
At Chocolaterie Saunion, one of Bordeaux's oldest chocolate-makers by the boutique-chic Triangle d'Or, fourth-generation chocolate-maker Thierry Lalet handcrafts gold foil-wrapped Galliens de Bordeaux (almond nougat, praline and hazelnut chocolate bonbons), Guinettes (kirsch-soaked cherries enrobed in dark chocolate) and chewy Niniches Bordelaises (honey, milk and chocolate caramels). The family recipes date to 1893 when the family business opened.
Sweets & Biscuits
A Bouchon de Bordeaux is not a traditional bouchon (cork; still used across the board by Bordeaux winemakers) but a bite-sized pastry filled with an explosive combo of almond paste and candied grapes macerated in Fine de Bordeaux grape brandy.
Other sweet treats include Dunes Blanches (puffs of choux pastry filled with an unusual vanilla-dashed whipped cream) and macaron biscuits containing just egg whites and almonds from nearby St-Émilion. In the medieval village, macaron biscuits by 1930s biscuit workshop Nadia Fermingier are reckoned to be the best (albeit the priciest).
Fanchonnettes Bordelaises are oval boiled sweets filled with almonds, chocolate, coffee or fruit pulp. They were created in the 19th century by a pair of music-loving sisters who named their bonbon after a singer called Fanchon who lived on their street.
Sidebar: Only in Bordeaux
They are known as pains au chocolat everywhere else in France, but in Bordeaux the classic French pastry filled with strips of chocolate are called chocolatines. In St-Michel, La Boulangerie sells one of the finest chocolatines going.
Sidebar: Best Bistros & Brasseries
- Brasserie Le Bordeaux
- Le Bouchon Bordelais
- Au Bistrot
- Belle Campagne
- Mets Mets
Feature: The Classic Aperitif
In Bordeaux there is only one way to preempt the feast of a Bordelaise meal: with the local aperitif. Lillet is a delightfully pretty, salmon-pink aromatised wine from Podensac in the Graves wine-growing area. It mixes Bordeaux red, white or rosé wine with citrus liqueurs and is aged in barrels just like any other Bordeaux vintage. Drink it straight and on the rocks, with a lemon or orange wedge.