Connoisseurs and casual tipplers alike come here in search of the heady aromas and complex flavours that can be found swilling around a glass of Bordeaux: tobacco, blackberries, leather, dark cherries, musk, licorice… intoxicating is the word.
Bordeaux is often held up as the gold standard of wine-making and it's easy to see why. The Bordelais take their reputation very seriously indeed, providing chateaux tours, specialist tastings, food pairings, vineyard visits and an enormous museum dedicated entirely to wine - not to mention seeming always at the ready to uncork a bottle or two. In other words, visitors who arrive prepared to dive into the heady culture of wine-drinking can expect no end of encouragement. So here are just a few ways to get started.
Visit La Cité du Vin
There’s no mistaking the theme of this beautiful museum: La Cité du Vin is shaped like the swirl of wine in a glass, its golden panels catching the light like sunshine on sauvignon blanc. If that sight alone doesn’t make you thirsty then the rest of the experience certainly will: diverse and often hi-tech exhibitions here utterly immerse you in all aspects of wine culture. There are interactive screens enabling you to ‘meet’ makers from vineyards around the world and videos of famous drinkers throughout the ages engaging in tipsy banter. One of the more sensory exhibits pumps out the scent of raspberries, pencil shavings, leather gloves and various other aromas. For those after a more cerebral approach, the influence of wine in history, poetry, love and religion is also explored in fascinating depth throughout the museum. Of course, after all that education it would be cruel not to offer visitors a drink and thankfully the ticket includes a glass of wine, served in Belvedere, an 8th floor bar with panoramic views.
Get to know the landscape
People often talk about the importance of terroir in wine – the soil, rainfall and sunshine (among other factors) that affects the grapes’ growth, and how the wine will eventually taste. Nowhere is this more significant than in Bordeaux. The region is divided by the Gironde river which leaves the left bank with gravelly soil, perfect for growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and the right bank with soil that contains clay and limestone, a perfect home for Merlot grapevines.
There’s no better way to understand how Bordeaux’s wine expresses its environment than to get out there and explore. When you see vines struggle up between chunks of white chalk, squint in the bright sunlight or feel a cool Atlantic breeze on your skin and learn how those elements will have shaped the taste of the next bottle you open, drinking it becomes all the more satisfying.
Former winemaker and true oenophile Pascale Larroche offers hugely enjoyable bike tours that take you out into Bordeaux’s great outdoors to cycle past scenic vineyards, examine the growths, visit gorgeous chateaux and get an on-the-ground insight into how wine is produced.
Take a chateau tour
Many of Bordeaux’s chateaux have an unmatchable grandeur. Built with limestone the colour of old parchment, surrounded by pristine grounds and flanked with rows of immaculate green vines, it’s impossible not to get a sense of the history and prestige of these old houses. Almost all the estates welcome visitors: many are free or low-cost for casual drop-in tours and tastings, while others offer long, fabulously decadent meals, accompanied by pairings of the host’s best vintages. Often there’s the chance to meet the winemakers themselves too. It’s very possible to tour chateaux independently – look for details online of those you can visit across Bordeaux (www.bordeaux-tourism.co.uk) or in particular regions such as St Emilion (www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com) or the Medoc (www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com)
However, if for obvious reasons you need someone else to do the driving, it’s a good idea to book a guided excursion. These usually include transport, chateaux tour fees, tastings and lunch. Bordeaux’s tourist office offers a huge range of tours, so depending on your tastes, you can go deep into the cellars of Pomerol, match wines with a four-course dinner in Pessac-Léognan, or take a whistlestop tour of Margaux.
Wash down the local cuisine with a glass or two
Unsurprisingly for a town of bon viveurs, Bordeaux’s restaurant selection is nothing short of fantastic. The narrow streets around place du Parlement are crammed with places to eat, with tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavement outside. It’s much harder to get a bad meal than an excellent one here so take a seat wherever takes your fancy. Fish and seafood caught fresh from the Atlantic Ocean are naturally available on many local menus, but the unpretentious Le Petit Commerce’s offerings of sea bass, turbot, Arachon sole and more are cooked to perfection. Ask staff to talk you through the wine list and make a recommendation to match your order. For traditional Southwestern fare, La Tupina is a firm favourite in the city, serving hearty dishes such as roast pigeon, goose confit and ribs of black pig. For a truly bargain meal, visit one of the seafood stands at the Marché des Capucins where you can scarf a platter of fresh Arachon oysters with a glass of wine for around € 7.
Helen travelled to Bordeaux with support from Atout France (www.france.fr) and the Bordeaux Tourist Office (www.bordeaux-tourisme.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.