I stopped outside the posh looking wine shop in
Emilion to check out the marvellous window display on a street that
would be too steep to be legal or practical in Canada. Apart from the
usual overpriced Bordeaux wines on display, my attention was drawn to a
set of wine glasses, so I decided to poke around inside for awhile. One
of the sales people (“We speak 12 languages-we ship around the
world”) immediately set on me offering a tasting in the back while
doing the “full court press” sales pitch. November in Bordeaux – no
tourists, just trade people – lots of time to pressure the few customers
who might happen by.
The pitch continued, unrelenting, until I indicated
that I preferred Rhone wines (and their prices). The French of course
understand the nuance of subtle insult and I was left alone to peruse
It’s been over 40 years since I’ve been to St.
although I have been to France many times in between. Back in
1969, St. Emilion was a working town with working people, and you
didn’t have to leave town to visit a winery. Whether it was a cave dug
out of the hillside or a deep cellar under a house, the owner/wine maker
was there taking care of business. You could spit the wine on the
ground or dirt floor and actually be able to afford the wines on offer.
In those times everything was cheap and things were
pretty much the way that they had been for centuries, with the economic
shadow of two world wars a major contributor. Europe on $5 a day?
We did it for $4.44!
Today there are virtually no boulangeries,
patisseries, charcuteries or brasseries – the grist of everyday life for
everyday people. The cobbled streets are all open to traffic and you
can drive your BMW everywhere. Expensive shops, hotels and restaurants
fill the void of other commercial establishments. I don’t know how all
these wine shops stay in business and the working class must have moved
out long ago.
Emilion, however remains the single most attractive town in the
region for visitors. It is situated on a limestone ridge which forms
the basis of soils that produce world class
Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
The old historical buildings and the alleys provide interest to the
visitor as does the surrounding countryside.
Bordeaux is the world’s largest regional
producer of fine wine. Situated in the southwest of France, it
is close enough to the Atlantic Ocean and at a latitude to provide it
with a long temperate growing season.
At the confluence of the Garonne,
Dordogne and Gironde rivers and estuary, the presence of all
of this water adds to the length of the growing season. These rivers,
over geological time, have provided the gravel deposits and other
alluvial matter transported from the Pyrenees Mountains
and the uplands of the
Central. The rivers and local streams have reworked these deposits
into mounds and small ridges that provide an elevated spot for good vine
development and root growth. The famous classification system, although
crossing over many soil types, shows that the first growths have one
thing in common - the soil columns have features,
including good drainage, that allow for the perfect regulation of water
uptake by the vine. This is a quality that cannot be duplicated by drip
or other types of irrigation.
Merlot, Cabernet Franc and
Petit Verdot are the main red grapes with some
Malbec planted in the northern
reaches of the region.
Semillion, Sauvignon Blanc
and to a lesser degree Muscadelle
(Sauternes, Barsac) are the favoured white varieties. On
this trip I noted a marked improvement in white wine quality over past
years that may be due to world market quality demands.
The large city of Bordeaux sits in the
middle of the region and 90% of it is an industrial and urban wasteland
of over a million people. To get around it can be tiresome and a
lengthy traffic crawl. Traveling from St. Emilion to the
Medoc or vice versa will take you more time than you budgeted for
and is a day’s outing in itself.
What is exceptional is the Old Town in
central Bordeaux. Restoration extending from the river wharfs to
the centre has produced an ensemble of 18th century architecture
is so impressive the United Nations has it on their World Heritage
List. It would be prudent to stay in this part of town if you were
interested in the historical aspect. Tours of vineyards are centered
here and the driving then can be left to others.
Moving north from Bordeaux, one encounters
the Medoc, St. Estephe, Paullac and all the wine
region on the left bank of the Gironde. The chateaux and their
gardens are impressive, but the landscape and villages are on the dull
the south, Sauternes and Barsac offer the famous dessert
wine that is in full inventory today, given the world economic
conditions. The area, however, is hilly and incised by streams which
makes it visually more appealing. Villages are so close together and
traffic light, so that walking from town to town is a possibility.
you want a chateau stay, coupled with a vineyard experience, you could
try the Chateau d'Arche
website. The town of Sauternes is in
easy walking distance of Chateau d’Arche, a Grand
Cru working winery.
Across the Garonne River from Barsac
and Sauternes lies the Entre deux Mers district with its
own version of sweet, semi-sweet wines and good dry whites. The route
along the northeast bank of the river between and Langon and
Cadillac is very scenic with the latter town worth a walking tour
and lunch stop.
Further afield, to the east of Bordeaux
lays the Dordogne, hilly, full of castles and walled towns. The
wine isn’t bad either. Montbazillac centres the sweet wine
production and good red and whites can be found everywhere.
it wasn’t for historical wine politics, this area on either side of the
Dordogne to just beyond the city of Bergerac, would likely
be part of the Bordeaux appellation today. The varieties
grown here are much the same as Bordeaux with a few others thrown
into the pot. I have tasted some pretty good
Chardonnay from these parts.
There are apparently 1,000 castles in the region
with many scenic roads. You definitely want a car to explore such
picturesque towns as Sarlat, Beynac et Cazenac, Rocamadour and
Monpazier. It is easy to get off of the beaten track here and lose
yourself in nature. Kick back with a picnic from the region’s table:
baguette, pate, goat cheese, dried sausage and wine... and ENJOY - your
diet starts next week.