Bordeaux Revisited.....

November, 2010......

I stopped outside the posh looking wine shop in St. 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 unimpeded.

It’s been over 40 years since I’ve been to St. Emilion, 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.

St. 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 Massif 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.

Cabernet Sauvignon, 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 that 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 side. 

To 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.  If 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.  If 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.

Mac will be revisiting flood-ravaged eastern Australia in February and March; he will share his insights into the impacts of the floods on Australian life and, of course, on  wine growing in the regions.

In vino veritas...

Mac MacDonald
February, 2011

(updated 2011-01-30)

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