Bordeaux is a beautiful city, but most of the world recognizes it for its celebrated wines.
Before I go into my stay, here’s a bit of information on the wine, and the region:
All wines in Bordeaux are vintages.
The region surrounding Bordeaux, the city, produces Bordeaux, the wine. There are over 57 appellations that produce over 700 million bottles a year. What exactly is an appellation, you ask? Well, there are subregions and microclimates that all add a little something different to the wines that they produce. Each of these subregions/microclimates are appellations. That is to say, the wine being produce is the same kind of wine, it just varies depending on where it’s coming from. Appellations can be as close as 15 minutes down the road from one another, just because the soil is different!
Vineyards and wineries are known as “chateaux.” No, they aren’t castles. They just keep naming the vineyards chateaux because back in the day, the larger, richer families were the vineyards owners...thus, they had the larger estates, and consequently, chateaux.
Wine production itself is heavily regulated by a council. There are specific harvest days, rules on how many branches each vine can have, rules on how many vines can be planted per hectare, and a ban on artificial irrigation. They forbid irrigation because it homogenizes the wines being produced... if all soils are kept at the same moisture level, they lose some of that extra “oomph” that they give to the wine.
More importantly, there exists a ranking system for the most prestigious chateaux in Bordeaux. The first ranking, back in 1855, resulted in the Grand Cru Classe chateaux, which are tiered from 1st to 5th rung. So, if Bordeaux produces some of the best wine in the world, then a 1st Grand Cru Classe would be one of the best winemakers in the world. Chateau Margaux, a 1st Grand Cru Classe, has sold one of its vintages for over 200,000 a bottle, making it not only the best, but most expensive, wine in the world. On average, though, a 1st Grand Cru Classe wine will set you back about 1,000 dollars a bottle. (That’s still way out of my price range!) In addition, all Grand Cru Classe vineyards, except for one, are in the Medoc region.
Unfortunately, if you didn’t make it onto the 1855 list, you weren’t ever going to make it to the “top”...no winery has been added since then. So, feeling a little left out, and a little under-appreciated, the smaller vineyards petitioned for their own ranking system, and voila, the Cru Bourgeois vineyards were created. These wineries are noted for outstanding wines, but aren’t quite as well-known as their Grand Cru Classe counterparts.
So, while I was in Bordeaux, I toured the Medoc region, and more specifically, the Listrac and Margaux appellations. I got to see a small, family-owned, Cru Bourgeois chateau, and then a larger, more industrialized, 3rd Grand Cru Classe chateau. I learned all about growing grapes, harvesting them, and then using them to produce outstanding wine. I also got to taste three different wines, one of which was a Grand Cru Classe (over 50 dollars for a half bottle!). In my opinion, all of the wines were good, but the Grand Cru Classe was a bit more complex than the Cru Bourgeois. Unfortunately, it was way out of my price range, so I passed on buying a bottle, and instead settled for a cheaper, 5th Grand Cru Classe at the Vinotheque in downtown Bordeaux. (It’s a huge store that sells all of the region’s wines, hosts tastings, and even has a “sanctuary” of 1st Grand Cru Classe vintages that you have to be a serious collector in order to see).
After touring the vineyards, I toured the city itself. I saw the Cathedral St. Andre, which is one of the stops along the Compostela pilgrimage to Spain. This pilgrimage is the second longest in the world... it’s only trumped by the one to Jerusalem!
I also saw the Hotel de Ville, or town hall, the Musee de Beaux-Arts (fine arts museum), and the Musee d’Aquitaine (the history museum). I really enjoyed the history museum because of the amazing artifacts housed there. The Aquitaine region of France, where Bordeaux is located, is also home to some of the oldest cave paintings in the world. They literally removed a large chunk of cave wall and put it in the museum, so you can see these 17,000 year old cave paintings first hand! There are also roman artifacts, medieval works, and 18th-century wine-production tools. It’s a museum that focuses on the history of the region, and does an amazing job at it.
After all of those museums, and the cathedral, I stopped by the Gironde monument, which commemorates the girondists who were killed during the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. It’s a beautiful column/statue/fountain. It’s managed to take the cool things from each of the above, and combine them into a really pretty work of art.
When I was finished in Bordeaux, I took the train to Toulouse, in the Langueduc-Roussillon region. This city is known as the “ville en orange,” or orange city, because of the orange rocks used to construct most of its buildings. I hit up the Sunday market, stopped by the museum, saw the local church, and toured a monastary. I also took a nap, and just spent some time relaxing, since a vacation wouldn’t be half as fun if you ran yourself ragged the whole time. Toulouse is also famous for its violet harvest, as well as the products that it creates from these flowers, so I picked up some violet candies before I left. They’re pretty good, but it still tastes odd eating flowers, or rather, flower-flavored candy.
Now, I’m back on the train, and I’m headed to Nimes, the “Roman city.” I’ll have more for you on that later this week, but for now, I hope you enjoy some pictures of Bordeaux. And, if you find yourself craving some French wine, I’ve made up an image (below) to show you how to read a wine label. ;-) (Pictures from Toulouse will follow later.)
Pictures from Bordeaux.
How to read a wine label.