The Bordeaux region, with its historic vineyards, superb destination hotels and numerous gastronomic specialties is an unsurpassed (long) weekend destination for lovers of great food, scenery and drink, says James Lawrence.
La Belle Au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty) scarcely sleeps at all in the 21st century. Its gloriously handsome neoclassical architecture has never looked so splendid, thanks to former mayor Alain Juppe’s restoration programme, and his decision to pedestrianise the city’s boulevards and implement a high-tech public transport system. Today the city is a paradise for the aimless ambler, boasting cafe-filled squares, restaurants, and boutique shops. Have I mentioned that the flight time from London is just over one hour?
However, for most visitors the main attraction is the iconic wine regions of Bordeaux, which spread out in all directions from the city centre. Whereas tourism was once a dirty word in French viticulture, contemporary Bordeaux has realised the value of welcoming its devotees.
Even the hoity-toity Medoc region is now accessible to visiting wine tourists as formerly closed cellar doors are now open to visitors, while Bordeaux’s wine museum goes from strength to strength. There are also several high-profile Michelin-starred restaurants in Bordeaux and the wider region, leaving discerning gourmets no shortage of places to eat and there’s something special about visiting the vineyards of a region before retiring to your hotel for a gourmet meal and several glasses of wine.
When to go?
By far the best times to visit Bordeaux are in the spring (April-early June) or autumn, especially September. I visited last year in early May and the weather was glorious. It’s worth remembering that that tourist numbers skyrocket in July and August along the coast north of Bordeaux, but the centre of Bordeaux tends to be quieter. However, the heat can be stifling.
A brief history of Bordeaux and its vineyards
Bordeaux, like so much of France, owes it origins to the Romans; after invading Gaul, Rome colonised the Aquitaine region in 56BC. Yet Like so many cities under Roman control, Bordeaux was visited by invaders on more than one occasion. In 276 it was sacked by the Vandals; after the collapse of the Western Empire, it became the seat of the county and a mini-kingdom within the Merovingian kingdom of the Franks.
From the 12th to the 15th century Bordeaux enjoyed its heyday, following the marriage of Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine with the French-speaking Count Henri Plantagenet who became, within months of their wedding, King Henry II of England. The city prospered, mainly due to wine trade, for which we have the Romans to thank.
Over the centuries the wines of Bordeaux became increasingly renowned; from 1152 until the mid-fourteenth century the major ports of Bordeaux were in English hands and privileges were granted to the outskirts of the city, where most of the vineyards were planted, placing their products ahead of the queue of other wines passing through the port of Bordeaux.
This gave them a tremendous head start on international markets – today you’ll encounter bottles of Lafite and Latour across the world, from Beijing to New York. It is little wonder that discerning oenophiles consider Bordeaux a Mecca of wine tourism.
Getting there and away
Bordeaux and its environs are easily accessible from the UK. I flew into Bordeaux’s airport in Merignac with British Airways. Just 10km west of the city centre, it has daily flights from London Heathrow.
Gare St-Jean, the city’s centre’s train station, has daily services to Paris and beyond, and Bordeaux has an excellent and affordable bus and tram system.
However, if you plan to explore wine regions such as St-Emilion and the Medoc, hiring a car is recommended; there are limited trains and buses in the wine regions and if you’re going to be paying visits to wine cellars then a car saves a lot of hassle. Alamo has some good deals.
Whether you’re in search of relaxation, a new wardrobe, fine gastronomy or endless hours spent in cafes sipping wine, you’ll undoubtedly find what you’re looking for in this part of the world. Bordeaux is no one-trick pony.
But if you are passionately committed to the grape, then this is an unparalleled opportunity to visit wine makers and taste their superlative wines, stay at gorgeous wine chateaux and marvel at the area’s architectural heritage.
For non-oenophiles, there is a wealth of other attractions waiting to be enjoyed, including strolling around Bordeaux’s impossibly beautiful city centre. Many would say – and I include myself in their number – that Bordeaux is more of a must-visit city than Paris. It’s less crowded, the people are friendlier and there is better value on offer – what’s not to like?
The city centre is easily explored on foot – it lies between flower-filled place Gambetta and the wide River Garonne, which flows both ways depending on the tides. Aside from strolling along the river, I recommend a wander across the Jardin Public, on cours de Verdun. Established in 1755 and laid out in the English style a century later, the grounds are utterly idyllic, incorporating the Jardin Botanique.
Musee des Beaux Arts – 20 cours d’Albret
Occupying two wings of the 1770s-built Hotel de Ville, this fascinating museum was opened in 1801. It’s full of 17th-century Flemish, Dutch and Italian paintings, offering a cultural fix and (temporary) respite from a wine-themed break to the city.
La Grande Maison de Bernard Magrez – Rue Labottière
No gastronome or oenophile on vacation in Bordeaux ignore La Grande Maison. Housing one of France’s most celebrated and top-notch restaurants, it is presided over by legendary chef Pierre Gagnaire. Everything about the place is perfect, from the pampering – but not overbearing – service to the extraordinarily complex and sophisticated cooking.
Gagnaire blends different food cultures with spectacular results – among the highlights of our lunch were sea bass fillets marinated in a blend of South India spices, and braised lamb shoulder paired with an exquisite claret. The desserts were overwhelming. No other adjective does them justice.
P.S Try to sneak a peek in the kitchen. In a small space, it’s a gleaming, high-speed postmodernist ballet. Just don’t get run over…
I stayed at the superb 5-star Intercontinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hôtel, a stone’s throw away from most of Bordeaux’s historic sights. One of the most luxurious hotels in France, the hotel has been a Bordelaise institution since the 1920s, when it expanded to its current dimensions. It’s worth a fortune for the location alone: facing the Place de la Comédie, you’ll be staying in the heart of the Triangle D’Or, three broad 18th-century boulevards laid out at the peak of Bordeaux’s maritime trading fortunes.
The hotel has also trained the finest staff in Bordeaux, all multilingual and gracious to a fault. Rooms are similarly spot on, being luxurious without being over the top; think mahogany furniture upholstered in regal red and gold.
There are also two bars and a fitness centre, as well as on-site valet parking. The piéce de resistance, however, is the high-ceilinged swimming pool in which red and gold columns stand out against matt black surfaces.
Conveniently housed in your hotel, Le Bordeaux is a top-notch brasserie-style restaurant that mixes Anglo/French culinary traditions with surprisingly good results. So Beef Wellington and fish and chips sit alongside entrecote and poached sea bream. The wine list is extensive, with an obvious and understandable bias towards the local stuff.
La Grande Maison de Bernard Magrez
33000 Bordeaux, France
+33 5 35 38 16 16
Rooms from £232 per night
Intercontinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hôtel
2-5 Place de la Comédie, 33000 Bordeaux, France
+33 5 57 30 44 44
Rooms from £223 per night
Thirsty? Then you’ve come to the right place. The one thousand square kilometer region around the city of Bordeaux is arguably the world’s most celebrated producer of fine wines in the world. With over 55 distinct appellations (sub-regions) and over 5000 chateaux await, Medoc is surely the most famous.
Medoc lies to the northwest of Bordeaux, along the western short of the Gironde estuary. One of Bordeaux’s most exalted vineyards, Medoc is the geographical name of the entire peninsula that stretches northward from the city of Bordeaux to the remote port of Le Verdon. However, the vast majority of the Medoc’s vineyards are situated on the coastal strip that runs up the eastern side of the peninsula.
Of course, on a relatively short visit it’s advisable to limit your visits to the cream of the crop, which brings me onto the Pauillac sub-region of the Medoc. Indeed, If we had to single-out one Bordeaux region to head the list, there would be no argument that this would be it. World-renowned and adored by every wine lover on the planet, Pauillac needs little introduction, claiming, as it does, three legendary wine estates: Chateau Latour, Lafite and Mouton Rothschild. All of which are delightfully different in style.
Yet for many years, Bordeaux didn’t cater, or care, about the visitor. Traditionally, wine was sold directly to negociants (merchants), via courtiers (brokers) who acted as middlemen. The drawback of this unique commercial system, known as the Place de Bordeaux, is that the chateaux owners neglected to remember that their wine was ultimately produced for a final customer and their doors remained closed to the public.
Of course, things had to change and 21st century Bordeaux is now alive with wine schools, museums, tasting rooms, and luxury hotels.
Chateau Pichon Longueville has been at the forefront of this revolution. Owned by the AXA insurance group, Chateau Pichon-Longueville is quite simply one of Bordeaux’s finest estates and the poster child for superlative claret; powerful, virile, structured, and long-lived. Dominating the region with its architecturally splendid Chateau, Pichon-Longueville’s star talking point is the bold, baroque winery which is flood lit at night, giving first-time visitors to the area a sense of the estate’s theatricality and importance.
Today a handsome visitor centre welcomes visitors from across the world and the tour, which includes tastings, offers an invaluable insight into the mechanics of producing fine wine. Visitors can, of course, purchase bottles before they leave.
If you’re looking for unsurpassed luxury, there is really only one choice in the Medoc. In the utterly irresistible, charming hamlet of Bages, lies Chateau Cordeillan Bages and a sea of vines dedicated to producing the most venerable wines on earth. The location is perfect; Bordeaux’s centre is just 32 miles to the south, while the Medoc’s unspoiled beaches are just a 30-minute drive away.
However, most guests never leave the chateau and it’s easy to see why. Everything at this boutique hotel is designed to cocoon you in luxury – Cordeillan Bages skillfully merges the contemporary and traditional with apparent ease. 28 rooms make up the first floor of this elegant country mansion, constructed from local gold stone in the mid-19th century.
The hotel is part of the prestigious Lynch-Bages wine estate, an historic producer of delicious Pauillac. As you would expect, the Michelin-starred restaurant – and extensive wine cellar – is the main draw. However, should you tire of wine tasting, the hotel has a number of options including cookery classes, vineyard picnics, bicycle tours, helicopter rides over the vines, horse and carriage rides – and a large pool and gym to help assuage your guilt.
Of course, France has no shortage of luxury hotels but what elevates Cordeillan Bages to the Grand Cru list is the exemplary service, which is not always a given in France, even in 5-star establishments. Friendly, accommodating and charming to a fault, other hotels could learn a thing or two from Cordeillan Bages.
As if you’d consider eating anywhere else. Head Chef Julien Lefebvre hails from foodie paradise Normandy, so he understands the importance of only using local, seasonal produce as much as any Gallic chef and Cordeillan Bages is certainly lucky to have him, as we discovered.
Our starter of asparagus served with blancmange and an egg yolk confit with almond oil was exquisite and provided wonderful textural contrast, while roasted blue lobster was a triumph of Michelin culinary skill; inventive, dramatic flavour combinations that never veered into the overwrought.
This is sophisticated cooking, to be sure, but the culinary art on display at Cordeillan Bages isn’t on the edge of a nervous breakdown. However, for simpler fare, meander down the road to Café Lavinal, a chic bistro overseen by the same talented chef.
Château Pichon Longueville Baron
D2, 33250 Pauillac, France
33 5 56 73 17 17
Route des Châteaux, 33250 Pauillac, France
+33 5 56 59 24 24
Rooms from £184 per night
To leave Bordeaux without visiting St-Emilion would be an unpardonable disaster. One of France’s most picturesque medieval villages, it sits high, perched above vineyards that are every bit as revered and celebrated as the appellations of the Medoc. Named after Emilion, a miracle-working Benedictine monk who lived in a cave here between 750 and 767, the village soon became a stop on pilgrimage routes.
The village and its vineyards are now Unesco listed, drawing flocks of visitors as a result. Despite this, St-Emilion merits a detour from Bordeaux if only to watch the sun set over the valley, bathing the limestone buildings in halo-like golden hues.
Of course, the majority of tourists come to sample the local wine, and in this regard St-Emilion never disappoints. The vineyards are situated in the Libourne subregion on the right bank of the Dordogne, 40km east of the city of Bordeaux. Over 5000 hectares of vines produce a style totally different from the Medoc; Merlot is the predominant grape variety in St-Emilion, which typically lends the wines a softer, plumper, rounder texture and red fruit profile when compared to the great wines of the left bank. St-Emilion is another oenophile’s paradise and the local tourist office has plenty of brochures in English giving details on the more than 100 nearby chateaux.
But if you only make time for one chateau, make sure it’s Chateau Angelus. Its name Angelus supposedly derives from that of a particular vineyard where devout winemakers could hear the Angelus bell tolling from all the town’s churches.
The estate was brought by the present owner’s great-grandfather, Comte Maurice de Boüard, in 1921, and the next generation, in the form of the dynamic Hubert de Boüard, took over in 1985. Hubert felt that the Chateau was underperforming, and he has worked hard since to re-energise the property. His energy and investment was rewarded in 1996, when the Chateau was promoted to a First Growth – which was well deserved: just ask the actor Daniel Craig, who drank a bottle of Angelus as James Bond in the film Casino Royale.
It has since been classified as a Premier Grand Cru Classe A, one of just four properties entitled to this exalted classification. The estate welcomes visitors with a prior appointment.
Angelus also owns the best boutique accommodation in town: Logis de la Cadene, and Maison de la Cadene. Logis boasts five distinct rooms while Maison has four beautiful suites. All the rooms and public areas have been tastefully updated for the 21st century, without losing any of the authenticity and charm of the quintessential St-Emilion golden limestone facade. Bathrooms are particularly spacious, while the beating heart of St-Emilion is literally a few steps away.
Of course, the real attraction of Logis de la Cadene is the on-site Michelin-starred restaurant. Run by Alexandre Baumard, it uses only the finest local produce and Baumard’s culinary art is both refined and subtle, following the seasons and his inspiration of the moment.
He’s adept at putting a new slant on classical French dishes, such as roasted young pigeon from ‘Marie Leguen’, served alongside a giblet spring roll, and garnished with a lemon balm jus. The wine list is similarly impressive, comprising a gargantuan collection of France’s finest wines, with prices to match.
33330 Saint-Émilion, France
+33 5 57 24 71 39
Logis de la Cadène
3 Place du Marché au Bois, 33330 Saint-Émilion, France
+33 5 57 24 71 40
Rooms from £202 per night