There's something noble about Bordeaux wines, and it's not just the proud heritage of their 100-year-old vines, their prominent place in viticulture history or their world-renowned quality.
It's also the "noble rot" responsible for creating some of the region's sweeter wines, which are being paired more frequently with main courses alongside their better-known Bordeaux counterparts.
Some people use the term Bordeaux generically, the way others might ask for a Cabernet, but Bordeaux wines actually come in several distinct varieties, such as sweet white wines and dry white wines, in addition to several different types of red wine. The Bordeaux region has multiple microclimates, fueled by rivers that wrap around the area in the southwest of France.
The diversity of Bordeaux wines can be explored in person, in places like Saint-Émilion, about an hour's drive from the city of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux is an easy one-hour flight from Paris, or a little over three hours on a high-speed (TGV) train. Arriving at the Bordeaux airport, travelers immediately will recognize the importance of wine to the region: Giant faux wine bottles sit atop the baggage claim carousels, and a vineyard grows right outside the terminal doors.
Vineyards and winery visits should be arranged in advance, as most wineries do not have public visiting hours for "drop-ins" or tastings. To get to the heart of the wine-growing region, it's best to rent a car, but since many wineries are hard to find on the rural, windy roads, be sure to have a set of good directions (a GPS in the car also is advised).
It's possible to make the city of Bordeaux a base for a visit (see story below). From there, many of the top wine destinations will be an hour to 90 minutes by car. Most of the smaller, picturesque towns have a handful of small hotels and B&Bs. For information on accommodations, tours and restaurants, heritage sites and historic monuments, visit
VISITING THE WINERIES
The town of Saint-Émilion, named for an eighth-century Benedictine monk, is nestled high on a hill, with nearly 200 acres of catacombs beneath the surface. They are still accessible in some parts of town, including at the winery Château Canon, where centuries-old candlemarks from workers excavating the limestone are still visible on the walls and low ceilings.
Despite their cellar-like appearance, however, the catacombs are not generally used for storing wine because of high humidity.
At Château Canon (chateaucanon.com), some "old-school" winemaking practices are employed, such as the use of wood fermentation tanks, but they are coupled with modern technology and methods.
The Château Coutet vineyard (chateaucoutet.com), one of the oldest Sauternes producers in the Sauternes-Barsac region, is best known for its eponymous Premier Cru (first growth wine), as well as its prestigious Cuvee Madame. The winery's location between the Garonne and Ciron rivers provides the perfect blend of moist and dry climate conditions that produce a grape fungus called botrytis, which causes the "noble rot" necessary to produce the sweet wines.
In the Margaux region of Bordeaux, the Château du Tertre vineyard (chateaudutertre.fr), has taken a decidedly modern turn. Its minimalist decor inside gives it a clean, 21st century feel, and its fermentation area is punctuated by an intriguing, egg-shaped concrete vat. Its 35-year-old cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Cabernet Franc vines, along with some Petit Verdot, produce wines that are deep yet sharp.
The average age of the vines at Château Haut-Bailly (chateau-haut-bailly.com) in the Pessac-Leognan region is also 35 years, but its vineyard includes four hectares of vines that are more than 100 years old. Old meets new outside the vineyards, too, where fossilized rock marks the outside of the winery and modern sculptures grace the winery entrance.
Your own castle
Many wineries in the countryside around Saint-Émilion open their doors to overnight guests. The dreamiest of them all is likely Château de la Rivière (chateau-de-la-riviere.com). This gorgeous feudal castle was built in 1577 on the ruins of a fortified tower constructed by Charlemagne. It offers five classically luxurious guest rooms. The lures include a swimming pool, tennis courts, and 11 hectares of park and gardens surrounding the chateau. The underground cellars, where a thousand barrels of Bordeaux wine lie slumbering in the darkness, were dug out of the ancient quarry whose stone was mined to build the city of Libourne.
By contrast to Château de la Rivière, one of the oldest estates in the Saint-Émilion district, Clos de la Barbanne in Montagne-Saint-Émilion (clos-de-la-barbanne.net), is one of the newest, founded by Annie and Laurent Gerber in 2007. Clos de la Barbanne is not a grand château, but rather a spacious, tawny limestone country house. The Gerbers, who have lived and worked in many parts of the world, settled on this property as their rural retreat from the corporate life (thanks to their stint in the United States, their English is impeccable). The original property consisted of three farm buildings, which the new owners have joined together to create one large, comfortable house that includes three airy guest rooms. The decor is stylish Euro-Moderne (including king-size beds and walk-in showers), and the ambience is blissfully relaxing.
With additional reporting from Marguerite Thomas, Tribune Media Services
Bordeaux is now a must-see for wine tourists
BY ROBERT V. CAMUTO, Special to Newsday
Thanks to a much-deserved renaissance in the last decade, Bordeaux is now a must-see for wine tourists who once skipped it on their way to wine country. The formerly neglected waterfront of the Garonne River, with its elegant 18th century limestone buildings, has been remade with walkways, public gardens and a futuristic-looking tramway. Bordeaux's neoclassical architecture and public squares have been cleaned, and life has returned to the city - along with new restaurants, cafes and shops. (Prices below calculated at a rate of 1 euro = $1.27)
DO Bordeaux is made for exploring on foot or bike, with cycling lanes throughout. The city's bike-sharing program (called VCUB) is free for the first 30 minutes, and about $2.50 an hour thereafter. For a day or weekly pass, use a credit card at one of more than 100 bike stations, reserve at vcub.fr or visit a local transit service office. Bordeaux's wine museum, the Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux, documents Bordeaux's emergence in the wine trade. It's in Chartrons, the waterfront neighborhood known for antiques shops. Admission is $9. (41 Rue de la Borie; mvnb.fr/en)
EAT A fresh selection of Atlantic oysters, homemade confit de canard, an array of regional meat and fish specialties, and surprisingly reasonable wine prices has made the Bistro du Sommelier the hangout for local bons vivants. Two-course meals are about $20, three courses, $28. Most Bordeaux wines are $20- $50. (163 Rue Georges Bonnac; bistrodusommelier.com)
DRINK Tiny, rustic and bohemian, Le Bô Bar is also a wine shop and bistro featuring natural and organic wines from across France. Nestled on a picturesque square with terrace tables, this is a laid-back, reliable address for a glass of wine and local charcuterie, or a meal of southwestern and Basque dishes ($12-$17). (8 Place Saint-Pierre; lebobar.fr)
STAY Facing Bordeaux's Grand Theatre in the city's historic center, The Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux is the theater's neoclassical 18th century sister. The Regent reopened in 2007 after a renovation resulting in richly decorated salons, period room decorations, two restaurants and a bar stocked with fine whiskeys. About $264 for a double. (2-5 Place de la Comedie; theregentbordeaux.com)
More winery adventures
Here are other wineries of interest in Bordeaux. Remember, always make an appointment ahead of time.
Château Mouton Rothschild
WHAT In addition to great wine, the château is known for its remarkable museum of artwork and glassware. Each year, Mouton commissions an artist to design its label.
Château Pichon-Longueville Baron
WHAT A handsome château is the headquarters for this excellent producer. The wines have improved dramatically in the past two decades.
Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
WHAT This beautiful, graceful château, opposite Pichon-Longueville Baron, has ranked near the top for 30-plus years for its exceptional wines. Pichon-Lalande has a museum of glassware and modern art glass.
WHAT The iconic namesake tower identifies Latour, the paradigm of powerful, long-lived Bordeaux wine. The fortified tower is on the label, too.
WHAT New ownership dramatically elevated the wines of the Margaux estate since the 1980s. The pre-vine history of Margaux is traced to the 12th century. The château itself is a neo-Palladian masterpiece.
WHERE Cantenac, Margaux
WHAT Visitor-friendly, updated and renovated, Lynch-Bages provides a modern welcome to a 16th century estate. The name stems from a 17th century owner of Irish ancestry and the Bages plateau.