James Lawrence takes a luxury wine tour through the region of Bordeaux – you may have heard of it
Bordeaux is probably the most well-known of France’s (if not the world’s) great wine regions. Indeed, even committed teetotallers will have heard of this legendary name and it would be fair to say that Bordeaux literally represents mecca for most wine lovers, albeit an extremely diverse mecca. There are over 60 appellations, more than 8,000 Chateaux producing on average 700 million bottles of wine each year. So the problem for those poor visitors who flock to Bordeaux every year, is where to start. How can you possibly get a handle on such a large and diverse region within say a week? Famous names like Chateau Lafite we have all heard of, but this is just the tip of a very big Iceberg!
Which brings me nicely on to the wine tour operator, Cellar Tours. This group specialise in organising tailor-made, luxury tours of wine regions throughout the world, their Bordeaux Wine Tour being one of their most popular destinations. Their CEO came to me with a preposition last month, to experience a taster of their 8 day tour in early May, to prove that it was possible to experience Bordeaux’s three main sub-regions within a week, and come out the other end more knowledgeable than before. I would have been a fool to refuse such a tempting offer, and so off I went, hot on the heels of the 2011 en-primeur campaign.
My tour started at Bordeaux airport, being met by an immaculately dressed Mercedes driver (a first for me) Claude, who promptly whisked me away to my very plush hotel in Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. Cellar Tours had organised a guide to take me through the city, which he did with aplomb. Although this was not my first visit, it was so refreshing to experience Bordeaux in the capable hands of a local expert, finishing naturally with a glass of white Bordeaux. Sat in the sunshine in the Rue Sainte-Catherine was heavenly, and made me realise that the city’s charms were worth the trip alone, before even contemplating its millions of vineyards. Vibrant, beautiful and extremely diverse, Bordeaux is only matched by Paris for architecture and gastronomic delights. I ate at La Tupina, a major institution. Suffice to say, I rolled rather than walked home!
Day two and the wine experience ‘proper’ began, with a sojourn to Bordeaux’s oldest region – Graves. Located immediately south of Bordeaux, the vineyards of the Pessac-Leognan appellation were originally part of the Graves region, having recently been given their own appellation in 1987 in recognition of the superior quality of their wines. My chauffeur took me to two of the region’s most lauded estates, Carbonnieux and Smith Haut Lafite. Both estates are producing quintessential red graves – earthy, honeyed complexity set against an accessible structure and soft texture. They also opened some older vintages, a nice touch. I stayed at Smith Haut Lafite’s very comfortable Caudelie wine spa, where I was treated to another gastronomic feast. By now, I had to contemplate buying new trousers to accommodate the waistline.
The next two days were spent in the Medoc, undoubtedly Bordeaux’s most famous region. The Medoc vineyards are located on the western side of the Gironde estuary, which winds its way like a giant tongue towards the Atlantic from the city of Bordeaux. This region used to be a water logged swamp, until Dutch engineers drained the area in the 15th century. Driving through the landscape, dotted with grandiose Chateau is quite special; I enjoyed an extensive tasting at Chateau Kirwan and lunch at Giscours. Of course, the tour included visits to the major appellations, Pauillac, St Estephe, I was always well looked after. In fact, I can’t imagine the president himself having such a warm reception!
Cellar Tours finished my taster tour on a high note – a stay in France’s prettiest village St-Emilion, was made that extra bit special with a private, underground tour of the village’s catacombs. Not something that you get to do every day, like been given the keys to the private estate of Chateau Canon. Cellar Tours also organised a trip to Chateau Angelus, one of my favourite St-Emilion estates, where I sampled a venerable range of vintages. My final dinner was a show-stopper, chef Philippe Etchebest at the handsome restaurant Hostellerie Plaisance wowed me with his contemporary take on Bordeaux classics. Too many highlights to mention, but the Breton lobster with coconut mousse is up there with the greatest dishes I have been privileged to sample. It was the perfect end to a wonderful couple of days.
So as you can imagine, I felt rather depressed boarding the plane back to London the following morning. Cellar Tours had created something unique during the last few days, a real insiders perspective on Bordeaux. I had visited the region before of course, but this is the first time I had been given access to the heart of the region – its winemakers, secret cellars, older vintages and sacred traditions. And I had experienced but a taster of what Cellar Tours can offer – full 8 day tours of the region, individual day tours to famous Chateaux with a VIP winery tour and so on. Everything was simply top-notch, from the wonderful cuisine I enjoyed to the luxurious hotels we stayed in.
Any snags you may ask? Well, this treatment does not come cheap. Cellar Tours makes no apologises for the fact that it offers high-end, personalised VIP Tours that are quite expensive when compared to mid-range operators like Arblaster and Clarke. The latter do offer good value, mixed group tours, but I felt that if you really wanted to get ‘under the skin’ of Bordeaux, then Cellar Tours would be a better bet. Their network of contacts is incomparable, as is the welcome we received from our Chateaux hosts. These guys know their Bordeaux region, arguably better than any other tour operator in Europe.
I wonder if they would let me sample Tuscany….
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