With Bordeaux’s splashy new Cité du Vin (www.laciteduvin.com) wine experience center, amateur wine lovers have access to all things wine on the bank of the River Garonne, conveniently located in downtown Bordeaux.
But for an even better taste of the Bordeaux wine-region lifestyle, it’s wise to head outside of town. Because within an hour’s drive along the River Garonne’s left or right banks, a host of stylish inns, country manors and small wine châteaux have opened in the past three years, offering some of the best overall experiences of country-chic art de vivre currently available in France.
To visit Bordeaux wine country like a local, though, you need to understand the path of the River Garonne: the powerful tidal river that slices the Bordeaux region—including the city—into two wine regions. This water splits the region into two “banks” before joining the area’s other main river, the Dordogne, and flowing into the Gironde estuary (Europe’s Mississippi delta) and out into the Atlantic, 60 miles northwest of the city. The River Garonne’s right and left banks both produce world-renowned wines, but have strikingly different tastes stemming from the vastly different terrain and climate found on each side of the river.
That’s why, in Bordeaux-speak, Left Bank/Right Bank is shorthand for describing both the wines and the atmospheres of the most prestigious parts of the 460-square-mile wine region (which happens to be the largest one in France). The river’s Right Bank spreads east from Bordeaux into a gently rolling terrain of narrow country lanes, charming stone-stitched hilltop villages in the vineyards—like the UNESCO world heritage site of Saint-Emilion, the Right Bank’s focal point—and smaller, mainly family-run wine properties.
The Right Bank is perfect for those who enjoy a mélange of relaxed country lifestyle, charming small towns and fine gastronomy along with their wine tasting. And of course, when you’re in the most well-known wine region of the world, many small towns have famous names, like Cheval Blanc, Angelus and Petrus; all near Saint-Emilion.
Among the Right Bank red wines, Saint Emilion and neighboring Pomerol are the most notable “appellations,” or sub-regions, although lesser-known appellations like Côtes de Castillon, have a lot to offer. The easy-to-drink and approachable Merlot grape thrives in the limestone rock of Saint-Emilion and on the “beach” (as locals call the more sandy soil of the Right Bank’s lowland areas). Right Bank wines also contain varying amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc grape, as well as the finicky but fabulous Petit Verdot.
The Left Bank, on the other hand, offers a moodier maritime atmosphere, especially in the fairly flat, wind-swept Medoc Peninsula that juts up between the Gironde Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the starker terrain, it’s safe to say that the Bordeaux region’s Medoc (insider-speak for this part of the Left Bank) is ground zero for serious oenophiles from around the world who make pilgrimages to legendary, stately estates of Classified Growth wines like Château Lafitte Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Margaux. The river’s ancient, low-lying alluvial gravel deposits on the Left Bank provide some of the best conditions in the world for growing Cabernet Sauvignon; the star of Left Bank wines. Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes round out the taste profiles.
The flavors in these more restrained Left Bank wines, based on the structured Cab tannins, initially reflect a more austere land. But after a few years (or decades) of aging, they reveal the best of French winemaking, with elegant strength and multiple layers of flavors. Of course, many Left Bank vineyards produce bigger, more American-style Cabs now, too, ready to drink in a few years.
Until now, most people visited the Left Bank for the wine only, but that is slowly changing. Of course, the Medoc is ideal for serious wine lovers. But the peninsula has also been drawing attention from trendsetters who don’t mind a bit of driving to have an off-the-beaten path exploration. One sign of this re-awakening is the news out of the estuary port town of Pauillac: some restaurateurs from Bordeaux will open a cool new bar this summer in the town’s midcentury former harbor office building. Other sleepy villages have begun to attract attention from fashionable outliers as well, like cookbook author and Medoc lifestyle guru Mimi Thoresson, who lives in St. Yzans.
To experience the best of Bordeaux wine country—visiting wineries, dining at country bistros or Michelin-starred restaurants and taking advantage of outdoor activities from biking, golf and sailing to simply lounging on a lawn overlooking the vineyards—you’ll need a couple days on each Bank. With such a wide variety of accommodations and activities, Bordeaux’s wine region offers plenty for couples, friends or families. A rental car is the only way to really explore Bordeaux wine country in comfort. If you plan to imbibe, or don’t want to navigate the country roads where many of the vineyards are found, it’s a good idea to hire a car and driver.
Don’t feel like you need to tour every single winery in order to have the full experience. Vat room fatigue sets in quickly! One strategy is to pick a few wineries on each bank that look interesting for their architecture, history or special events (you’ll get a feel for that by perusing the websites or asking your concierge). Tour those properties, and taste. To experience more wine tasting without the vat room visit, try to book a meal on the property (where you’ll certainly drink the property’s wines), or simply enjoy the wines at local restaurants. Wherever you go, it’s hard to get a bad bottle, and Bordeaux wine is always the star.
Bordeaux’s Left Bank: Wild yet Stately
Legendary wine property châteaux dot the Left Bank vineyards, with a range of styles from medieval to renaissance to neoclassical. The Medoc peninsula can feel a bit sprawling, since there’s no real dine-stay-shop village base. That’s why most visitors stay in the handful of lovely private manors or castles owned and run by the wine estates, where the innkeeper is happy to arrange wine-fueled meals and private experiences on the estate and around the area.
Left Bank winery visits are best arranged in advance through guesthouse concierges or by contacting the wineries in advance. Happily, the once-formal Classified Growth atmosphere has softened over the past few years. This shows in the growing number of wine properties that have added special “wine tourism” staff to help organize bespoke tours, experiences and meals on the property.
The most exclusive Left Bank stay has to be at Château Cos d’Estournel (estournel.com), a winery owned by Michel Reybier, of the La Reserve group. This property has an interesting history. The first owner, Louis Gaspard d’Estournel, was a Victorian adventurer who brought a trove of curiosities and trophies from India to his winery, where he was known as the “Maharaja” of the Medoc. So it’s not surprising that the main building has an exotic look, with the Asian touches quite unlike any others on this hallowed peninsula channeling the spirit of its eccentric founder. Inside the winery and vat room, on the other hand, a steely sleek, almost James Bond–esque vibe prevails. Guests staying at the property’s private six-bedroom vineyard house—which comes with private lap pool, chef and concierge—have access to the winery as well as a wide array of other bespoke activities.
Families (and medieval history buffs) will want to visit La Tour Carnet, a fairly isolated winery where the main draw is a postcard worthy crenellated mini-castle complete with drawbridge, black swans in the moat and peacocks on the lawn (Route de Beychevelle, Saint Laurent Médoc, 33 (0)5-57-26-38-34). Overnight stays can be arranged in the two heavily decorated, medieval-style rooms but for families, it’s especially nice to book a visit on one of the days when the special children’s tour is offered. While the adults take a normal tour and tasting, the kids are treated to their own special activities that includes a “grape juice tasting” (with three kinds of grape juice), an art experience designing their own wine labels and a tour of the castle’s main floor, stuffed to the gills with coats of armor and other knightly accessories.
Château du Tertre (chateaudutertre.fr), an elegant Margaux vineyard owned by a Dutch business magnate, offers a serene, stylish take on wine country luxury, with five individually decorated rooms inside the perfect 19th-century château and a spectacular yew-fringed swimming pool overlooking the sweeping lawn and vineyards. The tasting room is small but stylish, with a subtle cream-and-steel vibe and a perfectly placed window overlooking the vines.
For a low-key retreat, the Château Ormes de Pez (www.lynchbagescie.com), a country manor B&B done with a classically old-fashioned French good taste (fireplace, comfortable sofas, side patio and simple, homey rooms with comfortable beds), is an ideal lost-in-the-middle-of-the-vineyards spot near Saint-Estephe. Gilles de Marcellus, the discreet innkeeper, is a font of knowledge on all things in the Medoc (including “brocante” shopping, local markets and boating), in addition to being an excellent baker (his caramel-filled brownies and homemade breakfasts are not to be missed). Owned by local wine royalty—the Cazes family of Château Lynche-Bages wines—Ormes de Pez is a nice place to book with friends or extended family, as the five-room country manor lends itself well to reunions.
Also owned by the Cazes dynasty, Village of Bages, in the midst of the Château Lynch-Bages vineyards (www.jmcazes.com) near Pauillac, is a Left Bank must. The town was once in ruins and is now a restored paean to traditional French country taste (thanks to family patriarch Jean-Michel Cazes, who refused to tear it down and build anew). The village is an adorable amalgam of winery, bakery, low-key café-restaurant, bike rental shop, playground, wine tasting courses and the best French art de vivre gift shop in Bordeaux wine country, called Bages Bazaar.
At the Bazaar, you’ll want to stock up on the well-curated selection of Made In France items (from cookware to house décor to books plus wine, of course) for all tastes and budgets. The Medoc’s top hotel, Château Cordeillan-Bages (www.cordeillanbages.com), a four-star Relais & Chateau property, near the village, is undergoing a progressive (and necessary) room refresh through 2017. It remains open during renovation, though, and is a convenient base for culinary tourists who plan to dine at the eponymous two-Michelin-star restaurant on the property.
For the quintessential Left Bank wine and dining experience, though, lunch at the Lion d’Or (11 Route de Pauillac, Arcins; 33-5-56-58-96-79) is a must. It is a warm and charming family-owned Medoc institution where the experienced waiters wear white aprons, top wineries stash bottles in lockers and generations of wine business hoi polloi and their families have enjoyed home-cooked seasonal specialties from locally made paté and boudin to veal, pigeon and tripe. Since chef-owner Lemonnier’s wife is in charge of the cash register and their two young children are often afoot—especially on the weekends—Lion d’Or feels distinctly family-friendly, in addition to being a culinary destination.
Beyond the world-class wining and dining, recreational cyclists and sailors will love the flat, narrow paved lanes through the vineyards, as well as boating to the islands and tiny port inlets along the estuary. A local company called Bordeaux River Cruises (bordeaux-river-cruise.com) is a nice choice for casual estuary excursions piloted by friendly, expert captains from Bordeaux. Alternatively, from Pauillac, visitors can book a private boat via the helpful Pauillac tourist office (La Verrerie, Pauillac; 33-5-56-59-03-08)(or your concierge) to nearby Patiras Island, a speck of vine-swathed land where casual rosé-fueled summer afternoons or evening activities unfold on the lawn of the contemporary event space, in the shadow of the restored lighthouse.
For a longer half-day excursion, there is the option of sailing to the spit of sand where the landmarked Cordouan lighthouse—one of the most beautiful in France—has guarded the mouth of the estuary since 1611 (33123 Le Verdon-sur-Mer; 33 (0)5-57-42-28-76). Come September, there’s also the Medoc Marathon, a weekend of wine estate parties anchored by a light-hearted costumed Hash Run–type marathon through the famous vineyards.
Given the interests of the cosmopolitan winery owners and their customers, art is in the air and on the walls of several top wineries, in annual shows (like the one at Lynche-Bages) and exhibits. The best stop for permanent displays (and for frame-able wine-art posters) has to be Château Mouton Rothschild’s wine-art museum (www.chateau-mouton-rothschild.com). Here, visitors can find the original art used for the famous Mouton wine labels, commissioned each year since 1945 from a top international artist or personality (past labels have been created by Salvador Dalí, Balthus and Jeff Koons). The museum is also home to other rare objects and pieces representing the intersection of wine and art.
Bordeaux’s Right Bank: Gentle and Courtly
Although the Right Bank around Saint-Emilion can be visited, superficially, in a long day-trip from Bordeaux (it’s more compact than the Left Bank’s Medoc peninsula), it’s wise to stay one or two nights either in Saint-Emilion or in one of the lovely properties outside of the village. This way, visitors can really take advantage of the gentle wine country art de vivre that fills the air here, while avoiding tourists who can crowd the pedestrian lanes of the UNESCO world heritage village from 10 am-6 pm.
Saint-Emilion is a 30-minute train ride from Bordeaux, and the train station is conveniently located at the foot of the village, but there’s no easy transportation to other villages in the area without a car. So an ideal getaway, unless you plan to stay in town and bike or hike to nearby wineries, would begin by driving a rental car out from Bordeaux in the late afternoon and getting settled in your hotel, then head out on a pre-dinner stroll in Saint-Emilion.
A lovely evening begins by watching the sun set while savoring a glass (or bottle!) of local wine on the terrace of the Hostellerie de Plaisance (hostelleriedeplaisance.com), a plush hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, which is overseen by Cédric Béchade, the new young chef from the Basque country. The terrace here, unlike the fancy restaurant, is laid back and offers the best views over the village rooftops, church spires and vineyards. A wine-lover’s paradise, kids can roam around safely, while parents enjoy their selection from the menu that includes almost every famous local wine.
A nice base for families, Château Fombrauge (D243, lieu dit fombrauge, Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes; 33 (0)5-57-24-77-12) is about a 10-minute drive along tiny country roads from Saint-Emilion. Since the first recorded harvest in 1599, wine has been made from the gently undulating vineyards surrounding the sprawling, one-story chartreuse—a traditional 17th-century wine country building that combined a property’s vat rooms and living quarters—now restored as a B&B. There is a billiards room, a grand piano in the music room and a broad stone terrace overlooking the vineyards, all overseen by the motherly innkeeper.
Another charming wine estate near Saint-Emilion, Château Siaurac (www.siaurac.com), is owned by Bordeaux-based Franco-Brit Paul Goldschmidt, who lives part-time with his wife in their private apartment suite on the top floor. Guests sleep in one of five spacious rooms, each decorated (as is the entire manor house) by Goldschmidt in a comfortable, tongue-in-cheek way. Treasures like a huge collection of Bordeaux-made, 19th-century Jules Veillard faience, an Instagram-worthy collection of hats in the stairwell and a trove of original Miró sketches in the front hall round out the cheerful, classic décor that includes plenty of nap-friendly sofas.
In addition to the location—next to a charming little village in the midst of a vineyard on a crest overlooking Saint-Emilion—the big draw here is the château’s private chef, Jean Francois Robert, who dreams up amazing culinary matches for the estate wines. Indeed, a wine-soaked meal here is a must, and easily arranged by contacting the château. A stay is even more magical, especially for garden lovers (with many award-winning ancient trees on the grounds) and gourmets.
Château Canon (www.chateaucanon.com), owned by the Wertheimer family of Chanel, blends vintage furniture with vibrant color splashes in this property by architect Peter Marino. The innkeeper and her chef husband are on hand to arrange every detail of your stay, from winery visits to dining. The château, which features the best of a fun French and modern Danish style, also boasts a pool.
For a casual-luxe experience on the fringe of Saint-Emilion village, Le Pavillon Saint-Emilion (www.lepavillon-saintemilion.com) is a lovely manor house B&B with five serene, functional rooms. This is where local wine business insiders put up their English-speaking guests, since Le Pavillon is owned by a hospitable, savvy Irish-French couple who organize bespoke wine and golf tours, cooking classes and private helicopter transportation.
If your idea of wine country paradise is a cozy private cottage in the midst of vineyards with a Michelin-starred restaurant a stone’s throw away and the village of Saint-Emilion within walking distance through the vines, then Troplong Mondot (www.chateau-troplong-mondot.com) is the perfect place. The château boasts an infinity pool overlooking the vineyards, with the village steeple in the distance. This wine estate, where every detail is tastefully overseen by the owner and his excellent team, also has a restored stone outbuilding, with four freshly redecorated rooms. A meal at the property’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Les Belles Perdrix, is a must for Chef David Charrier’s luscious food and wine, of course, but also for the more casual vibe (no white tablecloths here!), friendly service and spacious terrace overlooking the vineyards.
The big news on the Right Bank, though, is the brand new Grand Saint-Emillionnais Golf Club (www.segolfclub.com) by internationally renowned course designer Tom Doak, and ranked one of the top 10 courses in France for 2016 by Golf Digest USA. Owned by France’s legendary golf dynasty family, the Morgue d’Algues (who have a special touch with hospitality, given their international experience and anglophile bent), the country club is sure to become a golf-lifestyle destination in the coming years, with the addition of more rental villas, pool, and restaurant.
Serious cyclists will be satisfied with the Right Bank’s hilly terrain and winding country roads. The area is also terrific for long day strolls, as there are quite a few marked trails that spoke out from Saint-Emilion village. Bike information and trail maps are available at the efficient Saint Emilion tourist office, by the cathedral (Place des Créneaux; 33 (0)5-57-55-28-28).
The village of Saint-Emilion is named after a medieval hermit whose renown spurred the construction of an underground church carved into the town’s limestone bedrock. The region has been a wine-growing area since at least the second century. The hilltown, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the midst of vineyards, is rife with old Romanesque churches, cloisters and winding cobbled streets. The only thing missing, for now, is any notable shopping. (Bordeaux, with its wealth of shopping opportunities, is an hour away.) In Saint-Emilion, especially in the morning or evening, visitors can imagine themselves in a sepia-toned photograph of French village life filled with berets and baguettes, geraniums, cigarettes and sunshine splashing on weathered stone.
The sophistication that wine brings to the village, with its worldly visitors and makers, has raised the bar on local dining and lodging to a level that makes it equivalent to, say, a Yountville (in Napa Valley). For example, the Logis de la Cadene (www.logisdelacadene.fr) is a discreet village hideaway that takes the tradition of French “hotel-restaurants” to the ultimate degree of sophistication. Both are owned by Hubert de Boüard, the eighth generation of his family to oversee Château Angelus (www.angelus.com). The property has been decorated in the most tranquil Zen-meets–Dutch Master style by Madame de Bouard.
Two added pluses that come with staying in one of the Logis de la Cadene’s four super-quiet and functional rooms: tours of the restaurant’s ancient wine cellar and family winery, a pretty big deal since Angelus is not open to the general public. You may find it hard to leave your room (and the huge stand-alone bathtubs, with Nuxe amenities), especially if you have a view over the church spire. But a meal at the living room–style restaurant (in the summer, dine at the wisteria-shaded terrace) or a visit to uber posh Château Angelus (featured in Casino Royale) are both well worth the effort.
The best way to visit the village is on foot, but the cobblestone lanes can be slippery and steep, so it’s best to wear comfortable shoes. A good itinerary is to take in as many monuments and churches as you feel necessary, beginning early, before the day tourists arrive from Bordeaux. The Saint-Emilion Wine House—fittingly for a region where drinking wine is a kind of religious experience—is located in the former bishopric of the cathedral (www.maisonduvinsaintemilion.com). In addition to a wine shop stocked with 450 local wines with vintages from as far back as 1983, there’s a sweet interactive one-room wine “museum.”
The house hosts excellent 90-minute wine tasting classes with bilingual teachers adept at sharing the secrets of local wine heritage. Buy a box of the local specialty—coconut macarons—from Nadia Fermigier’s bakery at 9, rue Gaudet, the village’s original macaron bakery (there are many usurpers). The charming Couvent des Cordeliers makes the Crement de Bordeaux sparkling white wine (lescordeliers.com). You can visit some of the 1.5 miles of labyrinthine underground cellars, carved from limestone bedrock, or just buy a bottle of chilled sparkling wine (there’s juice for the kids) and grab a bistro table (Fermob, of course) among the former convent’s crumbling cloister or on the grassy back lawn.