Bordeaux wine – could two words be more inextricably linked? No, said the author Henry James: ‘Bordeaux is dedicated to the worship of Bacchus’. This post gives a little background, then focuses on where in the city to find out all about its most important product, whether than is learning about it, buying it, or drinking it. We finish with 5 quirky reading ideas, everything from a great wine scandal to what Samuel Pepys thought about Bordeaux wine.
BordeAUX WINE: the basics
Bordeaux and environs form the largest wine-growing region in France, producing nearly 6000 million bottles a year, most of it – about 90% – red. The wine industry is the number one employer in the Gironde and over half of what they produce is drunk in France. The biggest importers? China, then the US and the UK. The future US President, Thomas Jefferson, visiting France in 1787, soon became a Bordeaux wine enthusiast and shipped plenty back to America, remarking ‘By making this wine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt.’
It’s already a 2000 year-old tradition. The Romans brought the grape to Bordeaux and quickly discovered how it flourished there. The Gauls invented the oak barrel and Henry II, King of England, used his Bordeaux connections – he married Eleanor of Aquitaine – to encourage vintners to export to England by slashing the tax on it. The 18th century saw another boom, when winegrowers grew rich and began building châteaux all around the region. Royalty supported their efforts – Louis XVI was said to drink St Émilion at mealtimes.
Today, there are 5 main wine-growing areas in the Bordeaux region, the best-known being Médoc and Saint-Émilion. The most popular grape variety is Merlot, followed by Cabernet Saugignon and Malbec – both also red – and the white grapes Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc. And if you are wondering what claret is, this Bordeaux favourite is defined as a unique wine, ‘made from a nicely ripened merlot, that is not macerated for a long period of time, allowing the wine to retain its light, pinky-red colour and its lively palate.’
where to find out more
You can buy a map for a self-guided walk of all the wine-linked highlights in Bordeaux for about 3 Euros from the main tourist office. The 2 hour route will take you past 24 points of interest ending up at the Cité du Vin, the city’s state-of-the-art wine museum. An alternative walk is suggested on the Visit French Wine website. There’s much more detail on both on the podcast.
THE Bordeaux wine shop, which you should on no account miss, is L’Intendant, a stone’s throw from the main tourist office. It looks tiny, but there are five floors, all reached by a central spiral staircase, and several million wine bottles are crammed into every available space. They stock a vast choice of ‘vins abordables’ – affordable wines – plus plenty of ‘look-at-that’ old vintages and impressive double-magnums and jeroboams. The staff will help you choose and can arrange shipping if you want your purchases sent back home. As they say on their website, it this shop is ‘un vrai sanctuaire!’
THE museum on everything to do with wine is the Cité du Vin, opened in 2016 in a building designed to look like a giant wine decanter sitting on the banks of the Garonne. Its focus is both local and global and every imaginable topic is covered through a multi-media approach: displays, maps and pictures, filmed interviews with, for example, wine-growers, and a ‘buffet of the 5 senses’ where you can sniff and taste to find out more. Finally, there’s a chance to drink a glass of wine up on the top floor, and enjoy panoramic views of the river and the city centre. The wine-tasting workshops are advertised – how French! – as ‘une immersion visuelle et gustative’.
exploring the region
How to explore the vineyards and châteaux without a car? You can book tours at the Bordeaux Tourist Office, or try out one of their suggestions for a bike tour of 9, 23 or 30 km. Their website also gives ideas for vineyards you can get to by tram from the city centre. If you are driving, consult this list which details over a dozen châteaux and gives hints about each to help you decide. Do you want to visit the oldest or the most contemporary? How about the most beautiful or the must mysterious? It’s all explained! And for a list of guided tours outside Bordeaux itself, click here.
where to drink bordeaux wine
One of the pleasures of visiting Bordeaux is wandering the old town from cobbled street to pretty square and popping into cafes and wine bars as you see fit. Visit the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux to enjoy sommelier service and advice on which wine to pair with a cheese or charcuterie platter and to admire the stunning décor with a stained-glass window depicting Bacchus. The Visit French Wine website has a useful list of 20 Bordeaux wine bars, along with photos and information on each. For a shorter, more personal description of two wine bars – one hip and modern, the other more rustic, – consult this blogpost.
Bordeaux has a 4 day wine festival, at the end of June. Think tastings, workshops, master classes, visiting chefs and a street parade by the Bordeaux Wine Brotherhoods. There’s a gastronomic village too, plus loads of concerts – including ‘tasting concerts’ – DJ sets, dance bands, films, a drone show and a family zone. Local wine shops, restaurants and châteaux all take part and along the river there are old fashioned sailing ships to visit. In October there is also a 2 day festival in the Chartrons area to celebrate the arrival of the new vintage, duly blessed in church before a festival involving wine, dancing, street food and – a speciality of this little corner – an antiques market.
5 quirky reading suggestions
From Bordeaux to the Stars The Reawakening of a Wine Legend
by Jean-Michel Cazes: The author, an internationally known expert and château owner who produces Grand Cru Classé, relates the last 50 years of wine in Bordeaux from a personal and family viewpoint.
Tales from the Greatest Wine Region by Jane Anson
This anthology contains all sorts of extracts and articles on Bordeaux wine, written by writers past and present, from Samuel Pepys to the wine critics of today.
The Billonaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace
A real-life story about the intrigue around a 1787 bottle of Château-Lafite, auctioned in 1985 as having belonged to Thomas Jefferson himself. The story of whether this was a scam unfolds over a couple of hundred pages, taking you behind the scenes of the world of wine all over Europe. We wouldn’t dream of spoiling the ending …..
The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide 1870–2020 by Neal Martin
Each vintage from the 150 years covered is analysed and assessed, along with social and historical context. How good was the vintage the year Sherlock Holmes was published? How did the wine produced in the same year that Casablanca came out measure up?
The Bordeaux Club by Neil McKendrick
Billed as ‘the convivial adventures of 12 friends and the world’s finest wine’, this book recounts celebratory gatherings, over a 70 year period, around such great Bordeaux vintages as 1865 and 1929, and has an upbeat foreword by Andrew Roberts, historian, Member of the House of Lords and Bordeaux Club stalwart.
listen to the podcast
links for this post
Self Guided Wine Walk around Bordeaux
Alternative Wine Walk around Bordeaux
L’Intendant Bordeaux’s best wine shop
Cite du vin Huge museum on everything to do with wine
9 km self-guided bike tour of Bordeaux’s vineyards
23 km self-guided bike tour of Bordeaux’s vineyards
30 km self-guided bike tour of Bordeaux’s vineyards
Vineyards you can reach by public transport
Top pick of vineyards and chateaux to visit
Guided tours of vineyards outside Bordeaux
Maison du Vin wine-tasting, courses, etc
20 wine bars to visit in Bordeaux
Reviews of 2 Bordeaux wine bars
Bordeaux Wine Festival 4 days in June
Chartrons Wine Festival 2 days in October