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Is Bordeaux Making a Major Comeback?

By Susan Gough Henly

Dec 23, 2015

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The stunning view from Saint Emilion

All photos by Sue Gough Henly

The stunning view from Saint Emilion

This part of France is finally shedding its stuffy reputation

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Bordeaux may be the world's most famous wine region. It is the largest Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) in France, with a perfect terroir that supports 7,000 wine producers ranging from grand chateaux to family vineyards. Some of the biggest names in the wine business are here—think Chateau Margaux, Lafite, Petrus, and Yquem—as well as hundreds of other superb and much more affordable outfits.

Back in the dark ages of the 20th century, only people related to God or willing to trade their first-born child could secure a winetasting appointment. But these days there are interactive tastings, wine and food pairings, winery-focused river cruises, and even an urban wine trail.

Here's how to make the most of a trip to Bordeaux.

What to do in the city of Bordeaux

The city of Bordeaux was once known as La Belle Endormie, The Sleeping Beauty, because it was clogged in a stupor of stuffiness and grime. It now gleams with hundreds of scrubbed-up neoclassical buildings, many of which are listed with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

Explore the city
While you can explore by space-age tram, wandering on foot is better. The pedestrian-only old quarter is full of lively squares, splashing fountains, and cool bars overlooked by the Gothic towers of La Grosse Cloche and La Porte Cailhau. There are acres of park to promenade along the river, as well as Place de la Bourse, home to exquisite limestone buildings shimmering in Le Miroir d'Eau, the largest reflecting pool in the world.

See the museums
Don't miss the Museum of Contemporary Art and a gaggle of antique and design stores in Chartrons, the former wine merchants quarter. Bordeaux is also all agog about the June 2016 opening of La Cité du Vin in an audacious building inspired by the swirl of wine in a glass. It will take visitors on a voyage of discovery through the history of wine and civilisation, blending the fascination of a really good museum with the thrill of a theme park.

Go winetasting
You can savour the best Bordeaux wines without leaving the city limits on the Urban Wine Trail, a downloadable smartphone guide to 14 terrific wine bars. You can taste first growth wines by the glass at Max Bordeaux, and be your own wine steward at Aux Quatre Coins du Vins, pouring 60 wines directly from an oenomat wine dispenser. There are dozens more by-the-glass offerings on the trail at the glamorous Bar a Vin at the Bordeaux Wine Council, which also offers Bordeaux wine workshops.

Blend your own wine
Alternatively, create your own wine at Chateau Pape Clement, which is located within the Bordeaux city limits. You’ll learn the art of tasting and will make your own wine blend. You can even take home your own bottle, complete with personal label.

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Where to eat
Garopapilles is at the vanguard of Bordeaux’s new breed of edgy locavore restaurants, which all offer superb food in unpretentious settings and have cleverly curated wine lists featuring handmade and often biodynamic wines. Other top spots include Miles, Belle Campagne, Dan, and Le Chien de Pavlov.

Where to stay
Splurge on an opulent Napoleonic-style suite in an 18th-century mansion at the five-star Relais et Chateaux La Grande Maison Bernard Magrez. Dine downstairs at restaurant Joel Robuchon, which offers classics with a twist, including roast meats carved at the table and a selection of exquisite vegetable dishes. The wine list has 259 Bordeaux-classified offerings.

Pessac Leognan
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte is an atmospheric, ivy-covered winery in Pessac Leognan. As well as offering tours and tastings, it has a contemporary sculpture collection amidst the vines and a hidden, James Bond–style cellar to discover. You can even spend a day as vineyard manager or cellar chief. Stay right across the road at exquisite five-star country retreat Les Sources de Caudalie, where you can enjoy unique vinotherapy spa treatments and dine at Bordeaux’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Grand’Vigne.

St. Emilion
This hilltop village, where the Romans first planted vines in the second century, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Check out the 11th-century, partly subterranean monolithic church; its bell tower presents a panorama across tiled roofs to a patchwork of vineyards. The Maison du Vin offers summer winetastings and workshops and the tourist office has a daily list of chateaux open for visits without appointment.

At the grand Chateau Soutard you can take a beginner’s winemaking program, or cooking classes followed by lunch with matched wines. There’s even a mapmaker’s treasure hunt and grape juice–tasting for kids.

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La Terrasse Rouge bistro sits on top of the Jean Nouvel–designed stainless steel winery at Chateau La Dominique and has a spectacular view across its terrace to the vineyards of St. Emilion and Pomerol. Book online for English-language winery tours and tastings.

Enjoy a gourmet day here with food-and-wine-pairing visits at four chateaux: the Fourth Growth Chateau Prieure Lichine, and chateaux Rauzan Gassies, Kirwan, and La Tour de Bessan.

Immerse yourself in the full Bordeaux winemaking experience by collaborating with local experts at Viniv in Pauillac to produce your own barrel of premium Bordeaux wine.

Saint Yzans de Medoc
Take a multi-day cooking class or drop into Manger’s summer pop-up restaurant in the tucked-away village of Saint Yzans de Medoc. Mimi Thorisson, author of A Kitchen in France, A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse, has a huge global following with her Manger blog.

River cruises
Choose from a wide range of river cruises to visit Bordeaux’s renowned chateaux and wineries in the Medoc, St. Emilion, and Sauternes. There are day trips as well as multi-day journeys on large, sleek river boats or small luxury barges. Many have bicycles on board so you can peddle through the vineyards.

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