Not a sommelier, a wine connoisseur, or even an avid wine drinker or foodie, I find wine, nevertheless, to be as fascinating to learn about as to drink, and since I happened to be, by a stroke of good luck, in a place where wine had its roots (pun liberally intended), I did not pass up an opportunity to visit the vignoble of Bordeaux, even if it meant going there on my own.
For wine lovers the world over, Bordeaux is synonymous with wine, specifically with Bordeaux red. The southwest part of France is conducive to the growing of grapes that wine, especially in the middle ages, was so readily available it was drunk by both slaves and the landed. The concept of terroir, which assumes that type of soil, climate, and even geography imparts a certain “attribute” to Bordeaux wines and which forms the basis for classifying wines, also contributed to the ubiquity of wines. In many groceries in Bordeaux, a whole array of wines, from the inexpensive to the superieur is within easy reach of consumers. One could go without drinking water for days, so goes the belief, but it would be a pinch to go without wine.
You may have heard of the “grand cru classe” (translated to “great classed growth”) which refers to a system of classifying the best wines produced in Bordeaux. My research yielded that several thousand chateaux in Bordeaux produce their own wines, and to be classified not only meant revenues but also prestige. Of the 61 great classified wines, 60 come from the Medoc region.
And so, on a Thursday afternoon back in September, 2009, my adventurous spirit would not be dampened by my sister’s (Babylyn Newfield) decision to abandon me to the marshy plains of Medoc for the familiarity of a McDonald’s in Victoire (with an engaging Frenchman) while my husband will not be peeled away from laboratory work at the University of Bordeaux, in Talence.
All tours to the vignoble start out in the Tourist Office on 12 cours xxx juillet where the buses, tourists and guides converge. Going on a tour like this means being prepared to shell out as much as 90eur for day-long tours of vineyards as far afield as the St. Emilion area (which includes lunch and degustacion) or half-day tours of the Medoc district, at 30eur the “cheapest” tour I could find. (All 2009 prices.)
There are specific buses whose tourist guides conduct the tour in French and English, and others where French is the only language spoken. To this bus went the snotty French who could not abide the English, their age-old rivalry a source of merriment to casual observers. Of course, I boarded the former, along with a number of Japanese, Vietnamese, Dutch, and a smattering of chattering Americans.
The wine regions of Bordeaux are in the Gironde department of Aquitaine. The region is naturally divided by the Gironde river into a Left Bank area which includes the Medoc, home to 1,500 vineyards. One of the five appellations in Medoc is Margaux which encompasses the village of Margaux and some others found in the southernly part, like Labarde, Arsac, Cantenac and Soussans.
This district is home to second and third growths as well as one first growth, Chateau Margaux. A chateau that produces one of only two fifth-growths found in the region was Chateau Dauzac, one of the two chateaux we visited that day.
Wine bottle labels carry important information, which includes country of origin, quality, type of wine, and sometimes even whether the wine was bottled in a particular estate or not. The word “cru” may even be used to alert drinkers to the fact that it belongs to the classified growths in the region. Even the corks or the “bouchon” atop wine bottles are significant!
Wine-tastings, along with the customary cheeses, are also conducted in these tours, and some great wines may be purchased on site, but expectedly, they are more expensive than if one had gone to any Carre-four. So, next time you sniff a goblet of rose, think of Bordeaux!