Went to Sleep in Bordeaux, Woke Up in San Francisco
Monday’s sunny, warm afternoon gave way to a cool evening and a gloomy, chilly Tuesday morning. Bordeaux is nestled along a bend in the Garonne River, which meets up with the Dordogne River north of the city (both drain into the Atlantic Ocean, not too far from the city). Because one river is usually a different temperature from the other and their junction is generally upwind of the city, the region is prone to foggy, chilly mornings. Almost on cue, the fog and clouds disappear and the sun was out in full force by noon, making us shed jackets and long-sleeve shirts for shorts and t-shirts. In truth, we didn’t see any significant rain until the end of the week, so as far as weather goes, this was a perfect week for the trip.
We weren’t scheduled to leave for the first two wineries until after lunch, so Paul and I wandered into town to see the major sites. Paul managed to get his hands on a tourism map that outlined several planned walks through downtown, and we followed it, taking us past the Grand Theater, Monument aux Girondins, Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux, the Sports Arena, Hotel de Ville, etc. We passed by various stores and shops, leading to the best laugh of the day – Paul’s fascination with what he determined was an electronics store selling “hiffy” products…until he realized that “Hifi” means the same thing in French as it does in English. We also stumbled upon what seems to be Bordeaux’s only “super grocery market” that was a three story grocery store – complete with food court.
Left: Place de la Bourse. Right: Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux.
We arrived back at the hotel to grab a quick lunch from the grocery market and meet the others waiting for the tour bus for our afternoon winery excursion. Paul’s jaw dropped when, instead of the smaller bus to hold all 24 of us, we were met by a full-sized bus capable of holding twice that number. Side note: the interior of the bus was what can only be described as the most fabulous shade of purple.
How Sweet it is
The sunny ride out to the Sauternes region (southwest of Bordeaux along the Garonne) offered a broader, longer look at the huge expanses of vines stretching to the hilly horizon. In addition, this was my first learning experience with France’s First Growth classifications for wines/wineries.
By the time we arrived at Chateau Coutet, the sun was high and it felt like summertime (and further emphasizing my relief for having packed shorts). The winery’s home estate sits atop a hill overlooking the vineyard, where the vine leaves were already starting to turn in the early autumn, the fruit picked just a week or two before our arrival.* The winery’s charm came from the hacienda-style architecture, complete with terra cotta tile roofs (not so unusual given how close we were to Spain), as well as the antique winery tools and equipment displayed throughout. The cellar was impressive since our host claims it’s the longest one in the region (110 meters).
* Paul and Allen’s original hope was to schedule the trip at the region’s harvest time, which is typically earlier than Virginia’s. Sadly, weather conditions and the ripening of the grapes trumped our timing and most of the wineries were past crushing and already transferring juice into stainless steel tanks for initial fermentation.
Since Bordeaux is primarily known for its red wines, I was surprised to try whites at our first two wineries, and we were offered a tasting of the chateau’s white blend (75% Sémillon, 23% Sauvignon Blanc and 2% Muscadelle). Not being a fan of sweet wines due to domestic sweet wines’ disturbingly-high/diabetic-coma-inducing residual sugar contents, it was a real treat to taste one that wasn’t sickly sweet, as well as having distinctive, complex features. Heavier than I expected, the fruit flavors (mainly apricot with citrus) were pleasant given the warm day. I don’t know if this might be considered an insult to the winemaker or not,* but the wine reminded me of mead more than any other sweet/dessert wine I’ve had in the past.
* If it is and the winemakers should somehow manage to read this entry, I sincerely apologize. I’m using the only description I can relate to with my limited wine knowledge and amateur pallet.
Next up, Chateau Guίraud, just a short hop down the road.
This picturesque, ivy-covered estate was a big hit with us being as photogenic as it is. Again, it sits on a shallow hill, overlooking vines in every direction. We sampled several of their sweet whites (65% Semillon and 35% Sauvignon Blanc), and personally, I found them lighter than Chateau Coutet, with the same apricot tones, as well as a spice flavor that I appealed to me. With the afternoon fading fast, we piled into the bus and headed back to Bordeaux.
Max Vin, S’il Vous Plaît
As we pulled into the city, a few of us perked up as we passed Pont de Pierre, continuing further into downtown. We arrived at one the city’s newest offerings, Max Bordeaux, a wine bar dedicated exclusively to Bordeaux wines. The neutral, modern entrance leads to an open room full of wine tasting selections,* ranging from “everyday drinking” wines (anywhere from 1€ to a few Euros per shot) to the coveted Chateau Latour (at over 700€ a bottle) and Chateau Lafite Rothschild (somewhere north of 1,100€ a bottle). A one-ounce pour of any of these is about 35€, so we seriously indulged ourselves for this unique experience. Personally, the uber-high end wines aren’t my first picks, but they were amazing to try, nevertheless. How many chances do you get to try the Mount Everest of French wines?
And even better news, there’s a Max Bordeaux opening in New York City!
* The sculpture hanging from the ceiling was hundreds of wine glasses of varying sizes and shapes. Simple and fun to look at.
The Bar, Not the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton Movie Musical
After a dinner of French-influenced Chinese/Thai food, a few of us spent the evening at a popular British pub not far from the Pont de Pierre – Sweeny Todd’s. One of the few bars decked out with primarily English signs, this cramped but cozy bar was one of the best hangouts we found in town. Owned by a Swiss proprietor, it’s tended by a British girl and an American guy bartender (either from New Jersey or South Florida – we’re still not sure which), and some surprisingly good microbrew beers. The best part was after settling our tab, the girl bartender treated us to the house’s own apple crumb vodka, which tastes just like apple crumb pie. Best dessert shot ever.
Oddly enough, the picture on the right makes the bar look far larger than it actually is!