Guidebooks and visitors disagree wildly on its physical attractions: to one, it’s grimy, squat and uninteresting, to another it’s a harmonious 18th century gem. Never mind them. You only need one reason to go to Bordeaux, and that’s Bordeaux.
Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Graves, Sauternes … red, white or pink, dry or sweet, light or heavy … Châteaux Pétrus, Yquem, Margaux … no other wine region in France, probably none in the world, can match this one’s size, product variety and famous names. And the Bordelais want to make sure you know it: they provide heaps of opportunities to taste their wares, learn about the vineyards, even help pick the grapes during the “vendange,” which this year will probably start in mid-September.
The city’s site on the tidal Garonne river, with its crescent-shaped “Port of the Moon” opening to the Gironde estuary, destined it for trade. As Burdigala it was a key stop on the tin route and controlled by the Bituriges Vivisci, a northern Celtic tribe. With the Romans came wine, at first from Italy and Spain; then the Bordelais discovered that, thanks to the region’s wide range of soils, topography and microclimates, they could eliminate the middleman.
This first golden age of Bordeaux wines faded with Rome’s empire. Golden Age No. 2 is the one most Bordelais today seem to regard as the region’s apotheosis: the English years, 1154-1453. Under the influence of the wine they called claret, the Plantagenet kings granted so many liberties to Bordeaux that by the time France got it back it was one unruly possession. Eventually pacified by executions, fortress building and privilege granting, Bordeaux was ready for its third age d’or: the 18th century, when the officers of the crown called intendants razed great swaths of the town to build the monuments and avenues that characterize today’s city center.
This urban renewal was financed largely with wine money, and while the city’s economic base has since been broadened, most visitors still come with the vine in mind. Between the well-organized tourism office, on the Cours du 30 Juillet (tel: 56.00.66.15, fax: 56.00.66.01), and the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux across the way (tel: 56.00.22.88, fax: 56.00.22.77, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), it is easy to devote a weekend to wine tours and tastings.
Try, for instance, one of the afternoon bus tours run daily (till October 31, Wednesday and Saturday thereafter) by the tourism office. Each day is devoted to a different part of the Bordelais region; and each week the tour to, say, the Sauternais (Friday, alternating with Graves) or Saint-Emilion (Sunday) picks a different vineyard for the tasting. The guides speak French and English (reservations mandatory; 150/130F).
To October 31, full-day Saturday tours include the Chartrons quarter, center of the wine trade; a combination lunch and wine tasting; and an excursion with tasting similar to that described above (reservation only; 290/250F).
The vineyard tours can also include more traditional sights, such as the medieval hill town of Saint-Emilion, with the 8th century hermitage of its eponymous saint and Europe’s largest subterranean church, the Eglise Monolithe, carved into a cliff in the 9th-12th centuries.
Those with strong backs and a few weeks to spare might inquire at individual vineyards about participating in the vendange. The best châteaux – as Bordeaux estates are usually called, whether equipped with castle or farmhouse – try to use the same workers every year, but many growers hire students and others to help with the harvest. “Vineyards and Wine Cellars in the Bordeaux Area,” listing phone numbers and other info for several hundred of the 13,000-some producers, is available from the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux (numbers listed above).
Châteaux in various areas hold open house throughout the year: coming up are Montagne-Saint-Emilion and Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion, September 7-8. Saint-Emilion’s town council will cry the banns of the 1996 vintage in an age-old ceremony September 15. On the last weekend of October, the Bordeaux tourism office is offering a special tour of the Chartrons quarter including a tasting of the Bordeaux nouveau. Grape harvest festivals are held this month and next throughout the region, the schedule depending on when the vendange starts or ends; “Vineyards and Wine Cellars” lists several, with numbers to call for details.
Though Bordeaux has five one-star restaurants, gastronomy seems somehow underemphasized. In contrast to Burgundy, where a meal ideally celebrates a marriage of food and wine, here, it is said, you choose your wine, then select food to go with it, and while Burgundians regard wine as one of many pleasures of life, to the Bordelais it seems to be first and foremost a commodity.
For any teetotallers in your party, the tourism office has a general walking tour of the city (Sunday, 40/30F) or a bus tour (Saturday, by reservation, 60/50F), and, to September 8, a bicycle tour (Sunday, 40/30F; rental fee 20F half day, 30F full day). Or, for do-it-yourselfers, the city bus company sells day passes and has put together a guide in English with four different routes. The two main boats doing tours of the port are the Aliénor (tel: 126.96.36.199) and the Ville de Bordeaux (tel: 188.8.131.52), both headquartered on the quay across from the leafy esplanade des Quinconces.
Coming events include a free organ concert September 6 in Saint-André Cathedral; the festive Médoc Marathon, September 7; and special tours of Bordeaux monuments during the Journées du Patrimoine, September 14-15.