Further information and travel tips
How to survive a Wine Tour.
It seems appropriate to include a few tips on how our livers and waistlines can survive a week of wine tastings and wine dinners.
The ideas below are taken from The Drinking Woman’s Diet – a liver friendly lifestyle guide, published this summer. It is based on my bitter-sweet experience of living and working in the wine and food industry in France for over 20 years.
– Eat breakfast. You might not feel like it after a big wine dinner the night before but a full stomach will slow down the absorption of alcohol into the blood stream at your morning tasting, especially fats and protein: take the eggs and have some yoghurt for those probiotics.
– If you are staying in the vineyards start the day with a walk through the vines, if you’re staying in Bordeaux walk along the banks of the Garonne, enjoy some fresh air and work up an appetite for breakfast – see above.
– Take your supplements. Alcohol can be as challenging for your gut flora as for your liver so take some probiotics alongside your milk thistle. Another excellent supplement is Glutathione, known by winemakers for preserving the freshness of white wines – it helps preserve the liver too. The science is out as to whether the body can process Glutathione directly but it does break down Milk Thistle into Glutathione, I take both if it’s a busy week – better safe than sorry.
– Drink a glass of water before each tasting and before eating. I always keep a stock of bottles with me when touring. Match a glass of water with a glass of wine.
– Don’t wear white, you’ll be spitting and red wine stains. Even experienced wine tasters don’t always have great aim. Don’t be shy about it. It’s not considered rude to the wine maker if you don’t drain each glass. They’ll be spitting.
– And on the subject of stains, teeth can take a pounding, especially when tasting barrel samples. Many people swear by bicarbonate of soda mixed in with toothpaste. Oil pulling (see The Drinking Woman’s Diet) with coconut oil or sesame oil is an ancient Ayurveda practise to keep the mouth and gums healthy – takes a bit of getting used to but I find it helps with tannin build up on my teeth. A glass of champagne at the end of the day is also very effective and much more delicious.
– Don’t eat the bread. Trickier than it sounds when you sit down to lunch, starving after a morning of tasting, It may seems impossible to resist the basket of delicious fresh French bread the waiter has just put on the table – but resist you must, if not you’ll never make it through lunch or be too full for the delicious dessert.
– Clients sometimes comment onthe lack of vegetables on offer in French restaurants. The French do eat lots of vegetables. At home a French family meal will start with either salad (cruditiés) in the summer or soup in the winter. Vegetables will be served with the main course and salad offered with cheese, served before dessert.
Touring the farmers markets will show you the fresh and seasonal variety on offer. So why don’t we seem them on more menus? Restaurants show case ‘noble’ products such as foie-gras, dismissing veggies as homely, sometimes offering only one vegetable as an accompaniment; and it’s often potatoes (there’s a reason they’re known as French fries).
I always try to include ‘greens’ in pre organised menus but if there is no veg proposed with your chosen dish at a restaurant, ask for the potatoes to changed up to the vegetable of the day, or some salad, they are usually happy to oblige.
– Take a nap on the bus on the way home, I make it a rule not talk after the last tasting of the afternoon. I’ll wake you when we get there.
– Choose a healthy wine tour – yes really. I’m always happy for guests to join me for a few morning sun salutations before the day’s tour starts.
If all else fails and you haven’t been able to resist the bread and the fries, allow a couple of extra days at the end of your tour and book yourself into detox at the Source de Caudalie Wine spa. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Chateau dining in Bordeaux
The Chateaux in Bordeaux are opening restaurants to better showcase their wines. Here are a few updates of not to miss dining opportunities on your next Bordeaux wine tour.
Château Troplong Mondot opened the Les Belles Perdrix restaurant in 2012 when the chateau started offering casual dining for guests staying in their guest rooms. Chef David Charrier was awarded his first Michelin star in 2016. Under new ownership and management since 2017 the cellars and the restaurant are undergoing a complete renovation and will reopen the stunning terrace with some of the best views in the region in 2021. In the meantime, you can sample Charrier’s cuisine if you book in for a tour of the vineyards. The sommelière, Celine, will take you on a tour through the vines in their Landrover to finish with a tasting of five wines accompanied by delicious ‘amuses bouches’ created by the chef.
Rather than create a restaurant at the property Chateau Angelus, purchased Le Logis de La Cadène, one of Saint Emilion’s oldest restaurants in the heart of the medieval town. The owners since 2013. They won a Michelin star in 2017 thanks to the skill of chef Alexandre Baumard.It too has a wonderful shady terrace for sunny days but a word of warning – wear sensible shoes, as it’s half way down a very steep slope! You can also sample their cuisine on the go, this June they opened Les Paniers du Logis, a fast food outlet with a difference. All the meals are home made from local products and served in reusable glass bocaux (big jam jars), including delicious desserts, pates, jams and of course bottles of wine.
Sauternes has now joined the party. This year saw the opening of the Lalique Hotelin Chateau Lafaurie Peyraguey. Under the new ownership of Sylvio Denz, the hotel opened in June 2018 – a 400th birthday present to the estate.
Jérôme Schilling, the former executive chef of Villa René Lalique, (two Michelin stars) runs the restaurant. Given the quality of both the cuisine and the service a Michelin star must surely be on its way. The rooms are beautiful too, so don’t worry about driving home; have that last glass of Sauternes!
The foodie revolution in Sauternes started at the beginning of 2018 with the opening of La Chapelle, restaurant in the beautiful old chapel of Chateau Guiraud. As well as Château Guiraud by the glass, they have a really good selection of half bottles of Sauternes and Barsac on the wine list, a great way to taste your way across the appellation.
Just across the Garonne is the Entre deux Mers, sadly overlooked by wine tourists, but the restaurant at Chateau Malromé might just be the thing to get them there. Chateau Malromé is famous for the previous owners; the family of Toulouse Lautrec. The impressive 16th century chateau has been completely renovated by the Huynh family and continues to welcome visitors to discover the home of the artist as well as the wines. The contemporary restaurant Adele by Darroze in partnership with neighboring Langon institution Maison Claude Darroze, Opened in the chateau earlier this year it has a beautiful terrace off the main courtyard (we do like alfresco dining in Bordeaux!). Managed by Jean-Charles Darroze with Chef Sébastien Piniello the modern setting is perfect for a cuisine that reflects both local and Asian influences of the two families.
From here you can head back towards Bordeaux through the Cadillac region. This area, known for it’s sweet white wines, has vineyards that roll down steep slopes on the right bank of the Garonne River. At the top of one of these slopes look out for La Cabane dans les Vignes; a cute wooden chalet dominating the most spectacular view of the Garonne valley amongst the organic vines of Chateau Bessan. Sibelle and Mathieu Verdier built this cabane so guests could taste their wines and enjoy the sunset – you can too now. Book ahead on Friday and Saturday evenings to taste their wines alongside tasting plates and enjoy the breath-taking views.
Then there is the Médoc, where Michelin starred Cordeillan Bages and the more relaxed brasserie Café Lavinal are in the village of Bages but if you want a light lunch in a unique setting you should call in to Chateau Marquis d’Alesme in Margaux. This classified growth, right at the heart of the village of Margaux, was purchased by the Perrodo family in 2006 who already owned Chateau Labegorce. Or at least they purchased the vines, the original chateau remaining in the hands of the previous owners. Starting from scratch to building a functional but beautiful winery, again inspired by their dual Chinese and French heritage, they decided to share their passion not just through the cellars and wine but also through a relaxed restaurant. Tucked away in the Hameau of la Folie d’Alesme, light plates of local specialities accompany a by-the-glass and by-the-bottle selection of the property’s wines including a not to be missed chocolate and wine pairing.
If you are passing through Bordeaux and can’t make it to the vines (shame on you) the vines can come to you. Chateau Lestrille,a family vineyard in the Entre Deux Mers region, now has its own wine bar in the heart of old Bordeaux. The dynamic owner, Estelle Rummage, opened the chateau to tourism years ago and now she has opened the wine bar ‘Un Château en Ville’to serve and sell her wines to the city dwellers and visitors. She produces a complete range from white and red to rosé and also bag in box – there’s plenty to choose from, accompanied by tasting plates from oyster to cold cuts, toasties and cheese plates.
If you prefer grand cuisine there is La Grand Maison; the hotel and restaurant that really is a chateau in the city belonging to wine magnate Bernard Magrez. The excellent cuisine of this two Michelin star restaurant is created by Jean-Denis Le Bras under the watchful eye of Pierre Gagnaire.
How to tour Bordeaux
When planning your trip, have a think about what you are looking for: Do you want to be educated in wine, terroir and blends? Is it just the wine or are you interested in the local food as well, with a trip to a classic French market or a cooking class perhaps? Do you want to visit some of the beautiful towns and villages? If this is your first time and you are not sure, you can always prepare with some background reading such as Bordeaux Bootcamp.
Allow at the very least three days to even try to experience the region and it’s wines. Bordeaux is big: over 111 000 ha under vines tended by almost 6 800 growers/winemakers. I’m not suggesting that you will cover all that ground in three days but it will allow you to visit the three main regions: the Médoc in the northern peninsula, Graves and Sauternes in the South and Saint Emilion and Pomérol (or the ‘right bank’) to the East.
Visitors try to squeeze a lot into a short time; if you can spare a few extra days to see the lesser-known regions such as the Entre Deux Mers and Côtes it will be time well spent. They offer not only spectacular scenery but also excellent value for money wines. Not a term everyone associates with Bordeaux, prepare to be surprised.
It’s not just the vineyards, there’s the city of Bordeaux itself, recently named the No. 1 place to visit by the LA Times, with its monuments, restaurants and excellent shopping. And of course the delightful medieval town of Saint Emilion, I could go on………
Plan to use a driver so you can taste without too much spitting, Drink driving rules in France are draconian and a night in a cooling off cell should not be part of the tour. A driver will also ensure you don’t get lost on the country roads; ‘turn right at the vines’ is not a useful direction.
Local knowledge is important, so hire a local. There’s a reason why the site is called Insider Tasting. Explain what you have in mind; see above, they can then ensure your itinerary allows the time for transfers between properties as well as making sense geographically. Insider knowledge will also help to explain the whys and wherefores of the soils and souls of the vineyards; their history and the stories as well as technical explanations behind the Chateaux, the classifications and background on the vintages. Touring around on your own, you miss out on a lot of these details that make Bordeaux so fascinating.
You can expect to visit three to four properties a day depending upon your enthusiasm, maybe including a lunch or dinner in a Chateau. Tasting rooms are not the norm in Bordeaux; visits will include a detailed tour of the vines and the cellars where you can ask technical, economic, or even less discrete questions of the winemakers, owners or guides. Of course you will taste the fruits of their labours. Properties often offer different tastings options: different vintages and perhaps a second wine or a white as well as the red depending where you are. Allow about ninety minutes per visit and tasting. Some Chateaux will also welcome you to stay overnight in guest rooms or cottages amongst the vines. You’ll be spoilt for choice from grand starred hotels to ‘Chambres d’hôtes’ either in the city of Bordeaux or the surrounding countryside.
If you have a favourite property (or several) your guide or tour planner can try and incorporate them in the programme but please be aware, not all Chateaux welcome visitors and those that do only receive so many visitors each day (they do need some time to make the wine after all). A few months forward notice is really helpful if you have a specific wish list. Follow the advice of your local guide; the emphasis of the visit changes from property to property, the choice will very much depend upon the experience you are looking for.
Don’t visit just the top dogs. Yes it is exciting to enter the hallowed halls of the classified growths but they account for less than 5% of Bordeaux. Some of the most memorable visits are to smaller, family-run, properties where you are sure to meet the people behind the product. After twenty plus years I have my favourite properties I know will offer a very warm welcome and I’ll be happy to share.
Shipping wines home is something I am often asked about. Not all châteaux sell their wines directly, some sell exclusively to merchants, but more and more offer wines for sale in on-site boutiques. Some will ship, although it can be complicated, especially if you are shipping back to the US. Several local wine merchants have shops in Bordeaux, Saint Emilion or Margaux and will ship mixed cases for you; the sales tax you save usually just about covers the shipping cost.
When to visit? Each season has its charm; the weather is normally lovely from April through October. Harvest period (September-October depending on the year) is great fun but the Chateaux are very busy and are not always available to receive visitors at this time. In August the French are on holiday, some properties stay open but most owners are at the beach!
How much? The most affordable option is to join a ready-made group tour such as those organised by the Bordeaux tourist office or you can organise a tailor-made tour with a guide or agency. This allows you to choose how long you want your days to be, in what style of accommodation to want to stay, the type of restaurants you want to enjoy, etc. You can add on a cooking class perhaps or even a day on the nearby coast. The budget will depend on the options you choose.
The Bordeaux region has everything you need to create an unforgettable, educational as well as fun wine trip, but once you have Bordeaux under your belt perhaps you’ll venture further afield. I’m happy to venture into other regions of France with you, I have a few favourites, and I have been, known to travel as far a field as Scotland to share my passion for Whisky.
I look forward to welcoming you to Bordeaux soon.