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Visiting the Médoc

By Tom Cannavan

I have visited the Bordeaux region annually for the en primeur tastings, since around 1998. But most of these notes come from my holidays in the region rather than from these organised and hectic business trips. In all I found this a fascinating and delightful area to visit. Some guide books suggest that - other than wine - the Médoc area holds few attractions for the visitor, but I would disagree: sure Alsace wins hands down on picturesque historical towns, Burgundy has more in the way of gorgeous scenery, but there is a gentleness about the landscape and pace of life in the villages, easy access to the coast and forests and enough interest in simply wandering the wine roads to keep me happy for several days.

Planning

I have "wine toured" all over the world, and this experience has taught me that in any popular tourist area where wine is made, setting yourself apart from the casual day tripper is essential if you are looking for more than the casual day tripper experience. Very few of the major Châteaux of the Médoc will accommodate an unannounced visit: these are places of work, staffed by people who are being paid to do a "real" job - not show visitors around. With very few exceptions someone will have to set aside their regular work to look after you during your visit. Unlike Napa, for example, the majority of the Châteaux tend not to be equipped with visitors centres, self guided tours, shops, picnic areas, etc. Often there isn’t even an obvious point of access or reception desk - just the working buildings and a small administrative office.

I had two days dedicated to visits and chose carefully 5 Châteaux I really wanted to see. I used reference books and maps to plot out a sensible route and didn't try to cram in too much. Three weeks before my trip I wrote to the Châteaux. This was a letter of introduction, explaining my interest in wine, and my interest and knowledge of their particular wines in some detail. I proposed a date and time for the rendez-vous (avoid the period from noon until 2.00 pm) and asked specifically for a tasting of the 1996 vintage if possible. I wrote in french, which is well worth doing if you can manage it - even if it takes a couple of hours with a phrase book. Parker has a standard letter template in his book "Bordeaux", but I really preferred not to use this. A very useful source of addresses and phone numbers is the Bordeaux Wine Council (see my links page).

Three days before my visit I phoned the Châteaux to confirm arrangements. (word of warning: 99% of french public 'phones take a pre-paid card only, not cash - buy cards in tobacconists and some supermarkets). Again I spoke french, but most telephone answering staff will have some english. All 5 Châteaux invited me to visit, though most proposed different times (and some different dates) from those I had requested. This meant taking half an hour in the nearest Café to re-jig my schedule and then phone back a few properties. Because of a time clash, I had to turn down my invitation to Latour at this point. That's one for next time.

Visiting the Châteaux

Punctuality is the key here. Most visits were very informal, with the wine-maker dressed in tee-shirt and jeans showing us round. However, turning up on time and introducing yourself with a hand-shake is a pre-requisite of french ettiquette. Amongst the properties I visited there really couldn't have been more contrast in the way visitors are received.

MOUTON ROTHSCHILD
Smartly dressed young guides are employed full time and will conduct tours in a variety of languages. We were the only ones on our tour with a very knowlegable guide who answered questions very competently. We saw a bit of the vineyard, the fermenting tanks and the chais. The guide left us in the museum (is it just me or does this not live up to its reputation? I found it rather dull) and then collected us again to head for the tasting room to sample the '96.

Tasting and spitting is expected in Bordeaux, you really aren't expected to finish off the glass. There is a lot of Mouton merchandise for sale in the reception centre, but not wine. I noticed as we were leaving that two tourists (shorts, cameras, gaudy tee-shirts) were still waiting to be given a tour - the pre-visit formal introduction certainly seemed to have worked in our favour.

LEOVILLE-LAS-CASES
Like many others, the estate of Las-Cases is not "officially" open to visitors, but they, like the others, seemed delighted to welcome someone truly interested in their wine. Here, the woman in the office asked us to take a seat. She made a phone call and two minutes later Michel Rolland, Maitre de Chais appeared. He speaks no english, so the entire tour was conducted in french. We saw every detail of the operation from vineyard to bottling plant. Mr Rolland was an enthusiastic guide, very happy to explain his thinking in detail once he saw how genuinely interested we were. The tasting of the first and second wines and Potensac was in his very workaday white tiled laboratory - no fancy tasting rooms and exhibitions here. It was a very thorough and friendly visit.

CANTEMERLE
Here we were met by Mr Phillipe Dambrine, the boss of the estate who turned out to be a very charming, committed and gentle man, more than happy to share his philosophy for the estate and for wine-making in general. We strolled around the lovely grounds for a while discussing the history of the estate and his plans for the future, then spent a lot of time in the fermenting rooms discussing oak v. stainless steel, then in the chais discussing the moral dilema of felling 180 year old oak trees to produce just two or three barrels. An excellent tasting of the '96 concluded a lovely visit to this beautiful and very informal estate.

PICHON-LALANDE
This was the big disappointment of the trip for me. Although I had made the same careful pre-arrangements, we turned up at Pichon-Lalande to be put into a group of day-trippers being shown around by a posh young man from Oxford. When I enquired what his connection was with P-L, he told me he was here on a working holiday for 4 weeks as his father was a friend of one of the directors! He conducted a very perfunctory tour, following his script closely, but unable to answer any questions. At the end of the tour no tasting was offered, so I requested one. He seemed unwilling to ask on my behalf, so I spoke to a member of staff, explaining that I knew the wines of P-L well and making my case for a tasting. I got my tasting, but it seemed rather grudged. The wine was excellent, but the whole experience seemed very dismissive of a loyal customer and left a sour taste behind.

THE CENTRES DU VIN
Each of the communes has a “wine centre” - supposedly a central information office for wine related tourism in the area. I only visited a couple and to me they came across as less than helpful and very much geared towards selling rather than advising - full of poorly stored, poor vintage, over-priced wines with a variety of over-priced postcards and trinkets for sale.

Take a look at my tasting notes from the visits

Accommodation and Food

My basic guide to food and accomodation was Michelin. Totally revised each year, it is an incredibly comprehensive and useful guide, not only to the expensive and exotic "3 star" luxury establishments, but to good quality small hotels and bistros in every city, town and hamlet of France.

The city of Bordeaux is the centre of the Médoc/Graves/Sauternes area and the only town of any size in terms of a reasonable choice of accommodation, restaurants, the arts, shopping, etc. Staying in Bordeaux means a fairly long journey and negotiating some pretty hairy french driving if you wish to visit the Châteaux of the Médoc. The city itself is bustling and attractive in the centre, grimy and urgently in need of a facelift all along the quais by the river. The route to the vineyards takes you through some very unpromising, industrial suburbs around the man-made lake.

There are also accommodation choices in the vineyard areas, from lovely but quite expensive retreats such as Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac (from £90/$150 per night), to historic private B&Bs. We stayed at an absolutely gorgeous B&B in the centre of the tiny village of St-Estèphe, surrounded by famous vineyards. The (only) local restaurant offered excellent, simple food on the banks of the Gironde. Cost was £45/$75 per night for a beautiful, charming suite, with kitchen facilities and private garden abutting the vineyards of Phélan-Ségur. It was a perfect location for wandering the D2 wine route, visiting the Châteaux and strolling along the beach at Pointe de Grave, around an hour’s pleasant drive north.

I found out about this lovely B&B and other excellent, privately owned accommodation across France from "French Bed & Breakfast" by Alistair Sawday (ISBN: 0952195453, though possibly now out of print) .

Cordeillan-Bages also has a luxurious restaurant (1 Michelin star) that shouldn't be missed if you are a serious foodie: our meal there was one of the highlights of the holiday and they offer a fine set lunch for around £25/$40 per person (expect to double this once you have added wine, water, coffees, etc.). Well worth trying.

Take a look at the Cordeillan-Bages menu

There are other fairly upmarket restaurant choices, such as the Relais de Margaux and the St-Julien, but many of the small Cafés and restaurants offer excellent, simple meals at reasonable prices. There is always lots of seafood on the menu - it's easy to forgot that fishing is almost as big a part of the Gironde area as wine.

Wine shopping

Only a very few of the major Châteaux will have wine for sale, usually the current vintage. Amongst these I noticed Beychevelle, Lascombes and Prieuré-Lichine, with prices about the same as the cheaper shops. There are plenty of wine merchants and supermarkets around, but on the whole I found the prices tended to be high in and around the tourist route. It certainly pays to shop around if possible and to know your market. I purchased Lafon-Rochet ‘93 for 59ff in a “Leclerc” supermarket near Beaune. In the Lesparre (Médoc) branch of the same store it was 110ff and in “Vinotech” in Bordeaux, 170ff. Easily the best wine shop I found was the excellent “L’Intendent” in Bordeaux (right across from the tourist office) which had a good selection and reasonable prices on many items, with sturdy carriers/packaging provided free.

In all, an extremely enjoyable and informative few days. Highly recommended!