LIKE most drinkers I’m partial to a glass of wine, sometimes a whole bottle, although my knowledge and experience had never stretched much further than the wine rack at my local off-licence. That was all to change in just three days spent wandering the vineyards and wineries of Bordeaux, the world’s capital of fine wine, where I arrived not knowing my Shiraz from my elbow but left with the taste of a whole new world in my mouth, and a purple haze around my head.
Hard facts first. Bordeaux, the capital of France’s south-west region Aquitaine, is the centre of the country’s vastest wine-making area, with 10,000 wine estates and 120,000 hectares of vines, second only to Rioja in Spain as the largest wine-making region in the world. Last year it exported 5m hectolitres of wine, or 700m bottles, the crest of a tradition stretching back almost to the time of Christ.
It all stems from a propitious natural marriage of location on the well-drained banks of the Gironde Estuary with a perfect climate for grape-growing — humid springs, hot summers and sunny winters — all of which create the unique terroir for Bordeaux’s wines.
However, like major industries all over the world, Bordeaux too has suffered the fallout of the global recession, twisting the knife into an already declining market which saw sales drop 20% in the early noughties. With too much wine now chasing too few buyers, the producers and local government realised that things have to change, with the former throwing open its chateau doors to welcome a more general public while the latter has rejuvenated the city centre to make it more visitor-friendly.
And so it was that I found myself strolling the streets on a typically humid spring afternoon in central Bordeaux, a short flight from Gatwick but a world away from Britain’s persisting wintry miserableness. Its abiding beauty is that despite a million-strong metropolitan population there are no skyscrapers along its ancient skyline, only Gothic spires, and the government has worked tirelessly to restore the porous yellow sandstone of its old buildings after centuries of soot and pollution. It now looks better than it has in years and is hailed as one of France’s greatest urban aesthetic triumphs.
It’s also worth noting that Bordeaux belonged to the British for 300 years and even today is considered the most “un-French” of French cities. As an Englishman here though, it’s still very much an authentic Gallic experience exploring its old backstreets, stopping for an espresso at an outdoor cafe and sampling one of many ‘canneles’ — a delicious local cake made from egg yolks, baked in small copper moulds lined with beeswax.
After a memorable lunch at ‘Cafe de l’Opera’, housed in the iconic Grand Theatre on Place de la Comedie (pictured), I enjoyed a rickshaw ride around the historic old town, to the cathedral and past Place de la Bourse’s ‘miroir d’eau’ (water mirror) — a giant square containing only 2cm of water. That evening I dined in Gabriel restaurant, a classy three-floor bistro overlooking it.
Next morning the wine enlightenment began in earnest. After breakfast at my centrally-located Hotel de Normandie I headed straight across the road for an engrossing wine-tasting class at the city-sponsored ‘Ecole du Vin’. Opened a few years ago, the class doesn’t set hard-and-fast rules but rather lays the foundation for neophytes to find your own way around the wide world of Bordeaux wines, to identify and express your own tastes.
That afternoon I drove north of Bordeaux to the old town of Blaye where I enjoyed a tour of its 17th century citadel, a World Heritage Site which is in fact a walled town with a small populace keeping its history alive. There I took in a sweeping panorama of the Gironde Estuary before a seasonal asparagus lunch at ‘Bistrot Le P’tit Canon’ perched atop the citadel.
Here I had three epiphanies: that I’d never eaten lunch in such a lofty antiquated setting, that French asparagus is thrice the size and deliciousness of British supermarket counterparts, and that I actually loved sweet white wine (having always preferred reds) after imbibing the perfect accompanying vintage from nearby St-Emilion. Bordeaux will open your eyes and palate if you allow it the chance.
For my final day I decided to visit St-Emilion itself, another historic World Heritage Site just east of the city, where occupying Romans planted its first vineyards as early as 2AD. There I stocked up on my new favourite white wine and a luggage wine-holder before reluctantly making back to the airport.
I spent most of my flight gazing vacantly through my window, marvelling after take-off at the vast patchwork of vines stretching in all directions like a giant corduroy blanket. As chance would have it, upon arrival back at Gatwick I spotted the first poster ads for the CIVB’s new £1m marketing campaign (pictured above), innovatively conveying how ‘Good food would choose Bordeaux’.
It’s a perfect advert for the country’s capitale gastronomique and bookend for my trip – a journey that left me much wiser in the ways of wine and the finer side of France. It’s all so close, but the sensory experience is far-reaching.