Cycling and Wine Tasting in Bordeaux, France
Where Wine Truly Does Get Better With Age
By Michael Kerwin
One of many beautiful villages in the wine-growing region of Bordeaux.
Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.
Bordeaux. The good news for the cycling oenophile is that bicycle rental and tasting opportunities are easy and inexpensive. The bad news is that Bordeaux is the largest fine-wine district on earth, slightly smaller than Connecticut, and includes approximately 9,000 producers. In fact, the Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux divides it into six regions: Médoc, Graves/Pessac-Léognan, the sweet white wine region, Bourg/Blaye, St-Emilion-Pomerol-Fronsac, and Entre-Deux-Mers.
The Médoc is located on the southeast side or left bank of the Gironde estuary, which is formed by the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers and is Europe’s largest estuary. To its south, on the other side of Bordeaux city, the Graves/Pessac-Léognan region stretches for 30 miles along the southwest side of the Garonne River; most of the sweet white wine region is embedded in its southern half. Bourg/Blaye lies on the northeast side or right bank of the Gironde estuary and continues for several miles along the north side of the Dordogne River. St-Emilion-Pomerol-Fronsac is located to its east, also on the north side of the Dordogne. Entre-Deux-Mers lies between the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers.
The geology, soils, and type of grapes produced differ in each region. St-Emilion, for example, rests upon a limestone plateau; its soil contains a significant amount of clay, and 60 per cent of its grapes are merlot. The Médoc was once marshland; its soils are a mixture of gravel and sand, and most of its grapes are cabernet sauvignon.
A vineyard in Bordeaux. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.
For the wine lovers, the most efficient way to learn about Bordeaux wines is to start at the Maison du Vin in Bordeaux, one of the world’s premier schools for sommeliers, and sample wines from several regions. (The Maison du Vin is conveniently located next to the Quinconces tram station, and the shuttle bus from the airport stops there.) For about $10, the oenophile can taste red wines from the Médoc, Graves/Pessac-Léognan, and St-Emilion regions, and the barman, an expert sommelier, can answer questions.
With this preparation, cyclists have two options: They can spend a couple of days in Bordeaux city or they can go into the countryside and start pedaling. Staying in the city for two or three days allows them to take advantage of one of the bus tours offered by the tourist office. Each day of the week, Sunday through Saturday, the tourist office takes visitors to chateaus in different wine regions. The Saturday tour, for example, goes to two chateaus in the Médoc. Because the city and the Gironde estuary separate the Médoc from the other regions, going there by bus simplifies the route for touring the other regions. It also introduces the oenophile to the vintification process and how it differs from chateau to chateau.
When I toured the Médoc, for example, I visited Chateau Pédesclaux in Paudillac and Chateau Baudan in Listrac. Bilingual guides at each chateau (French and English) explained the vintification process. At Chateau Pédesclaux, a staff of trained workers performs each step of the operation. At Chateau Baudan, on the other hand, a husband and wife do almost everything. At Chateau Pédesclaux, the wine is stored in new French oak barrels in a brightly lighted warehouse-like structure. At Chateau Baudan, the barrels are older and the dark storage building, called a chais, has a dirt floor, thick limestone walls, and a single north-facing door.
Wine stored in oak barrels. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.
Knowing how wine is made gives cyclists an advantage when they visit other chateaus along their route because they can ask intelligent questions. When wine makers realize that a visitor knows about vinitification, they often provide tasting opportunities that other visitors might not have. When a visitor asks if any sugar was added during fermentation, for example, the wine maker may say, “Yes, we added a little sugar in 2004, but let me have you try the 2005 when we added no sugar.”
The village of St-Emilion is a short train or bus ride from Bordeaux and provides an excellent location for the cycling oenophile to explore not only St-Emilion-Pomerol-Fronsac but also Graves/Pessac-Léognan, Entre-Deux-Mers, and the sweet white wine region. The tourist office and Gites de France provide a list of accommodations. The tourist office also rents sturdy bicycles for about $15 a day.
St-Emilion, like Bordeaux, has a Maison du Vin. There, visitors have a chance to test their sense of smell, an important skill in identifying and assessing wine, at its aroma table. Three, three-inch diameter pipes protrude from the top of each side of the table. On the table’s surface, below each pipe, is a set of three buttons and a red light. One set of buttons, for example, is “rose,” “violet,” and another flower. Another is “vanilla,” “cinnamon,” and “clove.” The visitor slides the cover from the mouth of the pipe, inhales the fragrance, and pushes the button that names it. The red light signals if the correct choice has been made. The Maison du Vin’s wine shop also sells wine at the same prices that the chateaus sell it.
A wine shop in Bordeaux. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.
St-Emilion also has several restaurants that prepare food to showcase its wine. Among them are L’Envers du Décor, which is located near the tourist office, and Tertre. Bordeaux, one should be warned, is not a place for vegetarians. Foie gras followed by veal that has been simmered with carrots, onions, and potatoes is a traditional meal.
In Grape Expeditions in France (1986), Sally Taylor outlines a 47-kilometer cycling tour of the St-Emilion-Pomerol-Fronsac region that includes Pomerol and Fronsac. A shorter option is to cycle through the satellite regions of St-Emilion—Montagne, Lussac, and Puisseguin—and return to St-Emilion. Both routes enable the cyclist to visit Saint Martin de Montagne and eat lunch at Restaurant Le Vieux Presbytere. The shorter circuit also enables the cyclist to visit two other Romanesque churches along the pilgrimage road from Vezélay in Burgundy to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Following either route, Map 1636E, published by the Institut Geographique National, is a handy tool to have at hand.
Venturing further afield, Cadillac, 40 kilometers south of St-Emilion, is an easy morning ride. Hotel-Restaurant Detrée offers a menu du jour for about $10 and a chance to sample the white wine of Entre-Deux-Mers. By arriving on Saturday, when the market is held, cyclists can buy baguette and cheese and picnic on the bank of the Garonne River.
By planning to spend the night in nearby St-Macaire, the cyclist goes from Cadillac through Loupiac, known for its sweet white wine. When I visited Loupiac, I stopped at Chateau du Cros and was greeted by two huge, menacing dogs. Fortunately, Madame Boyer was getting out of her car and told the dogs to stop. She asked me if I’d be willing to wait until her son arrived and invited me into her kitchen for coffee!
Visiting Chateau du Cros, I not only learned about the wines of Graves/Pessac-Léognan and the sweet white wine region but I also learned about French history. Madame Boyer pointed out the fortress hidden in the trees on the ridge above her chateau. I could see a tower rising above the trees. That fortress, which is symbolized on the chateau’s wine label, is associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lion-Hearted.
Lodging at St-Macaire allows the cyclist to explore the Graves/Pessac-Léognan and sweet white wine regions more fully. The tourist office provides a list of accommodations. Another option is to continue east to Duras, a fortified hilltown in the Lot and Garonne Department. Although Côtes du Duras is not classified as a Bordeaux wine, at $10 a bottle, it is an excellent value. Bargain hunters will be disappointed, however, when searching for inexpensive Bordeaux wines. Some wines, such as those from the satellite regions of St-Emilion, can be purchased for $12 to $15 a bottle, but most chateau-bottled wines range from $20 to $30.
Bottles of wine stored in a cave in Bordeaux. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.
The best wine values are found in the Bourg/Blaye region, 60 kilometers east of St-Emilion, where a 50 cl. carafe can be purchased for less than $3. The easiest way to reach Blaye is by bus, which takes the traveler to the tourist office. The staff there can direct visitors to accommodations and to the shop that rents bicycles. Unless the cyclist stays on Route D669, which hugs the estuary shore, Map 1535O, available from the Institut Geographique National, is extremely helpful.
After visiting Bordeaux, wine lovers will appreciate the great care with which Bordeaux wines are made and their diversity. They will also know the foods that pair (the French say “marry”) with them. Few places on earth provide the cycling oenophile with an opportunity to learn about legendary wines while cycling through a countryside that has changed little since medieval pilgrims traversed it on their route from Vezélay to Santiago de Compostella.
Michael Kerwin is a professional tour guide, teacher, writer, and oenophile. His stories have appeared in Bicycle USA, Bluegrass Tomorrow, Keeneland Magazine, and The Chevy Chaser Magazine.