August 26th : Bordeaux, France
Chateau Palmer – Margaux
With our first day in Bordeaux in the books, we looked forward to our second day immensely.
The town and region is unlike the hustle and bustle of Paris and we found the people to be quite friendly, the food to be scrumptious and the climate to be refreshing.
For our second day, we were to enjoy superlative weather – sunny with beautiful blue skies – and an easy temperature in the mid 20s (Celsius).
Because we had maximized our time the previous day by taking a tour in the afternoon, we decided to get up early so we could explore the town of Bordeaux in more detail as our planned wine tour for the day (“MEDOC 1855, Outstanding Grands Crus Classés”) was going to take the majority of the day (9:15 am – 6:30 pm).
So we woke at 7:30am and walked around the town. This turned out to be an excellent way to see the city and to avoid the crowds of tourists – at this time of the day the streets were practically empty.
The town has some really interesting architecture but still clings to the same basic layout as the other French towns (Le Havre, Cherbourg etc) with charming alleyways, small balconies and multi-storey units combining to create a maze like inner city feeling.
Unlike Cherbourg, the streets were clean and (mostly) free of doggie doo (a minor complaint we had with other locations). Cobblestone paths and intricate designs on the facings of the buildings seemed to be a standard amongst many of the buildings.
As with many of the other towns, Bordeaux has a main “place” which is like an elongated open square with a massive fountain which seems to be used as a major meeting area or assembly point.
We’re to understand that when the river is high the water creates a perfect reflection of the buildings – that must be a beautiful sight to see!
We also had a look at some of the town’s churches, including one Gothic style church with tall spires (it was closed, or we were unable to figure out how to enter).
By 8 am we decided to return to the theatre house area (close to the tourist office) which also was built around a large public square.
We then went back to the Hotel to check out – the Hotel kindly minded our bags – and returned to the visitor’s centre to begin our wine tasting adventure in the Medoc, north of Bordeaux on the left bank of the river Gironde.
Our tour took us to three major wine making appellations within the larger appellation known as the Médoc – Pauillac, Margaux and Saint-Julien. In 1855, wines in the region were specifically classified for the King of France for a special wine expo which was held that year.
The classification ranked each estate by classification, from “first growth” to “fifth growth” and (at the time) this was a barometer against which quality was measured. This classification and ranking has been maintained to the present time (with a few minor modifications here and there).
However, in the era of modern winemaking, the classification system has become a bit out of date and many of the lower classifications have risen in quality to challenge the “first growths”. Many of the seconds now rival the first growths in terms of quality and price.
These are now referred to as “super seconds”. It is a bit confusing, but once you get the gist of it, it makes sense.
As per the tour the previous day, we were led around the estate’s vineyard and vat rooms and were given a detailed explanation about the estate’s wine making techniques.
As the estate was a far larger operation than the locations we visited the previous day, we were led by a dedicated representative of the estate, rather than the owner themselves.
Pontet-Canet has been a bit bold in pursuing the most organically sound techniques to produce a wine free of chemicals, in line with directives from the classification board.
They replaced a large number of steel vats with new concrete vats which helps them to absorb temperature change during fermentation.
Being an older estate, the vats are filled from an upper level which is a legacy from the old horse, cart and train days when the grapes were pulled up to the second level to be processed. This was also true for a number of other older estates.
The area was quite picturesque, and Pontet-Canet was located opposite the famous Lafite-Rothchild estate (so we were able to take a peek at their vines also).
Once we had finished visiting their “cave” (a cellar or underground storage for barrels of maturing wine) and tasting the recent vintages (we ended up buying a half bottle of the ‘05) we jumped back on the bus and headed south to Saint-Julien for our second estate.
Our tour was a little shorter owing to the information obtained at the first Chateau, however we were shown the mechanics of a larger scale operation – far more automation and technology was in play to make handling such a large volume of grapes and barrels.
We ate lunch on the estate (which was excellent) before heading to our final estate in Margaux, Chateau Desmirail (a classified third growth).
We were surprised to discover that our estate guide was, in fact, the owner of the Chateau! As we were all quite full from lunch (and “happy” from the wine tastings) this leg of the tour was the toughest, but we still found it enjoyable.
After a last round of wine tasting, we returned to Bordeaux early – arriving around 5:30 pm. Full marks to the tour guide who was informative and chatty.
We also received an excellent information package from the office of tourism consisting of detailed information on the region and a handsome full colour glossy picture of an artist’s rendition of the 1855 classification wines (worth framing).
Between 5:30 and 7:30 we did some adhoc shopping and exploring of the town before returning to the hotel to collect our bags. We caught the tram to the train station and boarded our return train to Paris at 7:47 pm (exactly). They run a very efficient system!
The trains were clean and comfortable, although the other passengers could have been a little more considerate.
We’ll be discussing the specifics of the wines in the next series of posts, so check back shortly. Please leave a comment if you enjoyed the first series of posts!