When my daughter and I decided to travel in western France, we knew we would want to do a winery tour. There are at least a dozen wine-producing regions in France – we were traveling through two of the major ones – the Loire Valley and Bordeaux.
Although we were able to sample a couple wines in the Loire Valley, we didn’t tour wineries in the area. We chose, instead, to go on an organized wine tour in the Bordeaux region.
Wine Regions in Bordeaux
The Bordeaux region is divided into several areas, each with its own appellation, or title. The most popular are the Médoc and Saint Émilion, although there are several more very good wine areas that are less well-known.
If you locate Bordeaux on a map, you will see that the Gironde Estuary enters from the Atlantic Ocean and eventually splits into the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers. The most prestigious Médoc region is located on the “Left Bank,” between the ocean and the estuary. This region specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon wine. The Saint Émilion region is on the “Right Bank” – east of the estuary and north of the Dordogne River. The Saint Émilion area is known for Merlot wines.
In 1855, the wine producers of the Médoc region classified their 61 best wines according to table of “grands crus.” The area has continued to classify its wines, giving status to the best wines of the region. The chateaux, or estates, with the highest quality wine in these areas are designated as ranking from “Premier Cru” to “Cinquième Cru,” (first through fifth). Just below the grand crus are other high quality wines called cru bourgeois.
Are You Confused Yet?
We were. My daughter and I enjoy drinking wine with our meals on occasion, but do not consider ourselves experts by any means. For those of you who are not wine experts – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are both red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon is a dry wine, leaving your mouth feel dry after you drink it, so it is not recommended as a sipping wine. It goes well with food, but not as well on its own. People may notice the flavors of dark fruits, vanilla, and even green pepper when drinking it.
Merlot, on the other hand, can be served with or without food. It is less dry than Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is not a sweet wine. People can often taste plum or chocolate flavors in a Merlot wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are often blended to produce “Bordeaux” wine.
Each of these wines are made from grapes with the same name as the wine. In the Bordeaux region, many of the wines produced are reds, but whites and rosés are growing in popularity.
Not an American Wine Tour
I have tasted wine in Michigan and other areas of the Midwest. At each winery, guests are able to sample three, six, or even more varieties of wine produced by each winery. By the time you’ve visited two or three wineries, the amount of alcohol consumed can be substantial. Educational tours of the wine producing facilities are offered by a few wineries, but generally, taking a wine tour means taking a tasting tour.
Wine tours in France and other areas of Europe are different than a typical wine tour in the states. With each visit, guests receive a walking tour of the estate, a tour of the cellars and explanation of cellaring procedures, and finally a small taste of two or possibly three different wines – the grand cru, the cru bourgeois, and, if available, a white wine.
In the Bordeaux region, each wine estate is called a chateau. In fact, if a chateau is mentioned, it is usually understood that you are talking about what we would call a winery. If you are interested in visiting chateaux, there are two ways to go about it. First, you can call each chateau that you are interested in and make an appointment. If you just show up, you will probably not be accommodated. The second option is to go on an organized tour – either a private tour or with a group – and the organizer will make the arrangements for you.
In a full day – from 9 or 10 in the morning until 6 or after in the evening – you can expect to visit three or possibly four chateaux. The organizer will also give you an opportunity to eat lunch along the way.
Private or Group Tour?
Most of the tours in the Bordeaux region can be classified as private or group tours, although there is some overlap. Generally, private tours are arranged by a car service. The driver is usually very knowledgeable about the region, but may not share all his knowledge, opting instead, to answer your questions. Guests who take private tours may be wine connoisseurs who are touring with the intention to purchase wine to add to their cellar.
Group tours usually host up to six or eight guests. The guests may be casual or experienced wine drinkers. They are welcome to purchase wine at the chateaux that are visited, but there is no obligation or expectation.
The Tour We Chose
Although we found a great deal on a private tour and thought it sounded fun, by the time we tried to book it, the day we had chosen was already spoken for by someone else. We looked at other private tours, but they didn’t look like they fit us as well as the first one. We decided instead to go with a group tour by Ophorus Tours and Exursions.
There were five guests in addition to my daughter and myself. The guide spoke English very well, was friendly, and very knowledgeable about wine production and the Bordeaux region in general. We met at 9:30 am and were finished at 6:30 pm.
We visited three chateaux -one in the morning and two in the afternoon. Although we were on a group tour, our tours were private in the sense that the members of our group were the only ones at each chateau while we were there. As I mentioned earlier, the chateaux are open only by appointment, so when we were visiting, we received the undivided attention of the staff.
Our tour guide spoke while we were in the minivan, but at each chateau, a staff member from that chateau showed us around. We learned about how each chateau used similar, yet different, production methods. It was interesting to hear about the advantages of each method.
After each chateau we were offered a small wine tasting. At the first chateau, Prieuré-Lichine, the wine was paired with chocolate. We loved the pairing and decided to purchase a bottle of the white wine we tasted.
At the second chateau, Chateau du Tertre, we enjoyed three tastes of the same wine, each in a different vintage. One was a new wine, one was about five years old, and the final one was about ten years old.
At the third chateau, Chateau Lagrange, we tasted two different wines. They were served with bread and a couple different varieties of local cheese. I liked being able to taste the wine with cheese; it gave me an idea of what it would taste like with food. Although we enjoyed all the wines we tasted, in the end, the only bottle of wine we purchased was the white wine from the first chateau.
If you are in France, or any wine producing region in Europe, I would recommend taking a wine tour. What we learned in the educational parts of each tour can be transferred to our tasting here in the states. Now, I am interested in finding a tour, rather than just a tasting, from a winery here.
Have you ever toured a winery? Share your experiences below.