Biking Bordeaux wine country, France
Armed with a healthy thirst for knowledge and, er, wine, Graeme Green grabs his bike and heads for the sun-drenched vineyards of southwest France
By Graeme Green
Published: Tuesday 21st February 2017
"I thought you were Chris Froome,” Isabelle Roy tells me, as I pull up at Château Guiraud. She’s clearly joking. I am on a bike but that aside there are a few ‘minor’ differences: I’m not wearing a Yellow Jersey, I lack Froome’s speed and stamina, and I don’t have three Tour de France wins under my belt. As the British cyclist was powering his way through each arduous stage last summer, I was on my own, very different ‘Tour de France’, a new cycling trip around the vineyards of Bordeaux, where the only time pressure was arriving for appointments at some of the country’s best vineyards to sample the wines the region’s globally famous for.
It’s a good and a bad time for Bordeaux wine right now. In the city of Bordeaux itself, the Cité du Vin has just opened; a shining new €81.14m project dedicated to wine from around the world. On my first day in the city, I make my way up the Garonne river, where the gold and silver panels of the new museum glint in the sun, the curved, 50-metre-high tower possibly meant to resemble wine swirling in a glass.
I explore some of the Cité’s ten levels, sitting in on a ‘sensory session’, with images from wine-producing countries lighting up the walls, along with sounds – an accordion playing, meat sizzling on a grill – and, most interestingly, smells piped into the room. I get a good whiff of basil in one market scene, then sausages and freshly baked pastries. The aim’s to get the senses flowing, as part of a wine tasting: an Italian prosecco, a rosé from Provence, an Argentine malbec…
Upstairs, displays look at wine from every angle, from the history of ‘fermented grapes’ throughout global civilizations to the links between religion and wine (“When wine is pure, it offers a glimpse of God,” says one recording). A large video installation has Mozart, Churchill, Voltaire and other historical figures discussing their love of du vin. I particularly like the smelling jars, which give blasts of liquorice, leather gloves and strawberry jam, and the upstairs bar, where I swap my ticket for a glass of Bordeaux red.
I take a walk and look in on Cathédrale Saint-André’s impressive interior in the afternoon, calm and pleasantly cool during a Bordeaux heatwave, before heading out for the evening in this famously foodie city to La Brasserie Bordelaise, which cooks steaks, oysters and other southern French specialities. The place is buzzing. Bottles of wine line the walls. I order spicy shrimp fricassée, then perfectly cooked salty scallops. It’s a fine example of why people bang on about French cooking.
I stay at Mama Shelter, near the cathedral. There’s something Zoolander-esquely ‘ridiculously good-looking’ about the hotel, designed by Philippe Starck; “Beauty goes on and on” is painted in the stairwell. There’s a sense of playfulness, too, with retro Batman and Tweety bird masks hanging on the bedroom mirror, table football (or le babyfoot) in the restaurant and animal rubber rings hanging over the rooftop bar.
Cycling company Cyclomundo transfer me in the morning to the village of Margaux, where I’m fitted to my bike and talked through maps and the route ahead. I start pedaling into the Médoc, an area on the left bank of the Gironde river that’s famous for red blends, and one of the region’s renowned appellations. The land’s quite flat, almost every field filled with neat lines of vines.
My first stop is Château Lamothe-Bergeron, outside Cussac-Fort-Médoc, a clean white château with conical towers. Director Laurent Mery leads me to the terroir observatory overlooking the vineyards, with three plates of grapes – the Médoc’s typical merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot – to taste. “You’ve heard of Bordeaux-bashing?” Laurent asks, as we talk about Bordeaux’s international reputation. The region’s fallen out of favour with some wine critics over the past ten years, the ‘bad’ I mentioned earlier. The largest wine region in France, producing 720 million bottles each year, it’s perhaps a big, easy target.
We watch a short video projected onto the glass wall of the barrel room, with wine expert Hubert Debouard demonstrating the blending decisions behind Lamothe-Bergeron’s wine, before Laurent shows me to a bright modern bar where we work through a few vintages, including the standout 2010. “This is our roots,” Laurent says, when I ask what wine means to the French. “Wine’s part of our life.”
I ride a circuitous route north. A village shopkeeper gets the full assault of my barely-used-since-GCSE French and I come out with French bread and a block of cheese for a picnic. At Saint-Estèphe, I turn south, riding with fields of golden hay bales on my right, the Gironde river to the left where wooden sheds drop large nets into the water for mullet and other fish. At Château Haut Marbuzet, Delphine Braud treats me to the 2015 vintage direct from the barrel and five other selections. The 2008 Château Layauga-Duboscq is one of the best wines of the trip. I take a bottle for the evening in the slightly faded riverside town of Pauillac.
Next morning, I catch the TransGironde ferry across the wide silvery river to the ‘right bank’ town of Blaye. It’s a colourful ride from the ancient fortified city through empty ‘ghost villages’. There are a few big hills to climb, too; time to earn my wine. It helps that I’m riding a light, fast carbon frame bike. It also helps that I have the destination of St-Emilion, one of the world’s most famous wine regions, as my motivation.
Church bells ring as I pedal to Château Figeac, just down the road from the famous Cheval Blanc. “We’re going to my favourite place: the cellar,” winemaker Frederic Faye laughs, as we head downstairs to sample Figeac’s 2011 and, my favourite, the fruity 2009, “an outstanding vintage.” St-Emilion is “the kingdom of merlot,” Frederic tells me, explaining the prime difference between St-Emilion and the Médoc.
My legs shattered and liver chateaux’d, I set off for the final day
My pace decidedly more sluggish, I ride on to St-Emilion, stopping just outside the city at Château Beau-Séjour Bécot for another tasting in a bright room with modern art hanging on the walls, before finding my hotel in the busy Unesco town of St-Emilion’s steep cobbled streets. Candles are burning in the Collegiate Church, while around the town, wine shops – my kind of church – offer tastings. In the evening, I sit on the central square with a glass of red and listen to a live band playing folk music.
Leaving the towers of St-Emilion behind next morning, I hear clinking from a bottling plant at the bottom of the long fast hill, before veering off into the countryside, past fields of head-high corn and sunflowers. I cross the Dordogne and pick up La Lapébie cycle path (named after the Bordeaux-born Tour de France winner), through fields, forests and a cool dank 259-metre tunnel.
Buzzards hover over the fields as I roll towards Château Fayau on the edge of Cadillac in the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation. “We’re between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, so the terroir’s different,” Marc Medeville tells me, explaining why the region makes not only reds, but good whites and sweet dessert wine. “Bordeaux-bashing isn’t based on reality,” Marc suggests, the subject rearing its head as I work my way through their selection. “It’s easy to bash Bordeaux, because there are so many different winemakers, styles and prices. But a lot of people know Bordeaux for very beautiful wine.” Whatever’s happening, I’m pretty happy with what I drink here and the region feels not only affordable, but friendly and unpretentious too.
I ride on, for all of five minutes. “It’s not common to see people arriving by bike,” Julien Noel tells me at Château Du Cros in the shadow of a hilltop castle built by Richard the Lionheart in the 1100s. I’m normally a reds man, but it’s the whites that impress here, including a light Château Du Cros 2015 sauvignon blend, as well as sweet honeyish dessert wines.
I make one final stop, Château La Rame, just beyond Sainte-Croix-Du-Mont, which requires a testing kilometre climb up a steep hill. It’s worth it for their easy-drinking whites, mellow sweet dessert wines and the view out across the countryside all the way to the renowned Château d’Yquem in Graves. Three vineyards down, I zip down the hill and into the medieval town of Saint-Macaire for the night, where men are playing boules in the park.
Need to know
Biking around Bordeaux
Cyclomundo’s ‘In Velo Veritas’ cycling trip around Bordeaux’s vineyards costs from €1,175 (£984) per person, based on two sharing, including six nights’ accommodation in three-star hotels, breakfast and most dinners, luggage transfers, maps and route notes, and transfer from Bordeaux to Margaux. See cyclomundo.com, for more information and to book. Carbon road bike hire for the trip costs €210 (£178). Tours are available from April through to October.
EasyJet (easyJet.com) offers return flights from London Gatwick to Bordeaux, including one bag and taxes, from £61. For more information on visiting Bordeaux and France, see bordeaux-tourisme.com, bordeauxwinetrip.com and france.fr
My legs a little shattered, my liver a little chateaux’d, I set off for the final day, arriving an hour later at Château Guiraud, a pretty château decorated with pink roses on the edge of Sauternes. “There are the equivalent of 90,000 bottles of wine in there,” Isabelle Roy tells me, peering into the barrel room. Bottles are opened and poured, including an excellent Château Guiraud 2013 blend. “We can plant only three grapes in Sauternes: sémillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle,” Isabelle explains. “Sauternes is famous for sweet and dry white wines.”
Car horns honk from a wedding party as I turn into Château La Louvière on my way back to Bordeaux. “This appellation, Pessac-Leognan, is about dry white wine,” Claire Hamelin-Boyer informs me, pouring a selection of whites, rosé and big reds. The refreshing Château Bonnet 2015, from the company’s vineyard in Entre-Deux-Mers, is the pick of the bunch. “We call this a ‘thirst wine’ in French,” Claire tells me. After four days and more than 250km of cycling through sunny Bordeaux countryside, a ‘thirst wine’ feels like the right choice for the occasion, and a second glass…
Fancy letting the vino flow? Check out our guide to British booze tours here