The Complete Guide To Claret Country

The vineyards around Bordeaux in south-west France produce some of the greatest wines in the world. Cathy Packe explores the sights, sounds and of course the tastes of this beautiful region, whose name is synonymous with the finest things in life


WHERE IS IT?

WHERE IS IT?

Claret country refers to the part of south-west France around Bordeaux, an area that produces more fine wines than any other region in the world. This is the where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers merge and turn into the Gironde estuary. The best wines are produced in two areas: the Médoc, an area of flat countryside on the west bank of the Gironde north of Bordeaux; and further east on the hillier terrain around St Emilion. Each of these districts is further divided into small wine-growing estates or chateaux. Other parts of Bordeaux where the grapes for good red wines are grown include Blaye and Bourg (which both contain towns of the same name) and Pomerol, near Libourne.

WHICH ARE THE BEST VINEYARDS?

The classification of Bordeaux wine is immensely complicated: the region is divided into districts, then smaller communes (places such as St Estephe and St Julien, whose names will be familiar to wine drinkers), and then into individual chateaux. The first classification was made in 1855 to coincide with the Exposition Universelle in Paris, and it is still an indication of where the best bottles are found.

In the Médoc, three of the four best chateaux are in the village of Pauillac: Lafite (00 33 1 53 89 78 00; www.lafite.com); Latour (00 33 5 56 73 19 80; www.chateau-latour.com) and Mouton Rothschild (00 33 5 57 75 21 19; www.bpdr.com). The fourth is Chateau Margaux (00 33 5 57 88 83 83; www.chateau-margaux.com), in the village of Margaux, a little further south. "Médoc" literally means "middle land", the name deriving from the tongue of territory that juts out into the Atlantic. The vineyards start just beyond the outskirts of Bordeaux at Blanquefort, but Pauillac and Margaux are further out. All these chateaux, and many others in the region, offer free tours and tastings for visitors that must be booked in advance. Those without appointments will be made welcome at the local wine information centres (the one in Margaux is open 10am-1pm and 2-7pm in summer; 00 33 5 57 88 70 82; www.medoc-wines.com), or at less rarefied properties such as Chateau Palmer, about 500m south of the village of Margaux (00 33 5 57 88 72 72; www.chateau-palmer.com). Most chateaux are closed to the public in late September and early October when the grapes are being picked. This year the harvest should start in the third week of September, and usually takes about two weeks to complete.

I'D LIKE TO HELP PICK THE GRAPES

Picking grapes can be backbreaking work, but there are often opportunities to take part in the vendange, as it is called. There are several ways to find work, including contacting a chateau direct, or getting in touch with the syndicat vinicole, the vineyards' administrative office, of which there is one in each commune. But an easier option is to apply to Banton Lauret (00 33 5 57 55 38 00), an agency that hires around 900 grape-pickers every year to work in about 150 chateaux. There are still vacancies for this year: applicants should be at least 18 years old and available for the duration of the harvest. There are three types of work: cutting, carrying, and sorting. Working on the vendange involves an eight-hour day, for which the hourly pay is €7.63 (£5). Breakfast is laid on, but pickers need to bring their own lunch and get themselves to the vineyard, as transport is not provided.

The main problem for foreign pickers is finding accommodation: this is rarely available at the chateaux and is not provided by employment agencies. By the time the harvest starts, most campsites are closing and a hotel room could cost more than a picker would earn, although tourist offices may be able to recommend cheap places to stay.

WHY ARE THE BRITISH SO KEEN ON CLARET?

The term "claret" refers to any of the red wines produced in the Bordeaux region, although plenty of good white wines are made here, too - mainly in the districts of Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers. This area was English for three centuries, from 1152, when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, until 1453 when the English army was defeated at Castillon, marking the end of the Hundred Years' War.

In the 12th century, very little of the area was planted with vineyards but the English developed such a taste for the light red wine, known in French as clairet, that more of the region became covered with vines. These are mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc grapes. Within 200 years, England was importing roughly the same amount of claret as is imported nowadays, although England's population now is 20 times larger than it was then.

The original claret wines were light, and drunk young, similar to a modern rosé; it wasn't until the introduction of corks in the 18th century that the wine could be aged in the bottles, allowing it to develop into the complex red liquid that we drink today. Besides the English trade, strong links developed between the chateaux and the wine merchants of Scotland, in particular Leith (now part of Edinburgh).

There is an interesting wine museum in Chartrons, a district of Bordeaux where many wealthy wine merchants lived during the 18th century. The Musée des Chartrons occupies one of these former homes, at 41 rue Borie (00 33 5 57 87 50 60; www.musee-des-chartrons.com). It contains an exhibition that covers the development of the wine trade, and opens 10.30am-12.30pm and 2-5pm Tuesday to Saturday, and 11am-5pm on the first Sunday of the month. Admission is €5 (£3).

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I SEE IN BORDEAUX?

Bordeaux is an attractive city that spreads along the banks of the Garonne river, and most visitors confine themselves to exploring the west bank. One of its most striking features is the Esplanade des Quinconces, a large, rectangular space that contains the monument to the Girondins, a group of local politicians who were guillotined during the French Revolution for their anti-republican views. To the south is the oldest part of the city, with imposing buildings and squares that are a monument to 18th-century elegance. These include the Place de la Bourse, built for King Louis XV, and the beautifully restored Grand Théâtre.

The Cathedral of St André is Bordeaux's most impressive church, a much-altered building with a Gothic transept and choir, whose appearance has recently been dramatically transformed by being cleaned. St André was a stopping-point on the pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and as a result it has been listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

Bordeaux's main tourist office can be found at 12 cours du XXX Juillet (00 33 5 56 00 66 00; www.bordeaux-tourisme.com); it opens 9am-6pm Monday-Saturday, and 9.30am-6.30pm on Sundays.

HOW CAN I GET THERE?

Bordeaux is the best gateway to claret country if you are planning to arrive by air, with Air France (0845 359 1000; www.airfrance.co.uk) and British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) both operating direct flights from Gatwick, and FlyBe (0871 700 0535; www.flybe.com) from Bristol. From the airport at Mérignac, the Jet'Bus runs every 30 minutes from Monday-Friday (hourly in the evenings) and every 45 minutes or so at weekends, taking 30 minutes to reach the city centre.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to several destinations within easy driving distance of Bordeaux; these include Bergerac, Biarritz, La Rochelle and Limoges. If you want to take your car with you, ferry crossings to the western side of France will minimise the amount of driving when you get there. Brittany Ferries (08703 665333; www.brittany-ferries.com) operates regular sailings from Portsmouth to St Malo, Cherbourg and Caen; from Plymouth to Roscoff; and from Poole to Cherbourg. P&O Ferries (08705 202020; www.poferries.com) sails from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, Caen and Le Havre.

The train journey from London to Bordeaux St Jean, with a change of station in Paris or Lille, takes about seven hours, and can be booked with Eurostar (08702 649 899; www.eurostar.com) or Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk).

IS IT EASY TO FIND THE VINEYARDS?

As with other French wine-growing areas, there are several well-signposted circuits - routes du vin - through the different regions of claret country, including the Médoc, the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux and the Blayais Bourgeois to the north of the region. You can also travel by train from Bordeaux's main station, St Jean, along the branch line that runs through the Médoc, calling at Pauillac and Margaux.

Although the main chateaux will not welcome casual callers, some wineries are open to visitors - those that do will display signs outside. Anyone who drops in will usually be invited to taste whatever is on offer. The tourist office for the Aquitaine region is at 23 Parvis des Chartrons in Bordeaux (00 33 5 56 01 70 00; www.crt.cr-aquitaine.fr). It has a supply of maps and information, although the wine routes are easy to follow.

IS BORDEAUX THE BEST BASE?

The advantage of the big city as a centre for exploring the vineyards is that it has plenty of accommodation and lots of restaurants, and it is an easy place from which to access the wine routes. But staying somewhere smaller might be more appealing. The most obvious alternative is St Emilion, the most attractive town in the region, perched above the Dordogne valley and surrounded by vineyards. It is almost completely encircled by medieval ramparts and contains some attractive buildings and a lively main square. Overlooking this is the town's most unusual structure, the Eglise Monolithe, a church carved out of a single rock during the Middle Ages. The church tower is one of the best vantage points in the region, with views right across the surrounding countryside; tours run daily at 10am, 10.45am, 11.30am and every 45 minutes from 2-5.45pm; admission €5.50 (£4).

For a good overview of the vineyards, take a 35-minute trip on the Train des Grands Vignobles (00 33 5 57 51 30 71; www.visite-saint-emilion.com), which trundles along outside the ramparts before heading off into the countryside past 18 of the town's wine chateaux. Trains operate daily between Easter and 11 November, with regular departures from 10.30am-3.30pm. Tickets cost €5 (£3).

If you prefer more independence, bicycles can be hired from the tourist office in Place des Créneaux (00 33 5 57 55 28 28; www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com).

The other good option as a base is Blaye, a Roman town on the east bank of the Gironde that is best known for its citadel. This contains a medieval castle, museum, former monastery and a couple of towers with excellent views over the estuary, as well as a number of craft workshops. The tourist office in Blaye is on Allées Marines (00 33 5 57 42 12 09; www.blaye.net).

CAN I TAKE A TOUR?

The tourist office in Bordeaux, at 12 cours du XXX Juillet (00 33 5 56 00 66 00; www.bordeaux-tourisme.com), organises guided coach tours around the different wine areas of the region every afternoon until 15 November; from 16 November- 30 April, these take place on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons only. Each tour visits two wine estates, includes a tasting at each, and costs €26 (£17.50). Trips depart at 1.30pm and return by 6.30pm. Tasting classes are held at the tourist office every Thursday afternoon at 4.30pm. These last for around two hours and cost €20 (£13.50).

A number of companies will plan a whole holiday for you. These include Arblaster & Clarke (01730 893344; www.arblasterandclarke.com), which has a programme of short breaks in the region and can also tailor-make itineraries with accommodation in either hotels or wine chateaux. There is still availability on two of this autumn's trips, including a self-drive wine-buying weekend, from 14-17 October, based in Bordeaux. The weekend costs £329 per person, and includes bed-and- breakfast accommodation in a two-star hotel, chateaux visits and tastings, and the advice of a wine expert on where and what to buy.

For an even more authentic experience, try a four-night stay at Chateau Loudenne, a wine chateau north of St Estephe. This costs £1,249, which includes bed-and-breakfast accommodation, some meals, tastings and visits to many of Bordeaux's best-known chateaux. A Master of Wine will accompany the trip.

AND WHEN I'VE HAD ENOUGH CLARET?

There are plenty of excellent white wines produced in the region, too, both dry and sweet, including Sauternes. The best-known Sauternes is Chateau d'Yquem (00 33 5 57 98 07 07), but visits here are extremely difficult to arrange, so the wine is best appreciated in one of the local restaurants. If, by now, you feel the need for something other than a grape-based drink, order a glass of Marie Brizard instead. This aniseed drink is named after its original producer, a young Bordeaux woman who dedicated her youth to looking after the sick. One day, a patient gave her the recipe for a drink that was supposed to cure a whole variety of ailments, and it became so popular that she began to make it commercially. The company is still based in Bordeaux, at 130 rue Fontdaudeuge (00 33 5 56 01 85 70; www.mariebrizard.com). Free tours are available, but must be booked in advance.

WINE COURSES

The Wine Education Service (020 8991 8212; www.wine-education-service.co.uk), runs introductory courses in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which include a session on the wines of France. These courses start at £185 for ten sessions. Wine enthusiasts in London and Manchester can sign up for an intermediate course on French wines (£235 for ten sessions), and there will also be a five-week advanced course on the wine of Bordeaux in London this autumn. This will cost £135. The Bordeaux Wine Council at 1 cours du XXX Juillet (00 33 5 56 00 22 66; www.vins-bordeaux.fr) has a wine school offering short courses and tastings. These are either held in Bordeaux, or at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. Two-hour tasting sessions cost €20 (£13) per person, and three-day intensive courses start at €375 (£252). Most take place during the summer; details of next year's programme will be available soon.

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