Give me a taste for the landscape
The most exciting way to get an overview of the region is by floating above it. This can be arranged with Aquitaine’s flying wine-maker, Michel Fonvielhe, who combines managing an organic vineyard with his passion for hot-air ballooning. Flights take-off from the field beside his property, the Domaine de Durand (00 33 5 53 89 02 23; domainededurand.com) in St-Jean de Duras.
Exactly what course you take will depend upon the vagaries of the wind: you could find yourself floating above Bordeaux, or heading in the opposite direction towards Bergerac. Either way, the scenery can be spectacular, especially in spring, when the white plum blossoms take on the appearance of snowdrifts.
This aerial perspective reveals why the wine from some vineyards is more highly prized than others. “I flew recently over Château d’Yquem,” remembers Fonvielhe, referring to one of the region’s most famous vineyards, “and you could see quite clearly that the vines there were growing much better than those of the neighbouring château where the terrain isn’t so favourable.”
In theory, flights can take place all year round, but the season tends to last from Easter until the end of October. Trips cost €200 for each of four people and last for up to 90 minutes. Flights take-off in the early morning and two hours before sunset, and should be booked in advance.
What makes this region so special?
Aquitaine produces more high-quality wine than any other French region, thanks to its terroir: a combination of factors that include micro-climates and soil composition. The region is divided into districts that include well-known names such as Médoc and Entre-Deux-Mers, and lesser-known ones such as Irouleguy, a tiny area in the Basque country around St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. These are then sub-divided into smaller communes such as Monbazillac, in the Bergerac district, which has a 16th-century castle (00 33 5 53 61 52 52; chateau-monbazillac.com ) whose vineyards still produce a renowned sweet white wine. Tastings are available at the château, and also at the nearby Cave de Monbazillac, on the road between Eymet and Mont-de-Marsan (opens 10am-12.30pm and 1.30-7pm Tuesday to Sunday).
The communes are made up of individual châteaux, such as Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte (00 33 5 57 83 11 22; smith-haut-lafitte.com ) in the village of Martillac, in the Graves district. Like a number of the region’s larger wineries, it offers daily tours. Pre-booking is advisable, particularly as not all are in English. Many of the region’s vineyards welcome visitors, and offer both tasting sessions and the opportunity to buy.
Most wine districts can be explored by following the local route des vins, usually a scenic road through the vineyards. The route des châteaux, for example, follows the D2 road from the outskirts of Bordeaux along the west bank of the Gironde river, taking in many of the major wine estates in the area.
The best way to find out about a region and its wines is to visit the wine centre or maison du vin, which tends to offer an exhibition on vine-growing and wine-making in the region, and a small shop selling local vintages. One of the best of these is on the outskirts of Duras, a pretty little town dominated by a castle with medieval origins. The Maison des Vins de Duras (00 33 5 53 94 13 48; cotesdeduras.com ) is designed to appeal to visitors who may know little or nothing about wine when they arrive in the region.
“We want to train people so they can leave us and set off on a journey of discovery of our wines,” explains Corinne Lacombe.
Among the displays is an interactive exhibit with different items to smell; there are daily free tastings of local wines; quizzes for adults and children; information about local wineries open to the public; and a vine garden with shady picnic areas.
The Maison opens 10am-noon and 2pm-5.30pm Monday to Friday throughout the year, 10am-1pm and 2pm-6.30pm Monday to Saturday from mid-June to mid-September.
Where can I learn more about wine?
Among the courses on offer in the region, French Wine Adventures (00 33 5 53 22 72 71; frenchwineadventures.com ) offers two-hour introductory sessions every Tuesday afternoon at 2pm during the season for €15. They are run by Caroline Feely, who, with her husband Sean, makes wine at the Château Haut Garrigue in Saussignac. The sessions begin with a tour of the château’s organic vineyard before moving inside for a more formal explanation of the appellation system, followed by a tasting. Feely also runs classes specialising in the grand cru classe wines, and a food and wine matching class takes place every Thursday afternoon at 3pm during the season; the cost is €25.
There are several other wine schools in Aquitaine. These include the CIVB, based at 1 Cours du 30 Juillet (00 33 5 56 00 22 66; bordeaux.com), which offers a range of training from intensive courses to two-hour sessions for those wanting to find out about wine as part of a holiday.
What about something high-tech?
Try La Winery, a modern complex on the Rond-Point des Vendangeurs in Arsac en Médoc (00 33 5 56 39 04 90; winery.fr ), just outside Bordeaux. The contemporary building is a striking contrast to the traditional style of the region. In the words of one local wine-maker: “This is where you’ll see the future.”
Part wine supermarket – with a selection of over 1,000 different wines – part wine bar and restaurant, with sculpture garden attached, La Winery also can divine the “wine sign” of its visitors, indicating the wines they might prefer to drink. Small groups are given an hour-long blind tasting, in which they are asked to rate each wine according to how much they like it. A computer analyses the results and allocates a wine sign from a selection of eight, ranging from “muscular” to “aesthete”. This is accompanied by a booklet containing suggestions of appropriate wines – which are all, unsurprisingly, stocked in the supermarket.
While this resembles a clever marketing ploy, the tutored tasting is still interesting and informative. La Winery opens 10am-7pm Tuesday to Sunday, with wine sign sessions taking place at 11am and 3pm, and also at 5pm during the summer. Sessions cost €16.
Can I join in?
In recent years, many of Aquitaine’s wine makers have begun to realise the advantages of opening up their châteaux, and have devised ways to involve their visitors.
Alongside wine classes, Feely of Château Haut Garrigue (00 33 5 53 22 72 71; wildearthvineyards.com/vineshare) also runs a vine-share scheme. Rent a row of vines for a year for €99, and you will be invited to make two visits to the château: in spring, to help with general maintenance; and during the harvest, when there is a chance to join in with the picking and to collect a case of wine.
The Médocaines ( lesmedocaines.com ), a group of four wine-making women from the Médoc, also enlist visitors to help with the harvest – usually between mid-September and mid-October, and on four days they run harvest workshops. Dates will be available from the tourist office in Bordeaux (12 cours du XXX Juillet; 00 33 5 56 00 66 00; bordeaux-tourisme.com ).
Participants helping with the harvest at the Château Paloumey (00 33 5 57 88 00 66; chateaupaloumey.com) join the other pickers for lunch, followed by a tasting of previous vintages at the Château du Taillan (00 33 5 56 57 47 00; chateaudutaillan.com ). At other times of year, the Médocaines run blending workshops, a kind of “mix your own” session, which combines fun with a serious lesson in how great wines are made.
I want to immerse myself
Book in at the Sources de Caudalie (00 33 5 57 83 83 83; sources-caudalie.com ), the world’s first wine therapy spa. Located in Martillac just outside Bordeaux, and in the middle of the Château Smith Haut Lafitte vineyards – its an ideal place to relax.
The idea for the treatments came from a university professor who watched the wine-making process and remarked that what was being thrown away – the grape skins and pips – could be put to good use as skin treatments whose added attraction is their anti-ageing properties. This idea, conveniently combined with a patch of land in the middle of the vineyard that was too muddy to grow grapes, led to the construction 11 years ago of a luxury hotel and spa. A variety of treatments are on offer, ranging from merlot wraps and cabernet massages to facials using vine flower mousse. Prices start at €60.
How do I get around?
Among the many ways to tour the region’s vineyards are cycle paths and walking trails, with maps available from the local tourist offices. At the Château Lanessan (00 33 5 56 58 94 80; lanessan.com ), near Cussac-Fort-Médoc, visits to the winery, with its ancient hall where the barrels are stored, can be followed by a tour of the estate in a horse-drawn carriage; the total cost is €125 for up to five people.
The nearby Château Maucaillou in Moulis-en-Médoc (00 33 5 56 58 01 23; chateau-maucaillou.com ) has its own helipad, and can provide helicopter tours of the Médoc, flying over the vineyards of St-Julien and St-Estèphe, before looping round over the Gironde river and the Margaux vines.
In St-Emilion, the Train des Grands Vignobles (00 335 57 51 30 71; visite-saint-emilion.com ) makes up to 10 departures a day from outside the Église Collégiale, taking around half an hour to trundle through the countryside past 18 of the nearby vineyards. The train operates from Easter until mid-November, and tickets cost €6.
Where should I stay?
Accommodation in Aquitaine is as varied as the wine that the region produces. Rooms at the top end of the scale, such as those at the Château Cordeillan-Bages (00 33 5 56 59 24 24; cordeillanbages.com ) in Pauillac, may be associated with a wine château – in this case Château Lynch-Bages. Double rooms here start at €203, with an extra €28 for breakfast. The hotel and wine château are located nearby the village of Bages ( villagedebages.com ), a reconstructed wine village with a bakery, upmarket store and bistro.
Other luxury accommodation is linked to some of the region’s numerous golf courses. These include the Château des Vigiers in Monestier (00 33 5 53 61 50 00; vigiers.com ), an attractive and secluded |location that includes a 27-hole golf course, and where rooms are available next to the first tee from €180, with an extra €17 for breakfast.
There are also several spa hotels in the region, among them the Hotel Château Grand Barrail (00 33 5 57 55 37 00; grand-barrail.com ), a 19th-century château set in an attractive three-acre park in the heart of the Saint-Emilion vineyards a mile or so from the village itself. Completely renovated in 2008, it has 41 luxurious and individually-decorated rooms, and an attractive spa, where treatments are available from €55. Rooms at the château start at €290.
With more modest stays in mind, some 15 years ago the Gites de France organisation began expanding its collection of rental properties in the Gironde to include gites bacchus, properties located among the vines, run by wine growers or wine makers, and intended to appeal to wine-enthusiasts. Prices vary according to size and time of year, but gites are available from €250 per week.
The scheme has now expanded, and includes properties in other parts of the region, a mixture of gites, usually rented by the week, and chambres d’hôtes, where rooms are available on a nightly basis.
Among the properties on offer are the Ferme Etxeberria (00 33 5 59 37 06 23; domainemourguy.com ), a lovely family house in Ispoure, which has double rooms available from €50.
GREAT WINES: THE GRAND CRUS
In 1855, the Emperor Napoleon III asked for the wines of Bordeaux to be ranked, in preparation for the Paris Exposition of that year. The resulting classification system is a list of chateaux, the so-called “Grands Crus Classés”, which are sub-divided into five groups. In the most prestigious, the First Growths were – and remain – the châteaux of Lafite Rothschild ( lafite.com ) and Latour (00 33 5 56 73 19 80; chateau-latour.com) in Pauillac; Margaux ( chateau-margaux.com ), also in the Médoc; and Haut-Brion (00 33 5 56 00 23 30; haut-brion.com ), from the Graves region. Mouton Rothschild (00 33 5 56 73 21 29) was added in 1973.
A separate list, with Château d’Yquem at the top, ranked the sweet wines of Bordeaux in the same year, and during the 1950s, the Graves and St-Émilion regions – which were omitted from the official classification – drew up their own lists. Pomerol has no classification, despite its bestknown wine, Petrus, being one of the most expensive in the world.
* The biennial Bordeaux Wine Festival ( bordeauxfete-le-vin.com ) takes place this year from 24-27 June. Among the attractions will be a “wine road”, lined with pavilions offering the wines of the region, many of which will be available for tasting. Tasting passes, including 12 vouchers and a glass, are available for €15. There will also be master classes and vineyard visits, music, fireworks and a son et lumière show.