Thursday, May 06, 2010

Drinking Bordeaux

Having spent last month tasting wines of the New World (South Africa), we thought it would be fun to take a little wine trip to the Old World, that is, to the world-renowned wine region of Bordeaux over the first May bank holiday. As the title of the post implies, we spent the entire weekend…drinking wine…lots of wine, and eating cheese and baguette in the French countryside.

The elegant 18th century city of Bordeaux is quite lovely. This wasn’t always the case; it was only in the last decade that Bordeaux city underwent a major face-lift -- buildings have been restored to its original splendour, the historic centre has been pedestrianized, and a new ultra-modern tram system has been installed. To our surprise, Bordeaux reminded us of the neighbourhoods in the 5th/6th arrondissement of Paris, with its beautiful architecture and sidewalk cafes.

Photos around Bordeaux:

We spent Saturday roaming around the “Golden Triangle,” admiring the beautiful Cathédrale St-André, strolling along the riverfront, and frolicking in the iconic mirroir d’eau. After spending the better half of the day in Bordeaux, Keenan and I boarded a late afternoon train to the little town of St. Emilion, just 32 km northeast of Bordeaux. If you re planning a trip to the Bordeaux wine region please check the train schedule to St. Emilion as service is often is erratic. It's in French, but you can figure it out.

We spent the rest of our weekend in St. Emilion, a well-preserved UNESCO medieval town with beautiful Romanesque churches and ruins. The town is literally encircled by vineyards (and wine stores galore!) where the Roman planted vines in the 2nd century AD, which makes St. Emilion one of the oldest wine appellations in Bordeaux.

Instead of renting a car this time, Keenan and I decided to cycle around St. Emilion with the bikes provided by our chateau. I got the inspiration from my colleague who is currently cycling around the Loire Valley, another well-known wine region in France, particularly famous for its Sancerre. It was great! Every day we would ride around different "secteurs" of St. Emilion, stopping at different vineyards to learn about its history and of course, to taste the fabulous Bordeaux wines. Mid-day, we would break and have a picnic lunch overlooking some vista, or in a vineyard, and the evenings were spent at the chateau relaxing, reading, and enjoying our nth bottle of wine.

I'm no wine connoisseur, but in a nutshell Old World refers to "classic wine-making" regions in Europe (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain), whereas the New World basically refers to wine produced outside of Europe, including USA, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and Argentina. In general, Old World wines tend to be more subtle and earthy due to the "terroir" in which the grapes grow in. Old World wines tend to get better with age and is best sipped with food and cheese. New World wine tends be bolder, and more fruit-forward and is perfectly fine to drink on its own. The term "terroir" is the French catch-all phrase that encapsulates the very essence of the French wine-making tradition. It denotes the special characteristics that geography, including but not limiting to, the soil, exposure to the sun, mineral composition, the climate, bestowed upon particular varieties of grapes. Wine-making in France is deeply rooted in tradition, and families have owned vineyards for many generations, some dating back to the late 1700s like Chateaux Tremoulet -- nine generations of wine-making.

In the Bordeaux wine region, there are some smorgasbord of 57 appellations, which together produce around 700 million bottles of wine each year, ranging from good quality French table wine to some of the most expensive fine wines in the world. The Bordeaux blend comprises of the big five: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabarnet France, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, where the Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon is generally the lead variety, and Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot act as supporting cast, as the ladder three grape varieties help add colour, structure, and body.

Most of the wine we tasted last weekend is a Bordeaux blend of 75 to 80 percent Merlot and 10 to 15 percent of Cabernet Franc, the two primary grape varieties in St. Emilion. In all of our previous wine-tasting trips to Napa, Sonoma, the Russian River, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, and the Cape Winelands, we usually taste six to eight different flights of wines, both whites and red. In Bordeaux, it's all about red wine, or as the British would say 'claret,' and we did mostly vertical tastings of the same wines by different years, otherwise known as vintage. You can really taste the difference in the wine depending on the climate and condition of the soil during each year. Based on our conversations with the wine-makers 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2009 are good vintages for Bordeaux reds, so if you have one of these in your cellar, hold on to them.

View of our picnic spot:

As I said before, life is too short to drink bad wine…happy tasting!

Update (19 June 2010): NY Times 36 Hours in Bordeaux


  1. Hi Lily,
    These travels sound incredible and delicious.

    I'd love for you to write for Pink Pangea (, a travel site specifically geared towards women travelers. Submit a photo of yourself in Austria or anywhere else you've traveled and write a post like this one about your experiences, providing some tips for other women travelers.

    Looking forward to hearing from you,

  2. Hi Lily,

    I'm a fine artist working on an illustration for the American Heart Association. I am donating an illustration that they they will be using for their Heart's Delight Wine auction in Washington, DC. I am an looking for some photos to be inspired by... I found some here on your page! Can I use a couple of your photos for a reference for a painting? It wont be exactly the same image, but I think it would enhance what I'm working on for the Bordeaux wines! My website site Please check out my artwork!

  3. Hi Samantha,

    Sorry for the late reply; we've been out of the country for the holidays. Please feel free to use the photos!

    Happy New Year! Best, Lily