The high-speed TGV train takes about four hours to get from Paris to the Aquitaine capital of Bordeaux, in France’s south. It’s comfortable and smooth, and there’s plenty of time to read, write, listen to music, talk, doze and watch the variegated landscape whizz by.
By the time my wife Deborah and I book into the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux in the Place de la Comedie, right opposite the Grand Theatre, it’s late afternoon. After freshening up in our suite — compact but luxurious in the extreme and boasting its own courtyard — we go in search of something to eat.
We stroll down Rue Sainte Catherine, at 1.2km often billed the longest pedestrian shopping street in the world. It’s Saturday evening, so there are lots of people about, but the atmosphere is relaxed. Virtually every facade exudes as much elegance as our hotel exudes opulence. It’s easy to see why Bordeaux, which lies on the banks of the Garonne River, is known as Little Paris, and why one of its former prefects, Baron Haussmann, used it as a model when asked by Emperor Napoleon III to modernise Paris.
We settle for Thai for dinner — being vegetarians, much French cuisine is off-limits to us — and enjoy an excellent repast before getting an early night: we have a wine tour booked for tomorrow.
After a superb hotel breakfast to the accompaniment of Baroque music, a minibus collects a small group including two newlyweds from Melbourne, a Delhi businessman and three Chinese tourists from Taiwan. As we make our way west to the famous Saint-Emilion area, our guide and driver Dominique gives us some basic facts.
With 110,300ha of vineyards, Bordeaux is the largest wine-growing region in France (compare this with Champagne to the north with 34,200ha of vineyards, Roussillon in the south with 8000ha and the Rhone Valley to the east with 70,800ha). There are nearly 8000 winegrowers in the region, growing grape varieties such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, semillon and sauvignon blanc.
Not far from the right bank of the Dordogne River is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed village of Saint-Emilion, named after an 8th-century hermit monk. The village gives its name to the wine appellation; nearby are two further regions, Fronsac and Pomerol. Rainy springs, balmy summers, mild winters and sun-filled autumns bless the vines, which grow in a mixture of clay, limestone, sand and gravel. Most of the wines blend merlot with cabernet franc or cabernet sauvignon.
First stop is Jean-Francois and Dominique Quenin’s Chateau de Pressac at Saint-Etienne de Lisse. We admire the view across the vineyards on the terraces to the valley below as chickens cluck in the distance. Jean-Francois tells us they eat the worms and their eggs are excellent but they have to be killed before they start on the grape berries. He then tells us a little about Chateau de Pressac itself.
“The chateau was rebuilt on the original foundations in the 1870s, ” he says. “When we bought the estate in 1997 it was in very poor condition. We replanted almost all the vineyards. Now the estate is one of the largest in Saint-Emilion: 40ha, out of which we have 36ha of vineyard.” We try two 2008 and 2009 Grand Cru reds, both a blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, pressac and carmenere, with some cheese and biscuits before leaving for the village. Being a sunny Sunday, the picturesque medieval village of Saint-Emilion is overrun with tourists and there is barely time for a hasty snack, some more wine tasting at a local shop and a tour of the dark, atmospheric monolithic church. Then it’s on to a tour of Chateau Cantenac, run by the Roskam family, who produce another Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, with wine tourism manager Adrienne-Jennifer Roskam.
“They call me AJ, ” she tells us. “I’m actually American, from California, where I studied winemaking.” AJ finished her studies in 2005 and came to France to do an internship at Chateau Cantenac. “I fell in love with the younger son, and now here I am, ” she laughs. We walk past a magnificent magnolia tree. “That’s the oldest part of the property — it’s 200 years old.”
After tasting a variety of reds, mainly merlot and cabernet blends, we head back to the city. After saying our farewells, Deborah and I settle on pizza for dinner, during which meal the sociable waitress assures us she’s grateful for the opportunity to practise her English.
On our last morning in Bordeaux we visit a labyrinthine bookstore and the Musee des Beaux Arts, and are delighted to discover an al fresco formule of tart, salad, dessert and coffee with baguette — of course — for under €9 ($13).
At the station we have coffee and macaroons before boarding our train.
Next stop: Madrid.
•For the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux & Spa, see ghbordeaux.com.
•Railbookers offers tailor-made rail holidays throughout Europe. For example, its 13-night Paris to Barcelona holiday includes Bordeaux, Madrid, Cordoba, Seville and Granada. Prices start from $2845 per person and include accommodation in central hotels with breakfast daily and all train connections with seat reservations. railbookers.com.au or 1300 971 578.
© The West Australian
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