The Red, Red Wines Of the Medoc

May 5, 2013

Château Gruaud-Larose

In Bordeaux, it pays to be rich, bold and unique. As beautiful as the city is, to truly experience its magic one should venture out into the surrounding wine regions, where these characteristics are embodied. Here much is on offer to lovers of the great grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with their cousins, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec lending a hand. Those preferring white wine should stick to the Graves area, where Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle are produced.

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It is impossible to cover the whole of Bordeaux in one day on a wine tour. Distance will thwart you and, really, this is not a place where one wants to rush. Nor can you just hop into the car and drive around to open cellar doors on a whim, where awaiting winery staff are happy to pour you glasses of whatever you would like from the range of wines on offer. This is very much the culture in new world markets like Australia and the United States (and what we’re used to). Most Bordeaux vintages sell out two years in advance and so the châteaux don’t have to worry about receiving guests. They will happily receive you if a request is made, but be sure to plan this in advance and, most likely, during the week.

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Château Rauzan-Segla

bordeaux 60 The Red, Red Wines Of the Medoc Because it was our first time in Bordeaux, we chose the Medoc region for our day out. This is the most famous of them all, home to many of the prestigious labels that command remarkable prices around the world (Lafite, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, etc). French rules are fussy. The appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) certifications dictate the manner in which certain products may be produced, the ingredients that may be used and where they may be aged. Napoleon’s 1855 Classification ranks the importance of the wines, distinguishing them by growth (first to fifth). But France’s classifications are old and times have changed – if you live by the classifications when it comes to choosing wines, you’ll miss out on many excellent, well-priced bottles. There are, perhaps, 10,000 châteaux in Bordeaux but only 500 are classified.

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As with anything that is a matter of taste, there is no general rule when it comes to what is the best wine to drink. It’s all about what you like. But it is fascinating to learn about a wine region and why those particular wines are special. All wines are special because of the terroir, which takes into account things like the soil and microclimate, the age of the vine and, of course, the growing and winemaking process itself. Here the different terroir make the Medoc a unique place. There is no one particular style of wine that is characteristic of the region. Another reason it is a good choice for a tour.

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Château Lafon-Rochet

Our day began before it began, with a note from our guide, Bogdan, left in our room at the Grand Hôtel. We had been looking forward to this tour for weeks, having booked with his company, Bordeaux Vertigo. He had crafted a plan just for us, with visits to a different winery from each of four appellations and across different growths. Driving into the country, we chatted about the region, its history and the wines we would taste. Bogdan recommended that you don’t need to go over 100 euros to get a good bottle of Bordeaux wine. He also illustrated some of the absurdities of Bordeaux wine pricing, like how 2000 and 2001 were both great years but the millennium vintage costs more because it is from that particular year.

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Photo by John Spirov

bordeaux 58 The Red, Red Wines Of the Medoc A château visits always consists of a tour followed by a tasting. The producers want you to learn about their wines, not just stop in for a taste and then leave. This reminded us of our time in Mendoza, where they seem to follow this approach. It is possible to make appointments on your own and visit the different wineries with your own vehicle, but we much prefer to relax and let someone else do the driving. A good thing too because these wines are powerful!

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Château Rauzan-Segla

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Château Rauzan-Segla wine vats

bordeaux 63 The Red, Red Wines Of the Medoc Our first stop was in the appellation Margaux at the second-growth Château Rauzan-Segla, which is owned by same family that owns Chanel. Margaux is a more feminine classification, delicate and elegant, medium to full-bodied, and grown mainly in gravel, limestone and clay. This is a splendid property and we enjoyed the grounds as we walked around. After a visit to the stainless steel wine tank storage room, we proceeded to look at the barrels and then headed into a room where we tasted glasses of Château Rauzan-Segla. This is a deep ruby red wine that is meant for ageing.

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Château Rauzan-Segla

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Château Rauzan-Segla tasting

I should note that it really helps to know about the style of wines you taste in Bordeaux and to be able to use your imagination. What you taste will not be the aged incarnations of the wines when they are at their best. The open bottles are usually only a few years old and will need time to develop; young Bordeaux wines are often quite tannic and haven’t softened yet. Personally I find it a little more enjoyable to taste not only a wider variety of wines on a tour, but also to taste more mature cabernet sauvignons. John, on the other hand, was in heaven. Bordeaux is his favourite style and I think he was a little better prepared for this process than I was. That said, it was easy to see already that the Château Rauzan-Segla would develop into an exquisite wine. It was quite fruity with nice texture and a fragrant bouquet.

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Bogdan, Andrea and John at Château Rauzan-Segla

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Château Gruaud-Larose

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Château Gruaud-Larose wine vats

Next we headed to appellation Saint-Julien, where what they lack in first-growths they make up for in consistency. Our visit was to Château Gruaud-Larose, a second-growth producer that actually has a reputation for being somewhat inconsistent. But these are still outstanding wines. We enjoyed our tastings of Château Gruaud-Larose 2007 and Le Sarget de Gruaud Larose 2004 so much that we picked up a bottle of Château Gruaud-Larose 1989 to have over the weekend.  Most of the châteaux have a second wine that is made from the vats not selected for the first label wine. These will be more affordable but still profitable for the château.

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Château Gruaud-Larose barrels

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Château Gruaud-Larose

An interesting aspect of the châteaux is all the high-tech equipment on-site. Gruaud-Larose has, for example, a hail cannon that can be used to dissipate hail when it is detected. I found it interesting that what happens on the ground is tightly controlled by French standards, but when it comes to weather modification, they stay out of it. And with all the technology used at many of the wineries, nothing is really left to chance. Consistency is another reason that Bordeaux wines can command such high prices. But as one of our Château guides mentioned at the end of the day, this also takes a lot of the romance out of winemaking.

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Château Gruaud-Larose

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Château Gruaud-Larose

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Château Gruaud-Larose tasting

After this we stopped for a delicious lunch near Pauillac at Café Lavinal (Place Desquet in the Bages hamlet). This is a modern restaurant with typical local dishes and an excellent selection of wines by the glass. Here we enjoyed foie gras and oeufs (eggs) meurette with red wine sauce, diced bacon and mushrooms, along with roasted veal and duck. The portions were delicious and very generous, perfect for a day out wine tasting.

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After lunch we proceeded to Château Lafon-Rochet in appellation Saint-Estèphe, where we were greeted by the biggest boxer I have ever seen. This is one of my favourite dog breeds and he was certainly a friendly ambassador for the property. Basile Tesseron, manager of the property, joined us shortly after that, explaining that this was his father’s dog, a treasured present and constant companion who had grown a bit larger than anticipated. We couldn’t get enough of the dog, but finally began our tour of this 120 acre, fourth-growth estate.

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Château Lafon-Rochet

The vines of this family-owned and run château go back to the 17th century and the wines attract a discerning audience of real connoisseurs, who appreciate their power, density and smoky aroma. We really enjoyed them, tasting both the Château Lafon Rochet and the second label, Les Pelerins de Lafon. This is another label that will do well aged for a couple of decades.

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Finally, we reached our last château of the day: Lynch-Bages. This is a very popular fifth-growth estate producing a number of wines, including white. The current winemaker is Jean-Charles Cazes (since 1934); he is known for being the last to harvest in Pauillac. In contrast to  Lafon Rochet, Lynch-Bages is a very large producer. The property is very nice, with an interesting wine museum that we toured as part of our visit. Our last tastes of the day were the Château Lynch-Bages 2006 and Château Ormes de Pez 2006. The Château Lynch-Bages in particular is a very powerful, masculine wine, with both smoky and rich fruity flavours. Once again, these wines require quite a bit of ageing to really reveal themselves.

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Château Lynch-Bages label machine

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Every aspect of our day was a learning experience. I never knew, for example, that magnums provide the optimal bottle conditions for ageing. Or that egg whites are sometimes used to improve wine quality during the fining process. There was an added element of excitement and anticipation in the air as well, for the châteaux employees were all buzzing about futures coming up in two weeks – where buyers, journalists and critics come to taste the new vintage.

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We highly recommend booking a tour with Bordeaux Vertigo as well. Bogdan is very friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the region and its producers and he will create a day based around your interests, whether you wish to see Medoc or another region. He even does tours to Cognac, which is already penciled in on John’s schedule for our next visit. If time or costs prohibit you from taking a wine tour to the châteaux during your stay in Bordeaux, be sure to do a tasting in the city. Bar a Vin (angle allee Tourny et cours du XXX julliet, vins-bordeaux.fr) offers wine tasting with an excellent selection of wines by the glass. It is also possible to take a wine class or sample wines at one of the many restaurants with good lists around town.

28 comments

  1. Comment by Ali

    Ali Reply May 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    I know nothing about wine! I do enjoy wine tastings now and then, but so much of the detail goes over my head. I just can’t taste the differences beyond red or white, sweet or not sweet, the big things like that. This does sound like an incredible region to explore for wine though!

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 7, 2013 at 9:13 am

      I think you don’t get into those nuances unless you really spend a lot of time on the subject. I started off paying attention to the different French wine regions, which is a good primer for everything else. Then in Australia there were a lot of wineries close to where we were living so we got into visits. You just have to taste lots and lots and then you start noticing the differences. But, hey, wine is not going to be at the top of everyone’s interest list. I’m certainly no wine snob! =)

  2. Comment by Jenna

    Jenna Reply May 6, 2013 at 12:14 am

    YES, please!! This is exactly the kind of thing I would love to do. I spend plenty of time in the wine country of California but have not done so in France. btw, that dog is adorable!

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 7, 2013 at 9:14 am

      It has been way too many years since I’ve been to Napa and Sonoma. The rest of California has a lot to offer too. From reading others’ blog posts, it seems Napa has changed so much since I was last there around 2002 – I really need to go back!

  3. Comment by Jess @UsedYorkCity

    Jess @UsedYorkCity Reply May 6, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Love that you mention that you don’t have to spend a TON of money to get a good wine. The more tastings I attend the better I am able to understand my palate and the flavors I do and don’t like, so important:-)

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 7, 2013 at 9:16 am

      It’s so important to know that you don’t have to spend a lot. I do love an expensive bottle of Burgundy, but I’m equally happy with less expensive new world wines. We don’t have a cellar so often we’re buying wines from the shops. The way to get the best value from wines is to get them young and cellar them. Without a cellar, we’re often paying too much for Bordeaux wines.

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 7, 2013 at 9:16 am

      Thanks so much, Cynthia! Isn’t he beautiful?

  4. Comment by Sherry

    Sherry Reply May 6, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    When I was in Europe, I got hooked on the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red from Italy. But I can’t imagine these wines wouldn’t intrigue me too. I like the Montepulciano partially because it’s also not expensive, but it taste like it’s worth a million. Such a great experience for the both of you. I love the hand written note and the dog – great touches to an already fantastic trip to wine country.

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

      I don’t know if I’ve tried Montepulciano – what part of Italy is it from? I’m a huge fan of Chiantis…

  5. Pingback: The Red, Red Wines Of the Medoc – Inspiring Travellers | Which Wine Is Sweet

  6. Comment by Maria

    Maria Reply May 7, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    Looks like a wonderful tour and statements like, “Every aspect of our day was a learning experience” really entice me to go.

    Great photography – exterior is amazing but the interior shots of the casks, etc… hold me still.

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      Thank you so much, Maria!

  7. Comment by Cathy Sweeney

    Cathy Sweeney Reply May 7, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    Nice to see your smiling faces in the photo at Château Rauzan-Segla. Wine regions are always on my radar and I’ve spent lots of time in Napa and Sonoma — but never France! Bordeaux would be so special. Thanks for the tour and the tips. Although 100 euros for a bottle of Bordeaux is probably out of my price range, I’d love to have a taste.

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 11, 2013 at 2:07 pm

      You really don’t have to go anywhere near that high to get a good one, especially in France. We enjoyed an excellent drop at dinner one night that was less than 30 euros…

  8. Comment by cosmoHallitan

    cosmoHallitan Reply May 8, 2013 at 10:24 am

    I’ve always wanted to tour the wineries of Bordeaux. I’ve spent a lot of time in Napa and Sonoma which are lovely, but lacking in historic chateaux :-)

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 11, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      The history aspect is definitely part of the appeal here. Personally I prefer wine tasting in places where you can just be a bit spontaneous (like Napa, or in Australia), but yes, you’re not going to find centuries old wineries there.

  9. Comment by Jennifer

    Jennifer Reply May 11, 2013 at 5:51 am

    We love wine and really need to get to France for some wine tourism. I am very intrigued that they even have machines to dissipate hail. That is the most serious wine making is taken of anywhere we’ve been for wine.

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 11, 2013 at 2:14 pm

      Same, Jennifer. Though Mendoza also had a lot of high tech equipment – I drew a lot of similarities between the two.

  10. Comment by Mike Carlson

    Mike Carlson Reply May 12, 2013 at 5:20 am

    Very lovely photos. The first place that I would surely visit when I get to France are its wineries.

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      Thanks, Mike – great plan! =)

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  12. Comment by Dan @ A Cruising Couple

    Dan @ A Cruising Couple Reply May 14, 2013 at 9:09 am

    WOW!! Me and my wife are pretty big wine fans. We spent some time in Napa Valley during our honeymoon but this….. looks like heaven! I think we’ll have to do a second honeymoon soon. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      Ahhh – so romantic – this would be the perfect place!

  13. Comment by James Harris

    James Harris Reply May 15, 2013 at 6:31 am

    Hi guys great write up on Bordeaux. As you know Alex and I got engaged there and you’ve reminded me of what a beautiful place it is. Interestingly for a red wine drinker I discovered that I really took to the Sem Sauv Blanc in Bordeaux, which is more subtle than the NZ version. I’ve some reds in the cellar though because they are very tannic compared to Aussie reds and needs years to soften. I’ll enjoy my Barossa shiraz in the mean time!

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 15, 2013 at 7:17 am

      We thought of you guys all the time when we were at the GHB – I think I even saw “your table” at the brasserie =) Lovely memories, I’m sure! Yes, I felt that the reds were too tannic as well – it wasn’t as pleasurable tasting them so young. We don’t have a cellar (need to rectify that with at least a wine fridge) but I’m happy to drink young ones. Did not try the whites, sadly, because I do enjoy those!

  14. Comment by Stephanie - The Travel Chica

    Stephanie - The Travel Chica Reply May 15, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    I had such a wonderful wine experience in Paris. I definitely want to spend some time touring the vineyards of Bordeaux.

    • Comment by inspiringtravellers

      inspiringtravellers May 16, 2013 at 6:58 am

      Highly recommend them, Stephanie! What’s your favourite style of French wine?

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