A flowering plant that can predict vineyard diseases.
A French winery founded by a Scotsman, whose grandson hung out with the likes of Degas, Manet, and Pissaro.
A mystery scent that’s found in aged wine.
What do these things have in common? Well, wine, of course. But they’re also a few of the things I learned about on our tour of Bordeaux wineries.
If you’re a wine lover visiting France, wine tasting in the region of Bordeaux is one of the best day trips to take.
Wine estates in commercialized regions like Napa readily open their doors to eager tourists, wooing them with chandelier-adorned tasting rooms and charcuterie boards galore.
Bordeaux can be a bit trickier to navigate. If you go on your own, you’ll need to do your research and make reservations in advance. And you may not be able to see many of the crème de la crème chateaux unless you’re a descendent of Napoleon (more on that later).
Because of this, I recommend booking a tour from the city of Bordeaux to save you the work. And so you don’t have to worry about driving. Also, if you’re traveling solo, this is the best way to meet people!
Read on to get the low-down on the small group tour I took and why I recommend it.
But first, let me tell you a little about Bordeaux.
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Bordeaux Wine Region
Bordeaux is France’s largest wine region. How large? Well, we’re talking an average of 54 million cases of wine per year.
They make both red wines and white wines that are almost always a blend of different grape varieties. For red, it’s the big six: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere. White can be a number of varieties, but you’ll most often see Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
On a side note, if you like Bordeaux-style wines, South Africa is another great place to check out. You can read about the wines and top Stellenbosch wineries here.
Bordeaux’s weather is as unpredictable as crazy Aunt Carol’s Christmas presents (although the ugly sweater comes in handy at holiday parties). With rain, humidity, and sometimes hail, wineries have to watch out for things like rot during the growing season or diluted flavors at harvest.
If you’ve ever heard a wine snob spouting off years that are a “good vintage,” this is what they mean. The changes from year-to-year result in vintage variation. In good years, a $20 bottle of Bordeaux can drink like a $50 one (I’m looking at you 2015).
The Bordeaux region starts at the Atlantic coast and is divided by the Dordogne river and the Garonne River. These form the Gironde Estuary and split the region into the left bank and right bank.
On the left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is king. The gravely, stony soils help retain heat so that the grape can fully ripen. This side is also known for its sweet wines made from the Semillon grape. Merlot is at home on the right bank’s clay soils and it’s often blended with Cabernet Franc.
Bordeaux Wine Classification
Oh yeah, before I go on, there’s this little classification thing you’ll hear about that happened in 1855. The Exposition Universelle was coming up in Paris that year and preparations were underway to make it even better than London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.
So, Emperor Napoleon III went all Mean Girls and was like, “Hey guys, I only want to show off the most popular chateaux at the Exposition. Why don’t you pick the best ones, and then rank those from first to fifth growths. And on Wednesdays, we wear pink.” (Okay, he didn’t really say that last part, but he was kind of a Regina George.)
The problem is the classification only included a small number of chateaux primarily from the left bank, prioritizing famous names like Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
And it hasn’t really been updated since 1855. Many of the vineyards owned by the classified chateaux have since been sold, changed hands, or expanded.
It can still be a helpful indicator of quality, but just know that there are other great producers that aren’t classified.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, onward to the tour!
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Bordeaux Wineries Tour
We planned to visit Saint Emilion on the right bank later during our trip. So we chose this well-rated tour of the left bank Médoc appellation.
I liked that it was a small group so we got a more personalized experience. It was also longer than other half-day Bordeaux wine tours and included some food pairings (Old World wines are always better with food).
We met our tour guide in Bordeaux’s city center, near the tourism office. It was a short walk from our VRBO rental. We easily found the group and, after quick introductions, we were on our way to the first winery.
Driving north of Bordeaux city, we arrived in the Lamarque commune, just north of Margeaux.
Chateau Malescasse was built in 1824 by the Renouil family. Over time it was not kept up well. So in the ‘70s Guy Tesseron, a major figure in the Médoc, began restoring it and replanting the vines.
Today, it’s owned by Philippe Austruy, who has further restructured the vineyards and made additional renovations to the manor house, including adding guest rooms. Now, you too can be a lord or lady for a weekend and book the entire chateau.
Our tour of the property and wine production facility took us through the vat room. The host explained how they use a combination of vessels for fermentation and aging, including wood, stainless steel, and concrete. Then through the cellar of medium-toasted oak barrels, sourced from different cask makers to increase the wine’s complexity.
The tasting room is stunning. Recently renovated, the walls surrounding the bar are lined with hundreds of Chateau Malescasse wine bottles.
Their premier wine is a cru bourgeois, part of an official selection chosen by blind tasting annually. The blend is heavier on the Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon, bringing in some more red fruit flavors. It also includes some Petit Verdot.
We had a vertical tasting of two different vintages, which was interesting to see how the differences in weather, harvest time, and blend percentages impact the wine. I found the older one to be smoother and less tannic (that drying sensation in your mouth).
After the tasting, our tour guide had a fun activity planned to help us learn about wine aromas. It was capped off by a competition to see who could identify the mystery scent found in some aged wines.
Unfortunately, this gal did not win, but it turned out to be…truffle! IMO my guess of mushrooms was close though.
Chateau Cantenac Brown
Our next stop was in the prestigious Margeaux appellation.
Our tour started in front of the massive tudor-style chateau (what I like to think of as my future summer home — hey, one can dream).
We learned that Cantenac Brown was part of the 1855 classification and is a third-growth chateau. John Lewis Brown, the Scotsman I mentioned earlier, was the one who founded it more than 200 years ago.
He handed it down to his grandson (the one that hung out with all the famous fellas), who was a naturalist painter and made a name for Cantenac Brown as an artistic landmark.
Due to financial reasons, the Browns had to sell the chateau and it has changed hands many times. But their name was carried on.
Since 2019, Cantenac Brown has been owned by the Le Lous family. Tristan Le Lous is focused on balancing nature and culture, and we learned about his plans to build a new cellar entirely of raw earth.
Speaking of earth, remember that plant I mentioned that can predict diseases in the vineyard? Fun fact: It’s a rose bush.
During the tour, we learned that roses and grapevines can get the same fungal diseases. Except roses will show signs of this before the vines do. By planting them at the ends of the vineyard rows, they’ll alert the winemaker in advance of any issues that need to be treated.
Back in the tasting room, our tour guide had set up a spread of French cheese, cured meats, and fresh bread to snack on.
We sampled two of Cantenac Brown’s wines. The Grand Cru is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It was earthy, with notes of blackberry, blackcurrent, and leather. Definitely an age-worthy wine.
Next, we tasted Brio, their second-level wine. It’s a similar blend to the Grand Cru, but with Cabernet Franc added, bringing some floral notes. It’s a good option for an accessible Bordeaux that you can drink younger than the Grand Cru.
On a side note, if you want to up your wine-dorkiness, check out wine futures. You can buy the latest vintage Grand Cru for half the price while it’s still maturing in the barrel. You just have to be willing to wait a year or two before the wine is shipped to you.
Our last stop was Château Margaux, one of the most famous chateaux. It was part of the four original first growths selected in the 1855 classification.
While we didn’t get to go inside, it was a great spot for a photo op of their beautiful property. And I’m sure my wallet thanked me with bottles of Chateau Margeaux often going for upwards of a grand.
Our guide found us a spot next to their many hectares of vines. And we settled in for a mini class of wine-tasting tips. Then, we capped off the day with a final glass of wine and a santé (French for cheers)!
If you’re interested in this guided tour, here’s where you can book it.
Looking for more European wine destinations? Don’t miss the best Douro Valley wine tour, top Santorini wineries, and how to visit a Cava winery in Spain. And if you love Bordeaux wines, check out the top Stellenbosch wineries producing Bordeaux-style blends.
Where to Stay for Visiting Bordeaux Wineries
The town of Bordeaux is one of my favorite cities in Europe. There are plenty of great sites to see and places to taste local wines in town. And you’ll have easy access to visit Bordeaux vineyards. You can also take a day trip to St. Emilion, a medieval village in the Bordeaux area.
I recommend staying in the Chartrons area, near the river boardwalk. But the city center is also a good option. There are plenty of hotels at a variety of price levels to choose from.
For hotel reservations, I like to use Booking.com. Just enter “Bordeaux, France” and select your dates below to see available options.
Do you have a favorite Bordeaux wine? Is this region on your travel wish list?