It was a hot night in late July as my husband, Matt, and I gathered for aperitifs with our friend, Caroline, and her parents at their two-hundred year-old, ivy covered house in St. Seurin de Cadourne. Across the road, the Gironde Estuary flowed north-west to the Atlantic, while millions of ruby-red grapes slowly ripened on their vines in the surrounding countryside. We were in the Médoc, a viticultural area that includes many of the most celebrated wine estates in not just Bordeaux but all of France; places like Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Margaux, to drop a couple names. And with each sip of wine that I took, on this, our first of three nights there, I more deeply regretted my failure to book a wine tasting at any of them.
But could we arrange a more spontaneous visit to one of the region’s famed fairy tale castles? The next morning, Caroline, Matt and I drove twenty minutes south to the Médoc area’s main visitor center, the Maison du Tourism et du Vin, in Pauillac, where we learned that the answer was a qualified yes. While it was unlikely that we’d be able to visit any of the more prestigious chateaux, we should be able to make last minute appointments at many of the lesser known estates. In fact, the man at the reservations desk told us, there was still space in a group tour and tasting later that afternoon at Chateau La Rose Trintaudon, one of the Médoc’s largest wine producers. Eagerly, we signed up.
Later that day, our tour of Chateau La Rose Trintaudon began among the vines under a blazing late afternoon sun. We and a dozen other visitors gathered around our guide, an energetic and linguistically talented young man, who told us everything there was to know about the estate, its wines, and vinification methods, first in French and then in English.
My clothes were sticking to me by the time we moved into a deliciously cool and musty building called the Chai, the French term for what we Americans call the caves or cellars. Here, our guide pointed out the huge stainless steel tanks used for fermenting the grapes. Traditionally, egg whites were added to the vats to filter sediment from the resulting juice, and the leftover yolks used to make a local delicacy called Canelé de Bordeaux, a rich custardy cake with a delicious carmelized shell. While real egg whites are no longer used today, many Bordeaux chateaux continue to use powdered egg whites as a filtering agent, and Canelé can still be found in bakeries throughout the area.
The last stop on the tour was the chateau itself, a handsome 19th century manor house, where we finally got to taste several of La Rose Trintaudon’s cru bourgeois vintages, the second highest ranked of the five families of Médoc wines (see below for more on the classification of Médoc wines). While the wine was good, the view from the chateau’s massive, rectangular tower over the surrounding vineyards and nearby castles was what we enjoyed the most.
The next day, having had no luck arranging another wine tasting, we decided to tour around on the D2, the so-called “Route des Chateaux” to catch at least a glimpse of Bordeaux’s most famous wine estates. It was a pleasant drive, only a handful of cars on the road as we wound through oceans of trellised vines, stone castles rising up from them like islands. At the legendary Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of Bordeaux’s five premier grand cru estates, we pulled over to take photos, Caroline speculating that the owners were likely in residence since the fountain was on. Elegant Chateau Beycheville, known as the Versailles du Médoc, was another highlight. Although tours were full for the day, we were permitted to stroll around the manicured lawns and statuary in the estate’s beautiful gardens overlooking the Gironde.
But there was more to the Médoc, I discovered, than these regal stone castles and their leafy kingdoms of cabernet. There were quiet little villages with roots far deeper than the vines; places like St. Estèphe, where we stopped to see the baroque interior of the church where Caroline was baptized and married, and Vertheuil, where we lit candles in the vaulted nave of a 12th century abbey. With a dusty authenticity that’s increasingly hard to find, these towns had very little of touristic interest but loads of atmosphere.
There was, likewise, a subtle charm to the Gironde — Europe’s largest estuary — with its deceptively treacherous mud-brown waters and small fishing shacks — the carrelets — perched on spindly stilts along the estuary’s grassy banks. Flowing north-west to the Atlantic from the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers near the city of Bordeaux, the Gironde has a moderating impact on weather in the Médoc, making it possible to grow the high quality wine grapes for which the region is so famous.
After touring around for awhile, we returned to Pauillac and took a table outside at Le Salamandre, one of several restaurants on the main drag across from the estuary. Over a pot of garlicky moules meunieres and a glass of the house rosé, I had just resigned myself to the fact that our trip to Bordeaux would include only one chateau visit, when Caroline’s phone rang. It was Chateau Loudenne returning our call, and they could fit us in for a tour and tasting at 4pm! Needless to say, we took them up on their offer.
And that is how we managed to visit two Médoc wine estates in two days, despite a complete lack of advance planning. While such a laissez faire approach would not work for more serious wine connoisseurs, it allowed us to take things at a slower pace and enjoy time with our friends, while still getting a good feel for the Médoc region and its wines.
A Few Things I Learned About Médoc Wines: French wine classification systems are notoriously complicated. Here are a few key facts about Médoc wines that I learned while I was in the region.
- There are 8 Médoc Appellations: Within the Médoc region, there are eight official wine growing areas or “appellations” (short for “appellation d’origine controllé” or “AOC”): St. Estephe, St. Julien, Margaux, Pauillac, Listrac, Moulis, Medoc and Haut-Medoc. Generally, the smaller or more specific the appellation, the finer the wine. Thus, Pauillac, for example, trumps the regional Médoc appellation, which trumps the wider Bordeaux designation.
- All Médoc Wines are Red: The various AOCs set official rules that must be followed in order for a wine to carry the appellation name, including the grape varietals that may be used, permitted alcohol levels, vinification practices, and other rules around the growing and making of wine. While rules vary somewhat throughout the region, only red wines can be classified under a Médoc AOC. Thus, a white wine made in the Médoc must be classified simply as a Bordeaux wine.
- Médoc Wines are Classified Into Five Different Families: In addition to AOC designation, Médoc wines are classified into five families of “crus” or “growths,” including: Grands Crus Classes, Crus Bourgeois, Crus Artisans, les autres crus (“the other” crus) and cooperative wines. Within the highest ranking of these, the Grands Crus Classés family, there are, in turn, five levels, from premiers (first) to cinquièmes (fifth) crus. There are four Premiers Grands Crus estates in the Médoc (the designation is bestowed on a chateau-by-chateau basis) including: Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, and Margaux.
Some Recommended Wine Chateaux in the Médoc Region: Here’s a list of chateaux recommended by a friend in the wine industry that I hope to visit one day — with advance reservations, of course!
- Calon Segur
- Cos d’Estournel
- Lafon Rochet
- Phelan Segur
- Tour Haut Caussan
- Pichon Longueville
- Leoville Barton