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Bacchanalian pleasures in the French town of Bordeaux

by Kalpana Sunder  Jul 20, 2012 18:58 IST

#Bordeaux   #France   #Vineyards   #WanderingI   #wine  

When I landed in Bordeaux, France to attend the Bordeaux Fete du Vin, a biennial event, I felt totally unprepared to handle the aristocratic French, who sniff and swirl wine from birth and are able to recognise tannic notes and aromas of peach and violets in the blink of an eye. But on my first day in the city, I fell in love with the modernistic Le miroir d’eau - a shallow pool of water that reflected the classic Place de La Bourse (built in the 1730s by the royal architect) and the sight of the children and pets splashing with abandon in the fountain jets that went up at periodic intervals. I loved the quirky metallic lamp posts all over town. I loved my first meal at the colourful glass fronted L’Orangerie du Jardin, inside the 250 year old public garden sprawled over ten hectares with manicured lawns, statues and elegant buildings. I thought to myself — a town that can be quirky and so fun can’t be too bad.

Marie Yvonne Holley, the head of press for the Aquitaine Tourism Board (stretching from the Dordogne to glitzy Biarritz), told me, “We Bordelais are incredibly lucky... we can head to the beach or ski in the Pyrenees; we have the best ham and foie gras, the top wines and world class shopping.”

The sleek futuristic trams in Bordeaux run on underground power so that ugly electric lines do not distract you from the striking UNESCO listed city skyline. The lovely limestone facades have been cleaned of grime and the 2 kilometre stretch along the Garonne River in the heart of the city was a sea of conical tents, with more than 80 appellations of wines. The festival not only showcased wines but also the food culture of the region, with special Bayonne ham and Arcachon oysters.

A picture taken on November 12, 2011, in Saint-Emilion, near Bordeaux, southwestern France, shows vineyards producing one of the famous wines of the Bordeaux region. AFP

I received a passport — where I recorded my wine tastings, and thirteen tasting tickets along with a wine glass in a small red bag to tote around. I was awe-struck by the larger-than-life wine bottles in eye catching colours and designs adorning the riverside- the work of Chinese and French graphic artists, photographers and painters (as Hong Kong was the guest of honour this year). The massive La Place des Quinconces was converted into a giant arena, with live musical performances. There were special programs conducted by the local Wine School to educate the general public about wine tasting.

Besides the wine tastings and education, I visited stalls where you could try out the new Renault electric cars or have a virtual tour of Chateaus, and browsed through the open-air library of wine books at the Literary Cuvee where books were displayed on barrels.

Wine has been made in Bordeaux since Roman times and today more than 10, 000 estates or chateaux make their living from these fertile soils. To really understand the complex world of wines, and the French concept of terroir, we took trips to vineyards in the region. The rich diversity of the wines is due to the different soils, the know-how, the expertise in blending and the personality of the owners stamped on the wines. I learnt the difference between the gravel of the Medoc region and the rolling clay and limestone terrain of St Emilion. I learnt the the geography of the right bank and the left bank wines and about the Entre-Deux-Mers — the largest wine-growing region in Bordeaux which owes much of its name to the two sinuous rivers that mark its borders — the Garonne and the Dordogne. We drove past prim chateaus behind forbidding stone walls, to Saint Emilion, a medieval village built like an amphitheatre, famous for its macaroons first made by Les Ursulines, a small community of nuns in 1620.

On another trip we visited Bergerac, the second most important wine producing region with 13 appellations and the Chateau Belingard, a wine estate run now by the seventh generation of the family spread over 90 hectares. The estate’s name is derived from the Celtic name for the Garden of the Gods, due to an ancient sculpted rock found on the site, which must have been a sacrificial altar 3000 years ago. We enjoyed the marvellous views over the green valley and rolling hills chatting with Laurent and Sylvie de Bosredon, the affable owners of the estate.

The sound and light show at the Place de la Bourse every night of the Bordeaux Wine Festival. Image credit: Kalpana Sunder

They spoke about their experiences in making white, red and dessert wines, their preference for gentle, organic farming, how all their grapes are hand- picked and their choice of the name Ortus for their wine derived from Latin (inspired by their daughter who was studying Latin at that time). To me, it was interesting to see how Bergerac wines have to find their own niche, being so close to the iconic Bordeaux region.

As we drove into the tree- lined path to Chateau Siaurac, a classic Bordeaux mansion from 1832, it felt like a ‘fairytale moment’. We met Aline Guichard Goldschmidt, the charismatic owner of the Baronne Guichard brand, who left a successful journalistic career in Paris and moved back to manage her family property, when her father died. Château Siaurac is one of the family’s three Châteaux, part of “the Baronne Guichard Wines. Aline took us on an enjoyable ramble around her 60 hectare estate, introducing us to thirty trees between 200 to 400 years old. A ‘children’s tree’ with branches that beg to be climbed, where she played as a child with her cousins, and patches of more than 35 different flowers. We enjoyed the back-to-nature afternoon, plucking cherries and prunes from trees, smelling aromatic lavender patches and devouring the simple meal of lentils and ratatouille with her very drinkable Plaisir de Siaurac merlot, in her stately dining room packed with priceless art and artefacts. Her ideas for the estate were enchanting. She arranges small group stays on her estate in tents under a full moon with jazz music, a lamb roast and fine wine as well as cookery sessions with an expert chef.

Our evenings at the wine festival were filled with wine tastings, a cookery show with sweet wine and an exclusive tasting of the Holy Grail of wines- the Grand Crus Classe- some of the most expensive and fine wines of Bordeaux. I was engulfed in a sea of wines and spirits of all descriptions and vintages, ranging from vin de pays to premium classified first growths. Every evening ended with a display of fireworks on the riverside and a marvellous musical sound and light show projected on the facades of the buildings in the Place de la Bourse. With incredible technical effects and images of nature, science, travel and art, this was also a tribute to great moments of Bordeaux’s wine history. My Bordeaux experience was much like tasting the Cabernets, Semillons and Merlots: ripe with rich experiences and a languid finish that kept me wanting more...

The author is a Japanese language specialist, blogger and travel writer based in Chennai.