Uncorking Bordeaux

You know that sound of the pop of the cork, followed by gurgling and a splash hitting the glass? I thought planning a trip to Bordeaux would be that easy, as simple as opening a bottle of wine and making the first pour. Wine flows freely in France so I assumed it would not be hard to figure out where to do some tastings in perhaps the most well-known wine region in the country, Bordeaux. 

The decision to select Bordeaux as a destination for some of the wine enthusiasts coming to visit me was the easy part. I planned a long weekend with friends there last March, and then a quick overnight stop-off en route to Dordogne with my parents. Beyond that though, figuring out where exactly to go took much more time. 

The first important term buzzing around those Bordeaux vineyards is the Classification of 1855. Emperor Napoleon III planned a huge exposition in Paris and the country's Bordeaux wines were to be presented to visitors from around the world. Thus the châteaus of Bordeaux were quickly evaluated and the famous list of the top five growths was established (the ones that had the opportunity to be presented at such an event). This piece of history is important today because the list has not changed since then, except for a revision in 1973 when the petitions of Baron Philippe de Rothschild finally succeeded to elevate Château Mouton-Rothschild to a premier cru (first growth).

Sure, things can change over the past 150+ years or so, but this classification stands almost untouched. (There are 61 châteaus on the list instead of the original 58 as some of the original châteaus have since divided into multiple estates.) So I started with this list, right at the top.

And I was able to get an appointment at one of the first growths, Château Haut-Brion.

According to Château Haut-Brion's website, its beginnings started in 1533 which makes it the oldest wine estate in Bordeaux. 

When we arrived, we were brought into a theater room to start the tour by watching a short film about the estate. You know, a film about its humble history with facts like Thomas Jefferson once visited the Château Haut-Brion and enjoyed a fine glass of wine. (For the record, this was the only vineyard I've visited in Bordeaux that included a multimedia presentation.)

The château really was beautiful. Apparently current owner Prince Robert of Luxembourg stays here from time to time (he's the great-grandson to American Clarence Dillon who bought the estate in 1935).

The tour continued to impress. They work with specific coopers to make their barrels with special types of French oak. Over a hundred people are brought in during harvest to hand-pick the grapes, which then go through another screening process to select the best ones (think airport security seeking potential hazards to good wine - shoddy grapes). There was certainly an air of prestige to every aspect of the process that led right up to the gorgeous tasting room. 

After the tour, we were invited in to the elaborately decorated tasting room.

I have to say, of all the vineyards we visited in Bordeaux, Château Haut-Brion's hospitality really shined. They gave us a free tour and tasting...and there certainly was no expectation to purchase a bottle at a few hundred euros apiece. (I don't even recall a shop on the grounds.) And along with the four of us, there were only two other people on our tour. 

I like to think about vineyards in this area the same way I do about jewelry. I can be wowed by the glitz of fancy places like Tiffany's and Cartier, but when it comes down to it, I would only make a purchase at the family-run jewelry shop in my home town, who know my life story and I trust. I go to Bordeaux for its longstanding prestigious reputation but I go to Saint-Émilion to feel at home with small family businesses (and to make some purchases!). 

So put Château Haut-Brion on the list to get a taste of the wow factor one seeks in Bordeaux. 

Possibly the only taste of wine from Château Haut-Brion I will experience, thus properly documented (also shown is a wine from Château La Mission Haut-Brion, another estate acquired in 1983).

Château Haut-Brion is the only estate I've visited in Pessac, just southwest of the city of Bordeaux. For the rest, I headed north on D2, more impressively known as the Route des Châteaux.

Pass by lots of open space and vineyards, and then this appears - the stately Château Palmer. Each time I come up this road, I have to pull over and take a peek.

The vineyards of Château Palmer on a beautiful day in March

Compare the picture above to this one of the same sign, the following September

In September my parents and I caught the vineyards of Château Palmer right before harvest. I would have loved to tour this estate except they are only open Monday-Friday, and we were in the area on a weekend.

Neighbor to Château Palmer is Château Margaux. Château Margaux is another of the five premiers crusla crème de la crème. I tried to schedule a visit here but they responded that due to an ongoing project to renovate and expand their cellars, visits have been restricted from 2013-2015. If you're a professional in the industry, you have a shot at scoring a visit in the upcoming year or so. In the meantime, the rest of us can drive up and at least take a peek at the grounds.

When I was with my parents, we camped out in Margaux and visited two vineyards that were side-by-side. The first was Château Prieuré-Lichine, a fourth growth. It was a bustling day at the château that Saturday in September  with one tour bus working their way through a visit. Yet we were given a private tour, just the three of us. 

We went on a standard tour, where we learned about some of the rules that Bordeaux vineyards have to abide by in order to sell their wines as such. One is that they have to let the vines succomb to the weather naturally, whatever that brings. So if hail is in the forecast, the vines are not allowed to be covered by tarps or such. (And hail can destroy a crop majorly!) 

Down in the cellars

Though it was certainly commercialized, with a large shop full of their wine and wine gadgets, our guide was lovely, the tour turned out to be private, and the tasting room overlooked the vineyards. (See Monday's picture for another photo of the tasting experience.) 

My parents and I had limited time on our way to Dordogne for the week, so we kept our vineyard tours simple. We localized in the Margaux area and headed next door to Château Desmirail (third growth in the classification) for our second and last tour.

I have to rank this tour as the funniest. Our guide certainly had a sense of humor, and walked us through the history of the estate while keeping us on our toes. It is now run by the wine dynasty Lurton family. Lucien Lurton had ten children and was able to gift them with some property. As in an estate to each child. Son Dennis was gifted with Château Desmirail.

There were less than ten of us on the tour, and I even walked away with a small purchase, an inexpensive rosé. (Interesting fact I learned was that only red wines in Bordeaux are allowed to have the appellation to indicate which area it comes from, like Margaux or Pauillac. Whites and rosés just get the general "Bordeaux" designation.) 

Jumping back to my first trip in March, I had much more time in Bordeaux with my friends and we continued up the Route des Châteaux past Margaux into Pauillac. Our next destination was what I consider to be the most beautiful château in Bordeaux. Meet Château Pichon Longueville, as photographed that evening on our return back to the city of Bordeaux (it may look familiar as it made my end-of-the-year roundup):

Stunning in daylight, it really ups the romanticism at night

The four of us scored another private tour of the vineyard, followed by a visit to the tasting room/shop. Seeing this gorgeous estate I imagined some multi-millionaire owned this vineyard, hosting marvelous private parties here. I was surprised to learn it is no longer in the hands of an individual. The estate was purchased by AXA, a French insurance company, to diversify its investments. Large companies owning estates in Bordeaux is a reality that is spreading and sadly making its way over to the charming family-run vineyards of St. Émilion.

Although it was the most expensive tour we did at €10 per person, if you bought wine the fee was waved and €10 was discounted off the price of the bottle. Now I am just waiting for the perfect special occasion to pop open the bottle I purchased with the "deal."

My last stop with my friends was the furthest point north we ventured on the Route des Châteaux, less than five minutes away from previous stop Château Pichon Longueville. We ended the day at Château Lynch-Bages, a fifth growth in the 1855 classification.

Although each vineyard gave a basic explanation of the wine-making process as we saw various equipment, vats, and barrels used along the way, each visit complimented the others with new and interesting information. At Château Lynch-Bages we got to see what wine-making was like years ago. (Hint: you wouldn't have wanted to be the person (or child) to get the job of cleaning out the vats. You went into the vat with a candle, and when it started to tucker out due to lack of oxygen, it was time to scramble.)

Check out that old wine press!

This tour was the largest I have been on, but it still maintained intimacy. Plus, we got to see all these beautiful glasses awaiting us at the end of the tour: 

Five châteaus, five unique tours, numerous tastings of wine. Definitely set aside a full day while visiting Bordeaux and experience some of those esteemed vineyards!

Do you have any favorites to visit in the area?



It is important to book visits ahead as most châteaus offer tours and tastings by appointment only. In my opinion, I would visit a maximum of three châteaus - if planned right, you can do one in the morning and two in the afternoon. Unless you are a connoisseur and want to visit specific vineyards, choosing three maximum provides plenty of information on the wine-making process without getting too repetitive.

Château Haut-Brion

135 Avenue Jean Jaurès, 33600 Pessac

Contact for an appointment; open Monday-Friday (on Friday, morning only); closed weekends, bank holidays, and mid-July through mid-August

Request form available on their website

Free tour and tasting 


Château Palmer

Route des Châteaux (D2), 33460 Margaux 

Contact for an appointment; open Monday-Friday; closed on weekends and bank holidays

Request form available on their website


Château Prieuré-Lichine

34 Avenue de la 5ème République, 33460 Cantenac

Appointments preferred, open Monday-Saturday

Request form available on their website

 €6 / person, standard tour lasts 1.5 hours (tasting included after tour) 


Château Desmirail

28 Avenue de la 5ème République, 33460 Cantenac

Contact for an appointment; open November-April: Monday-Friday 9:30am-12:30pm / 2:00pm-5:30pm; May-October: Wednesday-Sunday 9:30am-12:30pm / 2:00pm-6:00pm

Request form available on their website

 €5 / person, standard tour lasts 1 hour (tasting included after tour) 


Château Pichon Longueville

Route des Châteaux (D2), 33250 Pauillac

Contact for an appointment, open daily 9:00am-12:30pm / 2:00pm-6:30pm

Email request for a visit to contact@pichonlongueville.com 

 €10 / person, tour lasts 1 hour (tasting included after tour) 


Château Lynch-Bages

Craste des Jardins, 33250 Pauillac

Contact for an appointment, open daily 9:30am-1:00pm / 2:00pm-6:30pm, closed Christmas through New Year's Eve

Request form available on their website 

€9 / person, tour lasts 1 hour (tasting included after tour)