Spain/France Trip: Bordeaux Wine Region (Days 5-8)

Itinerary:

Bordeaux Wine Region (Days 5-8):

On our way up to Bordeaux from San Sebastian, we planned to stop in St. Jean de Luz, with the possibility to also briefly check out Biarritz depending on our timing.  We had a wine tasting appointment at Chateau d’Yquem (southeast of Bordeaux) in the late afternoon that we definitely did not want to miss! Not knowing exactly where to be or park in St. Jean de Luz, we ended up parking a little far away from what would have been ideal, but nonetheless a walk is always nice when in the car for the most of the day.

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Main Square in St. Jean de Luz

We walked the entire length of the town along the boardwalk, taking note of the interesting architecture of the old fishing town’s houses and buildings.  Approaching the river, we turned back toward the marina and finally happened upon the main square.  Now it was time to find the reason we decided to stop here in the first place – to see St. Jean-Baptiste church where Louis XIV and Marie Theresa were married.  The church has a nautical feel, almost like you were on the deck of an old wooden ship.  I enjoy seeing little historical places like this and thought it was worth the stop.

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Interior of Eglise St. Jean-Baptiste

At this point, we made the decision that we needed to eat lunch here and probably forgo trying to stop in Biarritz in order to make our appointment at d’Yquem.  Not wanting to waste too much time walking around aimlessly trying to find somewhere to eat (like we always do), we chose to eat at one of the busier restaurants on the main square.  I was breaking my rule of not eating meals on main squares because the food is usually not that great and overpriced. But this was a small town, and I figured that wasn’t much of an issue.  I should mention at this point that I studied French as my foreign language in school, and while I am not at all fluent, I do know a decent amount of vocabulary, which can be helpful.  Male DINK was so hungry that he went ahead and ordered something off the menu without first asking me what it was (the menu was in French).  He ended up ordering an omelet with codfish, which he wasn’t so thrilled about, but ate because he was hungry.  I ordered a salad that was perfectly fine.  Our table was right next to the windows so we had a nice view of the square while we ate.  Not wanting to be late for our wine tasting, we ate fairly quickly, knowing we had a bit of a hike back to where we parked the car.  On our walk to the car, Male DINK said his stomach didn’t feel very well.  We didn’t think too much of it and figured it was just a little discomfort from lunch and would pass.

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Chateau d’Yquem

Well, we were wrong.  He grew more and more uncomfortable as we drove and wasn’t sure if he would be able to keep driving.  In the grand scheme of things, I think having to drive was what made him stay well enough in the car.  Still not feeling well, we arrived at Chateau d’Yquem, which is known for making some of the most expensive white wine in the world, Sauternes.  Sauternes is a white dessert wine that, to me, seems to have a bit more of a mineral taste and is less sugary-sweet than other dessert wines.

The winery is located up on a small hill overlooking the countryside.  We checked in and were asked to wait for our guide in a beautiful room, complete with their lion and shield logo on the wall.

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Waiting room at Chateau d’Yquem

Neither of us realized we were going to have a private tour, and we were more than pleased with our guide who was very friendly and knowledgeable. About 10 minutes into the tour, Male DINK politely excused himself to use the restroom and was gone for what seemed like longer than it should be.  I was about to go check on him when he rejoined us and we continued on the tour.

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Walking down to the barrel room at Chateau d’Yquem

The tour ended with a tasting of “Y” and then also a tasting of Chateau d’Yquem. At 60 Euros each, we thought the tour was well worth the money, especially considering both the private tour and the caliber of wine you are able to taste.

On our way to Pauillac where we were staying, Male DINK confessed that he was gone so long during the tour because he got sick and thought he probably had food poisoning.  Sadly, he wasn’t able to enjoy the wine tasting very much because, well, when you get sick you don’t have the best taste in your mouth for awhile.  I felt terrible, as I was raving about how much I liked the wine only to learn he didn’t really even get a real taste.

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Wall in the tasting room showcasing one bottle of each vintage at Chateau d’Yquem

We arrived at our hotel, Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, in the early evening, and I inquired about room service, as Male DINK was in no shape to go out to eat.  The receptionist hesitated a bit before saying that they could arrange room service.  The room (we were upgraded – probably because they had very few guests) was large with two bedrooms and bathrooms (we obviously didn’t need two bedrooms, but we went with it).  Shortly thereafter, a staff member knocked on our door to give us the menu for room service.  Now, I have to confess that part of the reason we chose this particular hotel was because it has a 2 Michelin Star restaurant in it.  However, I was not expecting that the room service menu would be the dinner menu from that fine dining restaurant!  Obviously, with this type of food, there wasn’t going to be something light and easy to digest.  Not having any other options for dinner, I ordered an $80 entrée and asked for extra bread for Male DINK.

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Our hotel at sunset – Chateau Cordeillan-Bages

While waiting for dinner, we were going to wash up from a long day when we were greeted by brown water coming out of the sinks and bathtub (gross)!  We were staying in the hotel during the first week it was open for the season, and the hotel staff informed us that it sometimes happens with the first stay because the rooms have been sitting idle.  This situation was not helping our already somewhat upsetting day with Male DINK not feeling well.  They sent a maintenance lady who only spoke French to come see what she could do.  She ran the water in both of the bathrooms and basically communicated that the water in the master bathroom was still brown, but that the water in the second bathroom was okay.  So we only used the second bathroom the entire trip (I guess we needed that second bedroom after all!).  Dinner arrived with ample bread to help Male DINK through the food poisoning.  The chef included a complimentary amuse-bouche with my entree, which was a nice touch.  So there we were, me consuming an expensive, high-end meal, and Male DINK eating bread and drinking water.  By this point, he was very feverish.  Luckily, a couple of ibuprofen took care of the fever overnight.  Oh, did I mention we had booked a very expensive private tour and lunch at Chateau Cos d’Estournel the next morning?  Eek!  We went to sleep, and all I could think about was what to do about the reservation in the morning…

The next day – our fifth day – we had two scheduled wine tastings.  The first was at 10:00 am at Cos d’Estournel, which would be followed by a private lunch with more wine tasting.  The second was at 3:00pm at Chateau Mouton Rothschild.  We woke up pretty early and Male DINK said there was no way he could handle the morning wine tasting, but kindly offered that I could go by myself if I wanted.

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Cos d’Estournel

Now, I know I probably should have gone to be polite to the establishment by having at least have one of us show up, but I also did not want to experience something without Male DINK. This particular tour and tasting was our splurge for this part of the trip, and we were very much looking forward to the experience.  So, after much deliberation and discomfort about the inevitable phone call, I phoned Cos d’Estournel and cancelled our appointment.  They were sympathetic and did not give me a hard time about it, which was incredible considering the circumstances and last minute cancellation (we are talking within the hour).  Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for Cos, we did not have to put down a deposit for our booking, so we did not lose any money.

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Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande

We spent the morning being lazy and nursing Male DINK back to health.  He decided he was in good enough shape to go to the afternoon wine tasting at Chateau Mouton Rothschild.  While still feeling week, he was slowly getting back to normal. Also, the tour and tasting at Mouton Rothschild was only one wine, which was much easier to handle than the many different wines we would have tasted earlier that morning.  First, though, we decided to eat lunch in the tiny village of Bages, which is just down the road from our hotel (a five-minute walk).  They have a few wines you can taste through an enomatic machine, and I decided to go all-in and try a glass of the Chateau Lynch-Bages with my lunch since we missed out on Cos earlier in the day.  We had some time to kill before the wine tasting at Mouton, so we drove around for awhile, down the Rue des Chateaux, and back up toward St. Estephe, admiring the beautiful buildings and being delighted to see the well-known names (Latour, Lafite Rothschild, etc.). The area is truly majestic with the castle-like buildings and chateaus dotting the countryside (look for two Chateau Pichon buildings standing across the street from each other just north of Latour).

It was now time for the tour at Chateau Mouton Rothschild (only a few minutes’ drive from the hotel).  We had a small group tour consisting of about eight people.  Again, our guide was very personable and informative. Other than getting to taste the wine, the main reason I would recommend this tour is because you have access to the private art collection (which is basically a small art museum), as well as access to the original paintings from Mouton’s unique yearly labels.

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Barrel room at Mouton Rothschild

These aspects, along with opportunity to try the wine, make this a must-do tour when in the region.  The wine (a 2007), by the way, really was wonderful. I’ve tried some expensive wines, but when I say expensive, I mean $200-$400 a bottle.  So, I always wondered if these highly-touted Bordeaux wines that go for thousands of dollars a bottle would even be good.  The short answer is yes.  This was one of the best wines I’ve ever had, and it apparently was a less desirable year.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to spend that much on a bottle of wine in my life, but I certainly savored the opportunity to taste such a wine.  The tour and tasting was 40 Euros per person, which was a steal.

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Our wine tasting – 2007 Chateau Mouton Rothschild

That night, we had a reservation at the hotel’s 2 Michelin Star restaurant.  We knew this might be a stretch for Male DINK, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to dine here.  And, we figured we were at least very close to our room if it didn’t go well!  We ordered the tasting menu and a half bottle of Cos d’Estournel since we didn’t have a chance to try their wine yet.  The dinner was satisfactory, but didn’t really wow us.  Also, the way they had the room arranged, the servers kept bumping my head when tending to the table behind us.  I realize this was the first weekend of the season, but I expected a little more from the food and service.  The good news was that Male DINK survived dinner and seemed to be fully turning the corner from the food poisoning!

The next day – the sixth day – we had a morning wine tasting appointment in St. Emilion at Chateau de Ferrand.  I had set my alarm to make sure we woke up early enough to get ready and make the hour and fifteen minute drive southeast of Bordeaux.

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Chateau de Ferrand

Unfortunately, I didn’t set my alarm correctly, and I woke up at 8:30 (our appointment was at 10).  Not having any time to get ready, we threw some clothes on, minimal make up and a pony tail for me, and out we went to race to the winery.  Of course, on our way, I led us the wrong way at a highway split, adding even more time to our drive (nooooo)!  We miraculously arrived at Chateau de Ferrand about 10 minutes late.

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Barrel Room at Chateau de Ferrand

There was no problem with our late arrival, and, again, we had a private tour!  Our guide here was probably the most informative of all the tours we took, and she offered to show us how to properly taste wine.  While we had picked up the obvious swirl and sniff that everyone does, we had never been formally told what to do, so we appreciated this extra detail in our tasting.  The tour here was only 15 Euros for three tastings and was very pleasant. The grounds and surrounding area are very pretty, and I thought the price was very good for a private tour and tasting!

After our tasting at Ferrand, we made the short drive to visit the town of St. Emilion, finding some metered parking on a main street leading up to the town.

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Square in St. Emilion

Our very first impression was that St. Emilion had a lot more going on than the left bank where we were staying.  If I were to do things over again, I would choose to stay here instead of the left bank because there are many more dining options, as well as things to do and see nearby.  The land and countryside on the right bank are also more pretty and interesting, in my opinion.  St. Emilion and the surrounding areas are more hilly, and the wineries are closer, passing many more chateaus as you drive by.

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Walking around in St. Emilion

We decided to eat lunch first, then explore the town.  We ate at Restaurant Les Giron’dines, which is on the main street leading to the square. We both ordered the prix fixe menu and chose different dishes.  The food was pretty good, and we loved sitting on the terrace out back.  Having sustenance, we ventured into town.  I wanted to go up the tower first, but didn’t realize there was a system in place, and you couldn’t just go up.  Turns out, you have to go to the tourist office (on the square), leave your ID, and receive a key to the tower door.  You get your ID back when you bring the key back.  However, there are a limited number of keys, and, at this point, they did not have any to give.  So, we decided we would try again later.

We walked down into town (the town is very hilly), up by the fort, back up by the old church, and then on to cloisters at Les Cordeliers.  Still wanting to go up the tower, we tried our luck once more, and this time we were successful.  We climbed up the winding stairs of the tower and were rewarded with a beautiful view over St. Emilion and the surrounding area.  We took a bunch of pictures and then left to go back to the hotel.

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We arrived back at the hotel mid-afternoon and had some time to relax before figuring out our dinner plans.  There was a complimentary half bottle of Chateau Lynch-Bages 2005 (over a $100 bottle) in our room, and it seemed like the perfect time to try it out.

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Our patio – Chateau Cordeillan-Bages

We sat out on our peaceful patio, sipped on the wine, and reflected on our trip.  As I mentioned before, especially since it was early in the season, there weren’t many dining options on the left bank.  Not wanting to venture too far at night, we decided to walk to Bages and eat at Café Lavinal again (but for dinner this time).  We had a quiet dinner (except for a large, loud table of what appeared to be German businessmen), tried some different wines, and had a nice stroll back to the hotel.

Sunday – our seventh day – was initially intended for us to go into Bordeaux city for the day.  However, we were feeling a little tired of being in the car and decided on a relaxing day instead.  We thought we would try to find another wine tasting, although we knew it would be difficult, as many wineries are not open on weekends (and it was last minute).  Luckily, the winery affiliated with the hotel, Chateau Lynch-Bages, had a spot open in the early afternoon, so we made the appointment.

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The wines we tasted at Chateau Lynch-Bages

Our tour was with one other couple who were from Mexico City.  This was ironic because Male DINK lived in Mexico City for a couple of years while in high school.  It still seems so strange to me how you always end up meeting someone you have a weird connection with when you travel.  Male DINK chatted them up a bit in Spanish (I had no idea what anyone was saying), but I was glad he could make conversation and make the connection. The interesting thing about this tour is that Chateau Lynch-Bages has a building that shows the wine making process from a LONG time ago.  I tell you what, this was a very dangerous process before modern technology!  I really liked learning about this aspect, as it was something new and different.  In all honesty, going into this trip, I wasn’t all that excited about the fact that we had to go on a tour in order to taste wine at each of the wineries.  I figured it would pretty much be a snoozefest.  But, I was pleasantly surprised, as the tours were pretty interesting, and none of them lasted more than about an hour.  Each tour had something new that I hadn’t seen or learned yet.  We saw all three different types of vats (stainless steel, wooden, and concrete) and are now well-versed (for beginners) in the wine-making process.

After the tour, we walked back to the hotel to start packing up for our departure the next morning.  Dinner that night was part of our tradition to try McDonald’s in every country we go to.  Don’t judge – sometimes you aren’t in the mood for a big sit-down meal every night and just want something cheap and fast.

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Driving around Pauillac

We’ve also noticed that there is usually something random about the offerings in each country (for example, the addition of a side of fried shrimp in Prague).  This McDonald’s was the first we encountered with kiosks at which to order.  Through the touchscreen, you enter your order, enter the area of the store you are sitting in, receive an order number, and then someone brings your food to your table.  We really liked this set up, as it can be daunting to order somewhere with a language barrier and different currency.

We left Pauillac the next day – day eight – to move on to our next destination, the Dordogne Valley. First, though, we wanted to make a stop in the city of Bordeaux since we hadn’t made it there during our days in the Bordeaux region.  About an hour’s drive later, we parked in the parking garage beneath the Bourse and ventured into town.  We walked around somewhat aimlessly (not really knowing what to see), making our way to the Basilica de St. Michael, the square in which it was located being overrun with an outdoor market.  The area was overwhelmingly busy, and since we didn’t have much time to spend in Bordeaux, we observed the goings-on briefly and went to find St. Andre Cathedral.  I will say that the streets in Bordeaux are fairly confusing – some are no larger than a small alleyway and most twist and turn.

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Walking around Bordeaux

Along the way we stopped by a food stand and bought a couple of donuts for breakfast to   eat while we walked.  Bordeaux Cathedral looked magnificent – and the hours said it was open – but for the life of us we could not find a place to enter.  Maybe the hours were different that day, but we gave up and went on our way.  Though, the cathedral is nicely situated in an expansive and partly pedestrian-only area.

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L’Intendant Wine Shop

Next up was to go see the Monument aux Girondons, a large, beautiful fountain located on the edge of Quinonces Park.  After a few pictures, we stopped by L’Intendant, a small wine shop displaying their wines around a tall spiral staircase.  I’ll be honest:  This stop was actually inspired by a pin on Pinterest, but it was really neat to see and much smaller than I expected from the pictures I’d seen on Pinterest.

Feeling hungry and wanting to make one more stop at a special wine tasting store, we searched for a cafe nearby to eat a quick lunch.  We ended up at Cafe Napoleon 3 and ordered the menu du jour, the three course set menu of the day.  The food was good, we are able to be served and eat fairly quickly, and the bill was reasonable.  Our last stop in Bordeaux before hitting the road was Max Bordeaux, a wine tasting shop that offers an opportunity to taste the high-end (first growth) wines from Bordeaux, as well as many other wines from the region. The shop has a number of enomatic machines to choose the size of pour, while displaying the price of each.

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MAX Bordeaux

You put as much money as you desire on a plastic card (you don’t get the balance back, so plan accordingly) and insert the card when purchasing a pour.  When we asked if we would be refunded any unused balance, the shop attendant said no, but informed us with a smile that no-one has ever had any money left over.  We chuckled, and realized he was exactly right when we quickly reloaded the card to enjoy more pours!  We tried several wines, including Chateau d’Yquem.  The Latour had just run out, which was disappointing, but we still enjoyed many delicious wines.  I think Max Bordeaux is well worth a stop if you are looking to try a sampling of wines from the region (and perhaps a small pour of a first growth!).

We walked back to the Bourse and took a few pictures before getting back into the car and heading towards Sarlat-la-Caneda…