A short getaway to the wine capital of the world

Bordeaux is wine capital of the world. You name a reasonable rival and we might discuss it, but I can’t think of one. Naturally, the river city offers more than wine. The 18th and 19th-century elegance of the monumental centre articulates a faith in the rightness of colonial riches. Alongside, in the old town, the message from medieval churches dissipates fast through low-lit narrow streets athrob with restaurants, bars and an international conspiracy of pleasure-seekers.

There are 120,630 hectares under vine, almost all of which produces wine of Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) quality, making it the largest producer of AOC wine in France, representing 1.5% of the world's total vineyard area. Red wine, with minimal amount of rosé, accounts for 88% of production.

The vineyards lie around the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers with the Gironde Estuary. These waters exert a significant influence on both the climate and the soil structures of each sub-region in the appellation, by virtue of their sedimentary deposits. Those vineyards lying to the west of the Garonne and Gironde are deemed to be wines of the Left Bank, those to the east, Right Bank.

Bordeaux lies on the 45th parallel, in south-west France, close to the Atlantic Ocean, warmed by the Gulf Stream, and enjoys a mostly mild, maritime climate. This usually protects the vineyards from freezing winters although spring frosts remain an anxiety. A normal spring will be warm and damp, but the region's proximity to the Atlantic means that weather can be unpredictable, especially during the crucial flowering period in June.

Summers are hot, often with thunderstorms in August but the pine forests of the Landais to the west of the region help to moderate temperatures and protect the vineyards from the strong, prevailing winds off the Bay of Biscay. Harvest is from early September to the middle of October, depending on the grape variety and the conditions of the year and, as autumn approaches, rain during that period is a constant threat.

We were lucky for La Cité du Vin already open its door when we visited Bordeaux. Seven years in the making, La Cité du Vin (City of Wine) is an over-the-top, mega project with all the scope of a wine theme park for adults. Located on the banks of the Garonne River in the Bassins à Flot district of Bordeaux wine country.

Within, there’s loads of open space, light, shade, and the contemporary sense that straight lines are old hat. The extraordinary round wine shop has 800 wines (200 from France, 600 from the rest of the world). Nearby are three state-of-the-art tasting rooms. One will apparently involve all the senses, including touch.

To some people the museum may not be a big deal, but this is a museum with a staff of 200 and a cost of €81m, whose opening was attended by President Hollande. He was unstinting in his praise, keen to make clear the importance of the project: it is, he said, “an emblem of excellence, a symbol of coming together . . . a success for France”. For this is a museum devoted to a subject taken more seriously here than almost any other — wine.

Cité du Vin’s gleaming, organic design, by Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières, is inspired by the swirl of wine in a glass, but also looks like a mollusc dipped in gold (it would quickly acquire a rude nickname in a less reverential society). The management team refuses to be drawn on any local name-calling, only admitting to “the Guggenheim of Wine”, which nicely sums up its international ambition.

The building’s engine room is its permanent tour on the second floor, where 3,000 sq metres of digital interactive displays are set inside what looks like the belly of a whale — the interior curves of the building. Despite Hollande claiming success for France, the exhibits here are actually the work of Casson Mann, a London-based company that specialises in museum design.

The most mesmeric of their creations is just inside the entrance, where three big screens show helicopter footage taken while flying over parts of the world, from South Africa to Georgia, where mountains and valleys have been strung like green harps with vineyards. Equally entertaining is the temple to Bacchus in the middle, a chillout zone where visitors with headsets recline to listen to wine-inspired poetry while gazing up at ceiling projections of bibulous paintings. Around the walls are “what the butler saw” peep shows, suggestive tableaux where wine has made the juices flow.

In among the setpieces the process of winemaking is examined in more detail. For example, there are screens where winemakers talk about fermentation, complete with a niche to place your head to get the benefit of a winery’s sounds and smells. And there’s a section about terroir, featuring several key wine-growing regions laid out as table-top landscapes. A swipe of your hand over the surface of a particular terroir makes a local winemaker pop up on screen from among his vines to tell you all about his pride and joy.

Towards the end comes the section on wine’s constituent flavours, in a selection of belljars plugged into puffers and trumpets and arranged like a mad scientist’s buffet. There are roses, honey, orange, chocolate — even soap and pencil-shavings — and at some belljars you can inhale a mixture of several at once, although it never quite adds up to wine. This is where it gets difficult. Wine is such a subjective thing, and with the anticipated visitors to the Cité du Vin representing a wide cross-section from teetotallers to bon viveurs, from home and abroad, this sort of analysis will seem mystifying to some, and facile to others.

Chateau La Figeac

ancient Bordeaux wine

Chateau Figeac is not an old Bordeaux wine property. Figeac is an ancient Bordeaux wine property! In fact, it can be dated as far back as the second century during the ancient Gallo-Roman period. At that time, the owner of the property, Figeacus gave his name to the villa he built on the same location. Even the ancient Romans knew Figeac had great terroir.

Figeac is one of the few St. Emilion wine vineyards that has remained continually occupied for the past two thousand years. If you’re visiting Chateau Figeac, you can easily see a water supply system that dates back to the days of the ancient Romans. There are also remains of building foundations, ruins from the Middle Ages and even defensive walls along with the remnants of the original Renaissance chateau at Figeac. The Renaissance styling’s are easily noted in the famous door and the tower.

Figeac was purchased by the Chevremont family, the precursors to the Manoncourt family in 1892, the 200 hectare vineyards were now only 37 hectares of vines. Thierry Manoncourt managed the property since 1946. Born in Paris, Manoncourt was one of the founders of the Bordeaux Grand Crus Union. He was president of the Jurade of St. Emilion from 1964 to 1987. Thierry Manoncourt was as traditional as he was innovative. When he renovated the cellars and winemaking facilities at Figeac, he was the first major estate in the Right Bank to use temperature controlled, stainless steel vats in the fermentation room. Thierry Manoncourt was also the first important estate in the Right Bank to produce a second wine

Chateau Figeac is a unique vineyard with equally unique percentages of grape varietal plantings in the Right Bank. The vineyard of Chateau Figeac, which is in the north west portion of St. Emilion is planted to 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc and 30% Merlot . It is the goal of Chateau Figeac to continue increasing the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the gravel parcels until they are close to 40% of the vineyard blend. The vineyards are divided into separate parcels. The average vine density in the vineyards of Chateau Figeac are 6,000 vines per hectare. They have old vines. In fact, the oldest vines belonging to Chateau Figeac are now close to 100 years of age! On average, they are 45 years of age. Interestingly, many of the estates oldest vines were personally planted by Thierry Manoncourt with some help from Madame Manoncourt.

Biking will be one of your best option to stroll around the impressive Medoc in the famous Bordeaux wine region. The west section of the Medoc is shrouded in light and sun, and the Atlantic Ocean and its beaches are bordered with an immense forest. The east section along the Gironde Estuary offers views of the winegrowing region. Beginning on the 'wine road', cycle past well known chateaux and through the winegrowing boroughs which produce some of the most prestigious wines in the world. You will explore the diverse landscapes of the Medoc, visit superb Romanic Churches in the villages, and discover some unique Gallo-Romanic sites. The journey follows a mixture of bicycle paths through forests and flat roads alongside streams and vineyards, allowing you to discover the exceptional natural and diverse surroundings of the region.

Bordeaux is also a gourmet city! The capital of the Aquitaine region benefits from the fact that all the specialities of southwest France are in its back yard: foie gras from the Landes, oysters from Arcachon Bay, strawberries from the Périgord, Bazaz beef, etc.

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