Bordeaux is world-famous for its winemaking. Any wine that bears the city’s name comes from the region, which is the largest winemaking region in France.
In Bordeaux, you’ll find the production of all kinds of wines ranging in price and prestige for all different tastes.
Which regions to visit
Though the majority of the wine produced in Bordeaux is red, you’ll also find plenty of white and sparkling wines. But different types of vineyards will be concentrated in different areas. To get the most of your visit to Bordeaux, you want to make sure you’re going to the areas that produce what you want to drink.
Wine production largely varies depending on the type of soil, climate, and even elevation in different regions. For instance, though you may find Malbec produced in Medoc, it will be better from one of the areas on the right bank, like Blaye, where the soil is more favorable for better Malbec.
With that in mind, these are the regions where you’ll find your wine of choice:
On the right bank of the Gironde River, the terrain is made up of hills with clay and limestone soil which is more favorable for Merlot production.
Saint-Emilion in Libournais
Saint-Emilion is arguably one of the most well-known wine-making centers in Bordeaux. It’s located in the Libournais region on the right bank and is generally known for its Merlot. Saint-Emilion is also worth visiting because of its small Medieval city center. The nearby regions of Fronsac and Pomerol are also famous for their Merlot, though the flavors are slightly different.
Blaye & Bourg
This area is on the right bank just north of Libournais, and also has a high concentration of Merlot production, though Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are also produced in the area. Another good reason to visit Blaye & Bourg is the Citadel of Blaye, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the left bank, the ground is flatter and made of gravel, making Cabernet Sauvignon the most popular grape.
The Medoc, on the left bank, is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon blends. The best wines on the left bank generally come from this region. The Route des Chateaux takes you up the coast along the long stretch of the Medoc region. Many gorgeous chateaux are visible from the main road.
This region south of Medoc on the left bank produces both red and white wines. From Bordeaux, it is south instead of north. The soil is especially gravelly in Graves (hence the name) so Cabernet Sauvignon is the primary grape in the region.
Just north of Bordeaux, the Gironde River splits into the Dordogne and Garonne. Between the two rivers lies Entre-Deux Mers. The main grape in this area is Sauvignon Blanc. As such, the area tends to produce dry wines, rosés, and sweet white wines. It is known for being a more affordable region, so if your wine of choice falls into this category, you may be able to take a bottle home for less than 10 Euro.
How to visit
Now that we’ve covered the what and where, let’s talk about how. How can you get to the fabulous wineries of Bordeaux?
As you can probably guess, the vineyards that make up 120,000 hectares (290,000 acres) of land are not exactly easily accessible. One of the most common ways of visiting the vineyards is to take a guided tour.
The advantage of a tour is that you have to do very little planning. You just hop on a bus and your day is laid out for you including tastings and vineyard tours. They’ll give you a broad overview of the wines in the region, which I’ve summarized for you above (You’re welcome. I accept payments via PayPal or Venmo).
The downside is that a half day tour is around 40 Euro and a full day tour can cost up to 150 Euro. You also don’t have much choice in where you go. You can pick a tour that is headed to the region of your choice but the wineries you visit are not up to you. And maybe the biggest downside is that after spending so much money and devoting a whole day, the tour can suck.
Another option, if you can afford it, is to take a private tour. Then you don’t have to put up with anyone else on a giant bus and you can have a more personalized experience. But this can set you back around 450 Euro per car, even for a half day. And if the tour charges on a per person basis, you could be paying up to 250 Euro for a full day.
Visiting the Bordeaux wine regions on your own
After taking a group tour and hating it, I would definitely advise you to rent a car and go on your own. This takes a bit of planning, but it would be a great way to avoid the hassle of group tours and go exactly where you want to go.
In order to successfully visit the chateaux and wineries of your choice, you’ll have to make individual appointments. Outside of group tours, all tastings and tours are on an appointment only basis. Many visits will include a tour of the vineyards and cellars, and end with a tasting. The whole experience could take up to an hour and a half. This means that you will probably only have time to make three or four appointments in one day.
Because of the way the wineries do tours, it helps to contact them weeks, or even months, in advance to ensure you are guaranteed a visit. Obviously, the more famous the chateau is, the harder it will be to get an appointment. You may have to pretend you are a restaurateur in search of a new wine for your chain of bistros.
Many do not accept private visitors, only groups. But it doesn’t hurt to email and ask. Depending on the chateau, the visit may be free or there may be a small fee ranging from 8-20 Euro. You should make sure that you will be able to take a tour with an English-speaking guide as many winemakers only speak French. Obviously, their incentive to give you a tour rests on the possibility you’ll buy wine. So it would certainly be the right thing to do, especially if the tour and tasting are free.
The only downside to going on your own is that someone has to drive. It might be a good idea to take this kind of trip with a pregnant or sober companion. Just buy them dinner in exchange for their designated driving. You definitely do not want to be caught driving drunk in Bordeaux. You’ll face hefty fines and possible jail time.
When to visit
To make your visit successful, you will also want to remember the best and worst times to visit. For example, very early and late in the year, many of the vineyards are barren. When we visited, they were actually purposefully stunted because the French government has limits on production. And the wine was good, but seeing little stumps where large grape-filled vines are supposed to be was disappointing.
Harvest time varies from year to year depending on the weather, but usually falls between September and November. This is largely considered one of the best times to visit Bordeaux. But the grape leaves begin to bloom in late spring so, anytime from late March or April on, the fields will look lush and lively. However, in August many winemakers are on holiday, so you may also find a smaller number of chateaux available to visit.
You should also plan your visit for the middle of the week, as the majority of chateaux and vineyards are closed to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays. So if you do go during the weekend, your options will be limited and you’ll end up visiting some of the less-than-enthralling vineyards.
Just remember that wine tasting in Bordeaux is about trying different wines and getting an inside look at the wine-making process. It’s not about getting drunk. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to spit out the wine they are tasting. So if you do want to get drunk, buy three bottles and do it in the privacy of your own home.