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Wine Tasting in Bordeaux?

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Hello All ---
We're a group of 3 Americans traveling for two weeks in France. We're planning on visiting the Bordeaux region with a car from Toulouse July 28-29th (arriving on the evening of the 27th). This is part of a two week trip.

We are hoping to stay in a chateau or b&b in the region for the 27th and 28th and visit some vineyards on the 27th and morning of the 28th. Then we will travel to the city of Bordeaux in the afternoon and stay there on the 29th before flying out of France.

We are much more familiar with Italian wines than French wines and we don't speak French. In Italy we toured Tuscany and spent a few wonderful days wandering from vineyard to vineyard and getting informal tastings. We did this unguided. We understand Bordeaux is much more formal --- requiring advanced bookings (sometimes from an esteemed person in the industry), proper attire, and sometimes a guide/driver.

1) Does the whole area of Bordeaux only do very formal tastings? Is there a part of Bordeaux this is smaller and more casual? If not, is there another region nearby that also has full-bodies complex wines?
2) How is it best to accomplish the bookings and driving? Do we need a driver, a guide? Can we drive ourselves (one of us will not be drinking)
3) How many vineyards could one expect to see in a day? We were reading about 3 a day.
4) St Emilion seems like the most beautiful town and surrounding region. Will it be overly touristy this time of year? Are there surrounding towns that are less so? Are there more areas like St Emilion? We know Medoc is very famous, but the region does not sound very interesting. Is this true?
5) How is the region to drive through? We would like to see old architecture and countryside that's interesting and varied, etc in our drive between Toulouse, wine country, and Bordeaux city.
6) Is it possible to do this region affordably? If so, what would be the best way?
7) We also know that knowledge of the Bordeaux wines would make the experience more valuable. Without speaking French or having much knowledge, would you advise us to travel to Bordeaux for wine tasting? Is there another more accessible region you'd recommend?

Thank you!

Anjuli

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    You've asked a lot of questions. I'll try to answer what I can.

    First off, I suggest you check my web page on our trip to Bordeaux, We started in Bordeaux and ended in Toulouse.
    We drove by ourselves and visited quite a few wineries, although usually only 2 per day. Here is the link:

    http://www.travel.stv77.com/bordeaux/bordeaux.htm

    I understand from your post that you will only have a day or 2 in the Bordeaux area. I highly suggest that you spend your time in St. Emillion. It (and the surrounding area) is full of wineries, and the town is great fun to visit. The city of Bordeaux is not very pretty and anyway, you have to drive out of it to visit any wineries.

    As for visiting wineries (chateau), yes, the visiting is formal and you should book in advance at any wineries you wish to visit. On our trip, I did everything via email.

    If you have a driver who won't be drinking, you should definitely rent a car and enjoy the countryside.

    Not knowing French can be a problem. Hiring a private guide would solve that problem. There are many companies and private guides who will take you to impressive chateau and help you optimize the short time you have there, and solve the language problem too. They can be expensive though.

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    1) Does the whole area of Bordeaux only do very formal tastings? Is there a part of Bordeaux this is smaller and more casual? If not, is there another region nearby that also has full-bodies complex wines?

    Most of the big chateaux in Médoc are not open for the public, but it is interesting enough to drive through the hills of the Médoc and see the castles just from the outside. Many buildings are really elegant (like Chateau Margaux) or magnificent (like Cos d'Estournel).

    For tasting, the Cru Bourgeois Chateaux are better bets, also because their young wines are more drinkable than the Grand Cru Classés which have to mature in the bottle for at least ten years before they become drinkable. We simply asked our hotelier about visiting a winery and he recommended nearby Chateau du Haut-Moulin and made a reservation. The visit was very familiar, interesting and we tasted excellent wines. Here is the website:
    http://www.tourduhautmoulin.com/index.php
    You can also book an organized tour, which is, however, not on the cheap side:
    http://www.getyourguide.com/bordeaux-l287/medoc-full-day-bordeaux-wine-tour-t3319/

    2) How is it best to accomplish the bookings and driving? Do we need a driver, a guide? Can we drive ourselves (one of us will not be drinking)
    Of course, you can drive. As said, your hotel concierge will be happy to help with the bookings. Often he will recommend a relative or supplier who runs the winery and so you will get a more personal tour.

    3) How many vineyards could one expect to see in a day? We were reading about 3 a day.

    According to Gossen's law the marginal utility of wine tastings will diminish when the number of tastings increase. I would not maximize the number of tastings per day. Instead, buy a good bottle or two, and have a picnic lunch in a nice spot among the vineyards, on the riverbank or at the sea. This will give you a far better experience of French lifestyle than sitting in a tasting room and sipping immature wines. And spoil yourselves with a multicourse dinner and grand wines. This is alse French lifestyle.

    4) St Emilion seems like the most beautiful town and surrounding region. Will it be overly touristy this time of year? Are there surrounding towns that are less so? Are there more areas like St Emilion? We know Medoc is very famous, but the region does not sound very interesting. Is this true?

    The difference is that Médoc has larger chateaux. Médoc is more scenic than St. Emilion, with spectacular beaches, the Gironde, the hills and the magnificent winery buildings. However, the villages are not that interesting. St. Emilion has generally smaller wineries, many of which are family-run and easier to visit. The village St. Emilion is quite charming, but certainly touristy at all times of the year. See both areas by driving around, exploring and discovering.

    5) How is the region to drive through? We would like to see old architecture and countryside that's interesting and varied, etc in our drive between Toulouse, wine country, and Bordeaux city.

    I would drive via Sarlat, which is the epitome of a French historical town, and Perigieux which has a magnificent cathedral.

    6) Is it possible to do this region affordably? If so, what would be the best way?

    Stay in a three-star hotel.

    7) We also know that knowledge of the Bordeaux wines would make the experience more valuable. Without speaking French or having much knowledge, would you advise us to travel to Bordeaux for wine tasting? Is there another more accessible region you'd recommend?

    In most of the wineries, you will have at least one person (usually the vintner's daughter or son) who speaks English. So do not worry about language.

    However, two problems remain. First, wineries offer visits and tastings in order to SELL wine. However, American tourists do not buy wine (at least not in significant quantities), so they are not overly welcome. Second, the red Bordeaux wines need time to mature. The better the wine, the longer. First or second Grand Cru Classés need at least ten, better twenty years to develop. When young, great wines are often bland and astringent. So better visit the lesser, family-run wineries instead of the great names. The buildings are impressive enough.

    But because of the buildings and the great names you should drive through the Médoc. We found it very rewarding. Do not miss to see the ocean when you are in the area. The Dune of Pylat near Arcachon is just spectacular.

    Therefore, I would not recommend going to another wine region (the obvious choice would be Cahors, with its aromatic, plummy wines made from the Malbec grape).

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    Great questions which may need a complicated set of answers.

    Bordeaux is the city and the wine region is called Bordeaux. That stretches from the Medoc with the Cabernet Merlot blends (plus others) to the sweet Semillion/Sauvignon blends to the the south east and the Merlot of the St Emillion. A big area.

    Outside this large area there also the likes of Bergerac/Cahors/Bourg/Blaye etc.

    Clearly the manners of the situation is that if the tasting is free buy something (glasses, dish clothes etc) or maybe a half bottle for a picnic.

    Unless you have a booking in haut medoc region you will not get in and to be clear the mdoc is not especially pretty around the vines than many other regions. However the peninsula its self is pretty especially on the west coast.

    Outside of the haut medoc you will see degustation signs all over and normally there will be some english spoken. If was going here looking for just general tastings I'd look at the entre deux mer (the bit between the two rivers) or any of the other outer regions. You will also find that many of the villages have a wine house where you can taste the local wines relatively cheaply and they will have good english speakers there. Look also at the cote de bordeau, and the other regions also mentioned.

    Chateau Yquem and the castles along the canal from Toulouse to Bordeaux are worth visiting. In addition you will find a great many "bastides" these were developed in the 100 years wars between the English and the French to join together the ideas of fortification, financial security and the right to escape from serfdom.

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    If you want to stay cheeply I'd look out Ibis Budget chain or similar. Normally E40 night, with breakfast at E6 or so. Normally near a budget restaurant. Small rooms, but clean and bright.

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