When travelers arrive here, Bordeaux's countryside enchants them without their quite knowing why: what the French call la douceur de vivre (the sweetness of living) may have something to do with it.
To the east, extending their lush green rows to the rising sun, the renowned vineyards of the Route de Médoc entice visitors to discover magical medieval wine towns like St-Émilion. To the north, the Atlantic coast offers elite enclaves with white-sand beaches. In between is the metropolis of Bordeaux, replete with 18th-century landmarks and 20-year-old college students. Some complain that Bordeaux is like Paris without the good stuff, but if you're a wine lover it's still the doorway to paradise. And things are on the move in Bordeaux these days; it's consistently voted one of the top French cities for young people to live in.
From the grandest premiers grands crus—the Lafite-Rothschilds, the Margaux—to the modest supérieur in your picnic basket, Bordeaux wines command respect around the world. So much so that oenophiles by the thousands come here to pay homage: to gaze at the noble symmetries of estate châteaux, whose rows of green-and-black vineyards radiate in every direction; to lower a nose deep into a well-swirled glass, inhaling the heady vapors of oak and almond and leather; and, finally, to reverently pack a few bloodline labels into a trunk or a suitcase for home.
The history, economy, and culture of Bordeaux have always been linked to the production and marketing of wine. The birth of the first Bordeaux winery is said to have occurred between AD 37 and 68, when the Romans called this land Burdigala. By the Middle Ages, a steady flow of Bordeaux wines was headed to England, where it's still dubbed "claret," after clairet, a light red version from earlier days. During these centuries the region was also put on the tourist radar because it had become a major stop on the fabled Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage road. With all these allurements, it's no wonder the English fought for it so determinedly throughout the Hundred Years' War. This coveted corner of France became home to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and when she left her first husband, France's Louis VII, to marry Henry II of Normandy (later king of England), both she and the land came under English rule. Henry Plantagenet was, after all, a great-grandson of William the Conqueror, and the Franco-English ambiguity of the age exploded in a war that defined much of modern France and changed its face forever. Southwestern France was the stage upon which much of the war was conducted—hence the region's many castles and no end of sturdy churches dedicated to the noble families' cause.
What they sought, the world still seeks. The wines of Bordeaux set the standard against which other wines are measured, and to truly savor them you should drink them on-site—from the mouthful of golden Graves that eases the oysters down to the syrupy sip of Sauternes that civilizes the smooth gaminess of the foie gras to the last glass of Médoc paired with the salt-marsh lamb that leads to pulling the cork on a Pauillac—because there is the cheese tray yet to come. With a smorgasbord of 57 wine appellations to choose from, the revitalized city of Bordeaux, and the wine country that surrounds it with a veritable army of varieties, the entire region is intoxicating.