Whether you want an elegant city break in a luxury hotel, or a weekend in a chateau with vineyard lunches, Bordeaux has it all. By Carla Capalbo
Bordeaux is both a glamorous city and the world’s most prestigious winemaking region, where styles ranging from dry whites to noble reds and opulent dessert wines are produced at the highest levels. Even with a short break it’s possible to combine visits to both, as the city sits surrounded by the vineyards of the most famous wine regions: Médoc, Saint-Émilion, Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes. Fly into Bordeaux or arrive by train and spend a couple of nights in town before renting a car to cruise the ever-picturesque vineyard landscapes punctuated by châteaux with iconic labels, including Château Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild and Yquem. For those in search of more affordable wines, Bordeaux also offers a wide range of prices and appellations.
Time your visit to coincide with one of the annual wine-related events in Bordeaux. The Médoc Marathon in September is billed as “The World’s Longest Marathon”, its route taking you through famous vineyards – with frequent refreshment stops. Two great wine events are the Weekend des Grands Crus in May, when over 100 chateaux open their doors to the public, and the Fête le Vin (the Bordeaux Wine Festival) in June.
After its recent facelift, Bordeaux earned UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Now that the grime is gone, the austere grandeur of the city’s creamy limestone buildings makes walking in the city all the more enjoyable.
For architectural hints about the importance of wine in the city’s past, look for the large sculpted head (called a mascaron, or symbol of the city’s wealth) of Bacchus in the Place de la Bourse (above the entrance to the Rue Saint-Rémi car park). It’s across the tram lines and road from the unmissable Mirroir d’Eau fountain that reflects the beauty of the Garonne River waterfront so dreamily.
Walk or cycle (electric bikes are available for hire throughout Bordeaux) along the beautifully landscaped quai to the recently constructed Jacques Chaban-Delmas bridge. It’s Europe’s highest opening bridge, its central section rises to 53m above the river in just 12 minutes to allow high boats through. The warehouses along the quai were once used for wine and are now converted into cafes and restaurants.
A few hundred metres north of the bridge is the spectacular new Cité du Vin. Opened in 2016, the extraordinary €81m building (which is supposed to be reminiscent of a carafe but actually looks more like a ski boot) aims to attract 450,000 visitors a year. The idea behind it is to introduce you to the world of wine via interactive displays, tasting rooms, video projections, a restaurant and a panoramic wine bar.
For buying wine, don’t miss the best wine stores in the city centre: L’Intendant, a stunning spiral structure which merits a trip even without the wine, and Maison Gabin which specialises in old vintages.
WHERE TO STAY
Since Airbnb arrived on the scene, you can find rooms from £30 to whole châteaux for £3,000. If you’re looking for the comforts and services of a traditional hotel, here are a few suggestions.
La Grande Maison de Bernard Magrez
Bernard Magrez owns 40 prestigious wine estates – including four Bordeaux Grands Crus – and this is his personal vision of an intimate luxury château-hotel. The Maison’s fine-dining restaurant is now under the auspices of Chef Pierre Gagnaire, a collector of Michelin stars. There are only a handful of rooms, and the staff are utterly attentive while remaining informal and friendly. It’s situated in a quiet residential neighbourhood in central Bordeaux. From £250 per double room per night, excluding breakfast. lagrandemaison-bordeaux.com
Yndo Hotel This stylish luxury boutique hotel is a recent addition to Bordeaux’s offerings. Twelve rooms/suites in a 19th-century mansion with colourful designer furniture and top class service. Rooms from £280, breakfast excluded. yndohotelbordeaux.fr/en/
InterContinental Grand Hotel Bang in the centre is the Grand Hotel, whose beautifully appointed but often small rooms have front-row views of the Opéra. A high-level spa has recently been added, to complement the 2-star restaurant now taken over by Gordon Ramsay; there’s a more informal brasserie on the ground floor. From £275 per double room, excluding breakfast. bordeaux.intercontinental.com
Hotel de Normandie Perfectly placed in the centre of the old city, with views of Place des Quinconces, this 4-star hotel offers great value and modest but comfortable rooms. From £80 per double room, breakfast excluded. hotel-de-normandie-bordeaux.com
Hotel Majestic Popular with the musicians who play at the Théatre de l’Opéra around the corner, this well-positioned hotel offers perfect access to the city centre. From £90 per double room, breakfast excluded. www.hotel-majestic.com/en/
WHERE TO EAT
If the grander hotels have appealed to master chefs for their restaurant inspiration (see above), here are some of the restaurants popular with the Bordelais.
Le Quatrième Mur The ‘fourth wall’ here refers to the side of the Opera house that this stylish new brasserie occupies. Under Chef Philippe Etchebest, this space has come alive and offers formula-menus from breakfast to dinner with good value and high quality food. www.quatrieme-mur.com
Yves Gravelier A long-time favourite with the locals, this modern bistrot offers relaxed chef cooking near the Jardin Public. www.gravelier.com
Au Bonheur du Palais Surprising to recommend Chinese food in Bordeaux? Maybe, but this is authentic Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine, and is great paired with their list of Sauternes. abdp.free.fr
La Tupina Created by Jean-Pierre Xiradakis, La Tupina features the produce of the French South-West, with great wines and lots of atmosphere. There are now also 5 rooms in Maison Fredon, nearby. latupina.com
Le Gabriel Commandingly located in the glam centre of Place de la Bourse, Le Gabriel offers both fine-dining and bistrot options. bordeaux-gabriel.fr
VINEYARD STAYS AND EATS
Many wine châteaux now offer rooms for guests. Most châteaux are available for visits and tastings by appointment, but some offer a larger range of activities: cooking classes, vineyard visits, vertical tastings and restaurants. Check Airbnb for listings in these areas: individual châteaux as well as rooms are now available throughout.
NORTH OF BORDEAUX: MÉDOC
Cordeillan-Bages This was the trendsetter: the first hotel and restaurant in the Médoc to cater for the high-level clients that drink and collect top wines. Minimal in style but still top class in hospitality. Located a few metres from the bistrot and boutiques of Bages. jmcazes.com
Château Beychevelle This stunning château at Saint-Julien now offers La Table de Beychevelle: the chance to book lunch or dinner for private groups in the château accompanied by the estate’s great wines. Fifteen elegant rooms and bespoke tours complete the experience. beychevelle.com
Château Phélan Ségur Cooking classes with lunch are available here, and make a lovely way to get acquainted with French cuisine and its connection to fine wine. (The château’s owners also own the great Taillevent restaurant in Paris.) Other offers include croquet, Médoc Marathon and dinner parties in the château. phelansegur.com
La Chartreuse de Cos d’Estournel If money is no object, rent this whole oriental-themed mansion at Saint-Estèphe, beautifully decorated by Jacques Garcia, within the estate of Château Cos d’Estournel. It sleeps 18, and comes with a private pool, hammam, chef and heliport. The most luxurious place to stay in all of Bordeaux. estournel.com
Château Marquis d’Alesme This imposing château near the village of Margaux has been renovated with a Far-Eastern influence by the new French-Chinese owners. Its beautiful garden can be visited by appointment, with refreshments and activities for children also available. marquisdalesme.wine
EAST OF BORDEAUX: SAINT-EMILION
La Table de Plaisance Ronan Kervarrec is the new chef at La Table de Plaisance’s upmarket restaurant (it had two Michelin stars under the former chef, Philippe Etchebest), located in the luxurious Hostellerie de la Plaisance hotel, in the town centre. Owned by Gérard Perse, of nearby Château Pavie. Double rooms from £300. hostelleriedeplaisance.com
Logis de la Cadène Taken over in 2013 by Château Angélus, whose prestigious winery is just a few metres away, this classic restaurant on a steep street in the centre of town just won its first Michelin star. There are also elegant rooms available in a house nearby. logisdelacadene.fr
La Terrasse Rouge The most exciting new addition to the eating options in Saint-Émilion is situated in this brand-new extension to Château La Dominique, surrounded by its vineyards. The airy red terrace restaurant (you’ll think you’re on a ship cruising through the vines) and the high-tech cellar below were designed by modernist architect Jean Nouvel. laterrasserouge.com
SOUTH OF BORDEAUX: PESSAC LEOGNAN, GRAVES AND SAUTERNES
Château Haut-Bailly One of the most celebrated châteaux in the Graves region, and famous for its great red wine, Haut-Bailly is known for its impeccable taste in décor and art. This extends to the cuisine: bespoke meals can be arranged at La Table Privée de Haut-Bailly, prepared by renowned Chef Jean-Charles Poinsot and matched with the estate’s wines. haut-bailly.com
Château Le Pape Under the umbrella of Haut-Bailly (see above) this refined 19th-century château has been turned into a luxurious and comfortable guest house with heated infinity pool. From £220 per double room. haut-bailly.com
Château Smith Haut-Laffite The Cathiard family were among the first to understand the attraction of the wine story for international guests. Their château offers a hotel, two restaurants and the acclaimed Caudalie Spa, that uses healing elements of the grape for its therapies. smith-haut-lafitte.com
Relais du Château d’Arche This lovely small château hotel is surrounded by Sauternes vineyards and offers comfortable and affordable rooms from which to explore the local countryside. From £100 per double room. chateau-arche.fr
Château Suduiraut This fairy-tale château sits right below Yquem and offers a chance to visit the château with tastings, and to take part in an Aroma Workshop to parse the elements that together form the complexity of this irresistible dessert wine. suduiraut.com
Restaurant Le Saprien Situated in Sauternes’ central square, Le Saprien has long been the most popular place to sample local cuisine. Wood-roasted meats, duck breasts and fish are all cooked to order, served in summer on an outside terrace. restaurant-le-saprien.fr