France’s wine capital is reaching a new era of maturity. Paul Ewart reveals why there’s much more to Bordeaux than a good drop.
Feb 07, 2023 10:00pm
Our handsome waiter exclaims “Et voila! as he presents me with a platter of local favourites. Wafts of fragrance permeate my nostrils and I audibly “mmm”. While I’m eager to eat, I also want to savour the moment. Leaning back in my chair, the balmy afternoon heat soaking into my bones, I take in my surroundings. Tucked down a tiny laneway, I seem to be the only foreigner sitting in this tiny, traditional brasserie. French families chatter and laugh either side of me, church bells toll in the distance, and the heavenly sound of wine corks popping – followed by the satisfying “glug glug” and the clink of glass against glass – fills my ears.
There are few people who haven’t heard of Bordeaux. In fact, its mere mention is enough to make you reach for a wine glass and a cheese platter. However, it turns out there’s much more to France’s sixth largest city than a good drop. In the last decade Bordeaux has gone through a hefty makeover to become one of the most beautiful and interesting destinations in the continent. With its 362 historic monuments (second only to Paris), an extraordinary gastronomic scene, and a vibrant city life, it is unsurprising that this beautiful town was named Europe’s “best destination” in 2015.
Paris may get most of the limelight (and the bulk of the tourist traffic) but France’s wine capital has its own appeal. For hungry and thirsty travellers looking to break new ground before word gets out, Bordeaux is a discerning choice.
Wine wandering in Bordeaux
Regarded as the bedrock of the fine wine market and a benchmark for winemakers around the world, in Bordeaux the grape is god. And given its status as the largest fine wine area on earth and one of the oldest, there’s hyperbole and history in spades. A vast region with some 65 appellations, the first cabernet sauvignon and merlot vines originated in Bordeaux and now more than 85 per cent of Bordeaux wines are red wines made with merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Indeed, the red Bordeaux blend is one of the most copied in the world.
Eat like a local in Bordeaux
Cultural immersion in Bordeaux
First thing’s first, you can’t begin your wine tasting here without getting a grounding in both the history of wine in general, and Bordeaux’s role in its development. The only cultural centre in the world dedicated to the heritage and production of wine, La Cité du Vin offers a spectacular journey throughout global cultures and civilisations, tracing humankind’s 8000-year-long love affair with the vine. At 10 floors high and nearly 13,000 square metres, a visit here can easily last a few hours.
A contemporary art “gallery” that is guaranteed to leave even confirmed philistines awestruck, Bassins des Lumières is an absolute must-visit for arty and non-arty folk alike. Housed inside a World War II German-built submarine bunker, the digital arts centre is the largest fixed multimedia installation in the world.
Where to stay in Bordeaux
The newest – and best – boutique hotel in the city, Villas Foch has become the check-in for discerning visitors to Bordeaux. Positioned opposite the river and in the heart of the old town, the sprawling classical building is a convenient and picturesque base for exploring the city. Pairing contemporary architectural swagger and design with antique appeal, the five-star property comprises 20 rooms with eight indulgent suites. In-room comforts include a comprehensive pillow menu and there’s a small, yet perfectly formed, breakfast selection, inclusive in the room rate. After a day full of discovery, you can recharge your batteries in the vaulted stone 19th-century cellar-turned-wellness centre, which houses a gorgeous swimming and hydrotherapy pool and traditional wood sauna. While the elegant Le Ferdinand bar is perfectly poised for a post-dinner nightcap.
For wine enthusiasts a side trip to experience the sweeter side of the region is an itinerary essential. Located 40 kilometres southeast of the city in the Graves section of Bordeaux, Sauternes is a French sweet wine made from the area’s rare white grapes. And to experience this sticky drop, there’s no better place than lauded winery and luxury hotel, Lafaurie-Peyraguey.
Set among the actual vines, the honey-coloured chateau – which dates partly back to the 13th century – has rooms decked out in iconic Lalique pieces. Crystal dazzles from every surface, from the chairs you sit in, to the tableware you use at breakfast.
For a gourmet experience that’ll create memories to last a lifetime, book a table at the in-house eatery – one of the region’s Michelin-starred restaurants.
The perfect pairing to any visit to the La Cité du Vin, Le 7 sits atop the museum on the seventh floor. Providing a visual and edible feast in one, guests can enjoy panoramic views from 30 metres up as they devour a tasty menu of dishes made using locally sourced seasonal products. There’s an ever-changing wine list on a scale that befits its museum location: more than 500 wines from more than 50 wine-producing countries.
When it comes to a taste sensation in a city packed to the rafters with eateries, you can’t rival the inventive and refined cuisine of Michelin-starred chef, Alexandre Baumard, and his gastronomic restaurant, L’Observatoire du Gabriel. Situated on an upper level of the Place de la Bourse, various menus are available, but if you want to go all-out then the five-stage Saturn menu is a good call. Think sea urchins with foie gras cream, langoustines from Brittany, Aquitaine caviar, and gourmet cheeses hand-selected from an actual cheese room.
In the male-dominated world of fine dining, the city’s only centrally based female chef – Moldovan-born Oxana Cretu – is quickly making a name for herself. Having studied under celebrity chef, Alain Ducasse, the passionate foodie launched her own eatery four years ago in the heart of the city. Known for combining unique flavours from cultures across the globe, her thoughtful, innovative, delicious – and surprisingly affordable – dishes are consistently wow-worthy. Set to become one of the country’s better-known chefs, book a table here soon before the word gets out.
An open kitchen, friendly staff, and a cosy, casual vibe – the small family-owned Zéphirine is a classic Gallic bistro that serves traditional food with a twist. Each dish bears a distinctive nod to the family (including favourite recipes) and there’s a robust wine list, alongside a resident starred pastry chef, whose freshly baked butter-filled creations will require a will of steel to resist. Don’t forget to check out the front of house gourmet counter for tasty takeaway treats.
Exuding elegance, the classic brasseries of Bordeaux should be on every traveller’s must-visit list. And one of the best is Au Bistro. Specialising in traditional French, regional fare, the eatery’s location right next to the busy Capucins market takes advantage of the array of fresh produce on offer mere steps away. Make like a local and pull up a seat at the long zinc counter to watch chef Jacques In’On work his magic.
Located in the Saint-Pierre district in the heart of the historic town centre, the bustling Brasserie Bordelaise is a real Bordeaux institution. A favourite for honest brasserie food with a focus on meat, the popular lunch and dinner venue specialises in favourites paired with a bottle of big, bold Bordeaux from the cavernous wine cellar below the restaurant. Simple, unpretentious and generous portions – what’s not to love?