We had just stepped off the Bordeaux tramway, only to watched the “Transgironde” regional bus depart before our eyes. Katie and I had missed our 10:45 AM ride, which would have dropped us off in the Margaux microclimate of the Medoc in time for noon tastings. Everyone had told us to rent a car, but we were trying to conserve our money for eating and imbibing. Rented cars were for the luxurious, not the creative and industrious such as ourselves!
Looking at the high-rises around us, I said to my companion, “Well this is all part of the adventure of traveling when you’re young and poor!”
Katie, an experienced traveler, was not convinced of the merit of missing a capricious, backcountry autocar. “I don’t know…” she sighed, wistfully. “I’ve had a lot of these adventures, and I think I’m kind of over them.”
Katie is another Fulbright scholar, a chemist working on the preservation of iron gall manuscripts at the Natural History Museum in Paris. She and I are in the same chorus, and over drinks one night, we realized that we had many of the same weekend travel destinations in mind (Istanbul, Berlin, Prague…) Katie is a great travel companion because she speaks excellent French, is discerning when it comes to art and food, has a good sense of direction, an even better sense of humor, and is very reliable and organized. Not to mention, she doesn’t mind sharing a bed (which is a good attribute when you’re hunting around for the best hotel/hostel/apartment deals), and she likes to walk!
We came to the conclusion that there was nothing to do where we were, so we took the tram back into the center of Bordeaux, where we looked at the miroir d’eau, and each ate a plate of Bellota ham and Ossau-Iraty, a delicious Basque sheep’s milk cheese at Café Tupina on the quai.
At this point, we were on day three of travel, having taken the train from Paris to Bordeaux on Saturday afternoon. We had thrown the trip together last minute, benefiting from the reduced fares of our cartes 12-25,and from the great offers from airbnb. We were staying in a lovely little 3-room apartment in Bordeaux for only $97 a night, replete with all the nutella and nespresso we could consume, and the entire Friends DVD collection! It smelled a little bit boggy (Bordeaux was, after all, built on swampland), but it felt positively spacious after our Paris apartments! It even had a backyard!
Our first night, we walked from the apartment to downtown Bordeaux, where we bought canalés from Baillardran, and went to Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery. This was an amazing experience, as it allowed us to taste outstanding wines in quantities befitting our budget. Top-notch wines are kept in glass cases, and customers get magnetic charge cards by which they can purchase only a few centiliters of these wines. For 25 euros, we tasted a 2003 Baron Pichon-Longueville, a 2007 Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild, a 2006 Chateau Duhart-Milon, and a 2007 Sauternes from Chateau Doisy-Daëne. We only had about 5 sips of wine each, but these were amazing sips of wine. By accident we tasted three wines from the Pauillac region of the Medoc, which are much more robust than the more structured wine we tasted in St. Emilion and Margaux.
Sunday we took a TGV to St. Emilion, a beautiful medieval village sitting atop a limestone plateau. Underneath the village and its surrounding vineyards and châteaux are over a hundred kilometers of underground passageways, carved out by quarrying over the centuries. We were a bit pressed for time, so we decided to limit ourselves to a tasting at Chateau Soutard and a tour and tasting at Chateau Villemaurine. We chose both destinations based on recommendations from friends in the industry, and based on the fact that we were on foot. That said, we enjoyed our tastings and were highly amused by the narrated light show and neoliberal tone of the guide at Villemaurine. The tastings were also inexpensive compared to the States: 6 euros for a dégustation, and 12 euros for a tour + dégustation.
Not to mention, St. Emilion is absolutely gorgeous. Especially in fall, when all the vines are turning red!
Sunday night, we returned from the country to eat at La Tupina. We each had the prix fixe: scallops with paper-thin lardons, veal with morels, a cheese course, and then dessert. The ambiance was warm and welcoming. The quality of the ingredients was excellent, and I especially liked how we were welcomed with a plate of crudités, saucisson, a mound of butter, and basket of bread. The food was very simple, almost a bit too elemental for the price of the menu, but still very satisfying.
At the end of the evening our server tried to get us to hit the town with him after he got off work. We played coy for a while because he kept on having us try liqueurs… Izarra, Armagnac, Pinneax etc. Mind you this was after we’d been wine tasting, had Lillet as an aperitif and had shared a bottle of wine. Let’s not analyze that too much… It was time to walk home.
Walking. We certainly did a lot of it. On Monday, after our ham and cheese break, we caught the later Transgironde into the countryside. Our destination was Chateau Kirwan. Their young, affable head of oenotourisme, François, had recently spoken at the masters program I audit at the Sorbonne. He had conducted a comparison of the Napa Valley and the Medoc, and I should have taken him at his word that the Medoc was comparatively undeveloped. When we got off the bus, there was nary a café or bakery in sight. All the shutters on all the buildings were closed. But we had made it all the way out there, and François had invited us to visit so enthusiastically. So we followed signs for Chateau Kirwan and were greeted by a beautiful estate and a cheerful welcome from François.
After leading us on a tour of the grounds and the vinification process, he led us through a tasting of three of the Chateau’s wines. Now I understand more about blended wines, and the role of the different varietals: merlot lends fruit and spice, whereas cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon lend structure! I now know I love the mouthfeel of petit verdot…
We then walked over to the next chateau, where we stumbled upon a tasting at Chateau Prieuré-Lichine. We ultimately came back to Chateau Kirwan though, for François had offered us a ride back to Bordeaux. Thanks to his hospitality, we were able to arrive at the gare à l’heure and in style.