From Paris to Bordeaux, the sensible thing is to fly or take the fast train (the TGV). The less sensible thing is to drive. It’s 600 kilometres.
But I like that drive. The way you gradually seep into the south. The soil gets sandier, the trees spikier and every other placename has an ‘-ac’ at the end. Then you see your first umbrella pine and you know you’re close to Bordeaux and the heart of Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
Google ‘Bordeaux travel’ and you will get a wordcloud with various synonyms for ‘transformation’. So I’m prepared for a bit of a change to this southwestern French city. I was last here as a young man on a football tour in the early 1990s. I have dim memories of gloomy, sooty buildings, warehouses and crabby hotels. The fact that someone had thought it worthwhile to break into our car and steal our sweat-stained football kit gives you an indication of the city’s economic health at the time. In those days, you’d miss Bordeaux altogether if you could and head to the pine-fringed beaches of Lacanau or the medieval streets and wine cellars of Saint-Émilion.
But now? I turn towards Centre Ville and straight away I know there’s been quite a makeover. Its grimy skin and generations of fumes have been scoured away. In its place, you see boulevard after boulevard of fresh, creamy limestone and gleaming cobblestones. But the facelift isn’t only skin-deep. The soul of Bordeaux has had a spring clean too.
Jean-Michel Cazes, the celebrated winemaker from Pauillac, tells me the word other French citizens habitually use about the Bordelais: coincé. Literally, it means ‘in a corner’, idiomatically, ‘uptight, closed-off’. Read the novels of Bordeaux-born François Mauriac and they are full of frustrated creative types yearning for Paris, far from their coincé relatives in Bordeaux.
The Mauriacs of today are going in the opposite direction. The launch of the new TGV line in 2017 has brought Bordeaux within two hours of Paris and the sullen provincial cousin is now modish and coveted. Strolling down to the Garonne river after a fine bistro dinner on the terrace of the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel, there are people dancing in the square, carousing in the cafés and getting about the place on bikes, skateboards and barefoot.
When cities go through sudden and dramatic changes, cherchez le politicien (‘look for the politician’). You’ll usually find an ambitious young mayor who chooses their home city to make a mark on the national stage. And whatever the French think of Alain Juppé, former prime minister of France and mayor of Bordeaux more or less continuously between 1995 and today, they all acknowledge he did a pretty dramatic job of transforming the city. The riverside was reclaimed from the cars and the warehouses. The roads were pedestrianised. A hi-tech tram system was built. Unesco gave its blessing.
And there’s nothing an ambitious mayor likes more than to leave a couple of architectural landmarks. The next day, I drive to the former industrial port area of Bacalan. There is Landmark One: the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a bridge opened in 2013 with a centre section that lifts like a tea tray to allow large ships to pass beneath. Nearby is an extraordinary shape. Some say it is a vine, some say wine swirling around the bottom of a glass. But they all agree the Cité du Vin has been A Very Good Thing.
Some 1.3 million people have entered its barrel-like interior since it opened in 2016. They inhale vinous odours from enlarged perfume bottles. They get immersed in the art and poetry inspired by the grape. Then they end up on a 360-degree terrace sipping the stuff itself while the expanse of Bordeaux opens up 35 metres below.
And as you gaze eastwards beyond the Garonne, you see one of the greatest wine regions of them all, the Médoc – and naturally you want to head there. Fast.
How to travel in the winelands? You know how it goes. First, you pick on an unfortunate species of human known as the Designated Driver. Then you head into the land of vines and cellar doors, winery restaurants and tasting rooms. After five or six tastings you reach a cute boutique hotel where you can disgorge the bottles, T-shirts, €60 (HK$500) corkscrews and all the other oenological impedimenta you have accumulated on the journey. Then you have another fabulous dinner. And more wine.
This has not traditionally been my experience in the Médoc. In the dark old days, you’d drive past the fabulous châteaux, each with a celebrated name you’d only know from a label or whispered reverently by a sommelier. But they would all be closed. Not just closed but – how shall I say? – forbidden to mere mortals, especially mortals in shorts and sandals on a boozy trip from the barbarian north. If you were lucky, you might get to eat an overpriced croque monsieur in a fusty village café. No amount of luck would get you a decent bed for the night, so you’d drive disconsolately back to Bordeaux.
So how nice it is to coast through the hamlets of Dauprat and Saint-Lambert, wave at the fairytale towers of Château Pichon Longueville Baron, clock the Relais & Châteaux sign and turn into the gravel drive surrounding the Cordeillan-Bages.
It is a hotel. It is in the vinelands between, handily, Cordeillan and Bages. It does have a restaurant and a Michelin star. It is owned by one of the greatest of wine families. And it is in the Médoc.
For all this, we must thank our friend Jean-Michel Cazes. Having transformed the fortunes (and the mouldy vats) of the venerable Lynch-Bages house, he turned to Médoc tourism, taking the more or less derelict village of Bages and giving it a bistro, shops and a heart.
We won’t get carried away. The Médoc is no longer closed – but the door is only ajar. To visit the great houses, you need to book (or better, be invited – see below). But as I tour the sleepy villages, climb to the rooftop of the Saint-Seurin church in the village of Lamarque and survey the land, I utter a quiet prayer of thanks to the god Bacchus that these tree-lined roads and red-roofed villages are not choked with coaches and touring stag parties. This is wine tourism – but with French characteristics.
After dinner at Cordeillan-Bages, sitting among the rows of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, sipping the last of the 2001 Grand Cru Classé, the real spirit of the place envelops me. After the heat of an Aquitaine summer day, the blessed breeze wafts in from the Gironde estuary. And deep below, for metre after metre, the roots are feeling their way through the sacred soil, readying for the harvest.
A Vintage Alliance
Three years ago, Jean-Charles Cazes was hosting a dinner for Marco Polo Club members in Hong Kong. As chief executive of Château Lynch-Bages, it’s something he does frequently, here or in Médoc itself. His neighbour took him aside and told him about the time, in the late 1980s, when he flew First Class on Cathay Pacific to London for a job interview. He and his wife tried a glass of Lynch-Bages – the 1982 vintage. And as soon as the interview was over, he headed to Berry Brothers & Rudd and bought 200 bottles.
Cazes was delighted to hear it: not least because the company’s own cellars had run out. So he arranged a swap: some of the ’82 for a stellar selection of different vintages. Everyone was happy.
That’s a fair summary of the relationship between Lynch-Bages and Cathay Pacific, too. It began in 1989, when a friend told Jean-Charles’ father, Jean-Michel, that a customer in Hong Kong was looking for a reliable supply of outstanding Bordeaux vintages.
The 30-year relationship was celebrated in a special dinner in Hong Kong earlier this year. On the menu: that precious ’82.
There were more fine vintages opened in July, when select Marco Polo Club guests flew to Toulouse to take delivery of a new Airbus A350-900. There was a new partnership to celebrate too, between the airline and Château Montrose – the latest vintage to tempt First flyers. The guests dined at Château Montrose’s extraordinary refurbished home – a true cathedral of fine wine, and 100 per cent organic.
Where To Go
InterContinental – Le Grand Hotel
The grande dame of Bordeaux hotels in the heart of town: plush, classical furnishings with a contemporary roof bar overlooking the city.
Chef Julien Lefebvre oversees both the fine-dining restaurant in the château and the Café Lavinal bistro in the nearby village of Bages. Both are highly recommended. In the area, visits to Château Lynch-Bages and Château Montrose are by appointment only.
Les Sources de Caudalie
South of Bordeaux, this hotel and spa sits in the grounds of the Château Haut Smith-Lafitte vinery. It’s well worth a visit, as is its excellent garden restaurant La Table du Lavoir.