If you are a lover of red wines, then you definitely should add a trip to Bordeaux to your bucket list. Up until a few weeks ago, I was strictly a Chardonnay drinker.
But a recent river cruise to that region has made me — almost — a convert. To go there and drink anything else would be almost sacrilege. The numbers are staggering: More than 80 percent of wines produced are reds from grapes growing in more than 280,000 acres of vineyards. More than 2,000 wineries produce millions of cases every year. One of the guides reported that 23 bottles of Bordeaux reds are sold every second, worldwide, with 40 percent of the market exported to China.
The wines are usually blends of two or more of five grapes — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. There is also often a comparison of wines from the Left Bank and the Right Bank of the rivers we traveled, the Garonne and the Dordogne. The Right Bank wines are more merlot based, while the Left Bank is more Cabernet Sauvignon. Not only are the terroir and the growing conditions different for both sides but also from vineyard to vineyard, hence the distinction between certain wines. I am far away from being a wine expert, but I did learn that much. I was also constantly struck by the number of vineyards stretching as far as the eye could see, mile after mile. Clearly wine and tourism are the backbone of that area's economy.
There are many things that make the area memorable, the cuisine in particular. It is home to many specialties, including oysters and a wide variety of fish. I was served monkfish medallions and seabass that were extraordinary. Excellent pork, beef, and lamb are also to be had, as well as duck,white asparagus and truffles. My traveling companions and I were drawn to the fish and its simple yet elegant preparation. Our merry band included Andy and Allie Good of Rochester, their friends from Chicago, a Good sister-in-law, and me.)
I was amazed and amused during a walk through a small village to see a pizza vending machine on a corner, not exactly what you'd expect in France. There also seemed to be a restaurant of some type every five feet we walked. Actually, we were told that there are more restaurants per person in Bordeaux than Paris. A sweet pastry unique to the area are Canneles, little flute-shaped caramel cakes with rum and vanilla flavoring. They appeared in every bakery window as well as smaller stands. (truthfully not my favorite pastry, and I jettisoned plans to bring a little box home.)
Not many get the opportunity to witness a truffle hunt or to taste them, so that was a highlight. One of the most expensive mushrooms in the world ($100 an ounce at least, for the winter truffles), they grow underground usually under oak and hazelnut trees. Formerly foraged by pigs, specially trained dogs now sniff them out since pigs began eating these prized morsels. A border collie was given the signal to forage and he did, going straight to an area where a truffle was buried. It is now the season for summer truffles, not quite as expensive as the others. The distinctive aroma sets truffles apart from other fungi, almost a musty odor. A small slice was served on top of a sauce at lunch but I couldn't get the taste, just the aroma.
Ever mixed up your own cognac? I never had either, but we were given the chance when we visited the Camus distillery in the town of Cognac. The process looked like and resembled a science experiment. Vials of different cognacs were tasted, then mixed into individual blends. Under guidance, each person went to cognac barrels, filled a beaker with the percentages they had chosen. It was then bottled, labeled, sealed and packaged into an elegant box. Interestingly, the French are not big cognac drinkers. Who then? The United States. Explained a guide, a Puff Daddy song "Pass the Couvoisier" gave cognac an enormous boost in the early 80's.
The Medoc and Marguax areas are known for their beautiful scenery and chateaus. Traditionally, a chateau was a grand country house, but here it's a term used to describe a wine estate with its own winery and vineyard. One afternoon we were led on a tour and tasting of six vintages at one of them, Chateau Marquis de Terme. A spectacular dinner followed at another, Chateau Kirwin. Attention marathoners: The Medoc Marathon is held every September through vineyards in the area, with 23 wine tasting stations, stands serving oysters, steak and cheeses, orchestras playing, and many runners in costume. Last year, 8,500 participated. It's a happening like no other, and certainly not your typical marathon.
Given the choice, would you go to the Atlantic to visit an oyster farm or to Le March des Capucins, the Bordeaux Farmer's Market? It was an easy choice for me — the market with the chef. Organized in the mid-1600s, he called it the "belly of Bordeaux" where the city's chefs shop. It runs daily from early morning until noon and has everything you can imagine, breads, cheeses, wines, fish, oysters, meats, spices, pigs feet, pig snouts, fowl, fruits, vegetables, sweets. We were offered countless samples including unique truffle-infused slices of ham. The best was a confection chef handed out on the way back, a small cookie called Well of Love, a meringue-topped pastry with a little carmelization on top.
So now Cinderella is back at the hearth. It was an incredible week with wonderful traveling companions as well as experiences, tastes, and exposure to some of he best red wines available. However, would you believe that I had a glass of Chardonnay when I got home? I did. Old habits die hard.