The world of wine swirls around Bordeaux. Bordeaux is a style, a quality, and a symbol of status. The soul of Bordeaux is vested in the newly minted La Cité du Vin. Is it shaped like a decanter? What is it? We ask. In fact, it’s a “non-shape.” It is an abstract representation of the flow of wine pouring into a glass. Sheer brilliance. A magnet for oenophiles and for those simply curious about the alluring and iridescent mica and glass structure, changing colours as it reflects the sun like a glimmering temple nestled on the riverbank.
Inside, we move like molecules in a glass of wine, circling multi-sensory exhibits that provide insight and stimulate curiousity at each stage of the winemaking process. Nineteen interactive modules demystify the components of colour, taste, mouth feel and aromatics and provide a history of wine. At the Terroir Table we push buttons to survey the geography of the major wine regions. We learn about old and new world wines from ancient vineyards in Georgia to emerging ones in Canada. In “salons” we learn how to trust ourselves in wine tastings; get introduced to the wines of Bordeaux as well as international regions; and sample wines while reading the classic literature, like Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, to which they correspond. In a dark room we recline as sounds and images are projected along with aroma diffusers to help us identify wine notes. A comfortable library displays books on wine in a variety of languages and includes manga. There is even a workshop for children using colours and juice. On the top floor we taste and compare international wines while overlooking “la belle endormie” (the sleeping beauty), Bordeaux.
Strolling along the boardwalk by the Garonne River and through public parks is such a pleasure. There is calm civilized sophistication. This is a city known for its art and 18th-century limestone architecture. Some buildings even date back to Roman times. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “outstanding urban and architectural ensemble.” Rue Sainte-Catherine, one of the longest pedestrian-only shopping streets in Europe purveys all the epicurean specialties I love. Wine bars, cafés, chocolatiers, fromageries, and quaint cobblestone public squares seduce me with the most refined products in the world. I enjoy espresso with canelé, a miniature caramelized cake with vanilla and rum that symbolizes the elegance of Bordeaux’s pastry making. At the Maille boutique I sample fresh mustard on tap. This is not the ballpark yellow condiment I grew up with. These mustards are wonderful rich flavours that immediately inspire food pairings. Dozens of mustard varieties tempt me like Hazelnut, Black Chanterelles and White Wine; Mustard with Acacia Honey and Balsamic Vinegar; and the limited edition Chardonnay with White Alba truffles. My gift bag is full.
Time to cook. At the Côté Cours cooking school within the Saint-James Hotel, I don an apron, raise a glass of Medoc, and follow along as my teacher instructs, in French, how to prepare our Mexican feast, Bordelaise style. Classes here are in cuisines of the world, but the quality of ingredients and the preparations are quintessentially French. With each sip of wine, I feel I can understand better. Who would believe what I just made? Crisped-local shrimp atop a disk of salsa and roasted corn looks beautiful, but it’s the techniques that I will bring home. My reward? From his Michelin-starred restaurant within the hotel, Chef Nicolas Magie serves a vibrant display of cléry strawberries elevated with basil sorbet, fennel and cookie crumble. Magnifique.
Bordeaux is the wine capital of the world with over 7000 wine producers in 65 appellations. My anticipation soars as I drive through the quiet countryside in an English taxi, Wine Cab, converted into a wine-tasting chamber. There’s Château Margaux! Can I take a peak through the iron gates? That’s as close as I’ll get. This is wine royalty, and the mystique is closely guarded. However, appreciating wine is as much a local pastime as it is the main industry here and, from the wine bars to the wineries, I find it all happily accessible.
First stop: Château Pape Clement where, not only do I learn how Grands Crus Classés are made but, in the wine lab, I also create my own Cab/Merlot blend, and bottle it with my own label which I name after my son. This is the oldest planted vineyard in the region, dating back to 1300. The politics of wine and the papacy is evident here. Named after Clement V, the winery was maintained by successive archbishops. In the wine cave I feel the medieval ambience as church music echoes through the cavernous tomb of the archbishop. Old meets new as Asian inspiration harmoniously blends with French classicism at Chateau Marquis d’Alesme. Surrounded by serene gardens, new production facilities combine Taoist principles with organic and bio-dynamic practices. Grapes are hand picked for the “caviar” of the estate. Through a long spacious hall lined with dragon scales, moon gates open to reveal them quietly resting in their barrels. In an adjacent villa I sniff aromatic oils to test my olfactory skills, and sample a bouquet of Cabernet-dominant wines. Floral, elegant black fruit, richly textured with a refined mouth feel seems patiently coaxed from the grapes with virtue and virtuosity. We select a few bottles to enjoy in the courtyard with a platter of fresh bread, charcuterie, cheese and olives all locally sourced. I could not be happier.
Lunch at the 2-Michelin star La Grande Maison by esteemed Chef Pierre Gagnaire is a privilege for the senses. The culinary architecture of each dish is astonishing. Each ingredient, plucked from source, is neatly set in colourful assemblage. Sea bass with oysters and pearls of cider is a confluence of voluptuous textures with subtle sweetness. Red mullet is layered with foie gras mousse, crisp fennel, black olive jelly, a thin sheet of daikon and a potpourri of tiny flowers and micro greens. This is exquisite cuisine and, needless to say, the Bordeaux wine pairings are luxurious.