Ahh-OOOO-gah!! At the sound, I look out my window and see Laurent from Bordeaux Chateaux parked across the street. An elegant guy, mid 40s in a white shirt and jeans sporting Ray Bans. Laurent is standing next to a pristine example of an early 1970s Citroën 2CV (deux chevaux). He sees me, waves and beckons us down to him.
For the uninitiated, “ahh-OOO-gah” is the sound a klaxon horn makes. A distinctive aural signature that today usually means one of two things: 1) the submarine in which you stand is about to submerge or 2) you are riding in or standing nearby a vintage automobile that is sounding its horn. We fall into the latter category here.
Laurent’s deux chevaux is sparkling clean in two-tone black and white paint and a sunroof rolled all the way back. The interior has comfortable cloth seats decorated in black and white checks. We greet Laurent, get in and buckle up. He starts the motor and with the distinctive rumble of the deux chevaux’s tiny 4-cylinder engine in our ears, we ease out onto the street. A warm breeze ruffles our hair and over the muted whine of the transmission, we make small talk about the day ahead. Laurent is taking us on a wine tour. Le Circuit Pessac, one of three circuits or regional tours that Bordeaux Chateaux offers.
Located in the French Sud Ouest, around the city of Bordeaux is one of the globe’s older, treasured and productive wine-growing and wine-making regions. Truly, the wines of Bordeaux are respected and valued the world over and have been for centuries.
The history of wine making in the Bordeaux region is fascinating, covering what is now three millennia. Bordeaux was established by Celts in/around the fifth century BC. With a protected harbor and proximity to sea-based trade routes along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Bordeaux existed as a veritable city/state unto itself for centuries. Its beginning coincided with a period in which the Roman Empire was in full swing consolidating substantial far-flung remnants of earlier Alexandrian and Greek empires under its rule. This consolidation under Roman rule spanned from what is now northern France into the east as far as what is now Afghanistan. Constantine I was a noted Roman ruler at this time among others.
The Citroën deux chevaux we ride in has an interesting history as well. Initially introduced in the 1920s, the deux chevaux became an everyman’s car in France after WWII. The 2CV was made to order for the post war era. With upgrades and design improvements, it sold well into the 1980s at which time the design’s limitations and age made it less attractive to buyers. Still reasonably widely available through the pre-owned market in France today, these altogether modest automobiles are now collected and cared for and come at a premium price.
Back to Bordeaux. Wine making came to Bordeaux under the Romans. With the consolidation of former empires under single rule came greater trade and commerce opportunities and Bordeaux was well situated to participate in the burgeoning enterprise and commerce of the time. Along with shipping and trade, a key enterprise in Bordeaux at the time (as it is today) was wine making. It happened that the sandy, gravelly soils found in and around Bordeaux’s twin rivers were well suited to growing a variety of grapes of great quality.
Many centuries pass and through them all Bordeaux’s vineyards and winemaking expertise serve as a principal provider to a fast-growing wine trade expanding throughout greater Europe and beyond. This appreciation of Bordeaux wines continues over ensuing centuries through boom-and-bust times weathering stark challenges imposed by wars, trade restrictions and viticulture challenges such as plant diseases, floods and droughts. Still, over this time the worldwide market and volumes for wine, French wine particularly and Bordeaux wines specifically, grow exponentially.
There is a great deal to know about this very long period in the business and enjoyment of French wine – Eleanor of Aquitaine played a key role in the growth of the French wine business in and around Bordeaux at the time she lived. All of that history is well documented and easily discoverable.
Visits to the storied Grand Cru Châteaux of the region under any circumstance is a wonderful touring experience for a host of reasons: learning about and sampling the wines of course but the beauty of the area is impressive and unique with an emphasis on visits to the storied Châteaux with their manicured grounds, some of which standing today harken back to the 1100s. It is a treat to pass through these forested lands on narrow country roads dotted with small villages and all surrounded by a landscape of carefully tended vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. At these ancient and celebrated Châteaux within the greater Bordeaux region, most welcome visits by the public and offer tastings and tours with brief, well-presented lectures about the region and the winemaking at the estate, past and present.
Ahh-OOO-gah! Back with Laurent in the deux chevaux, we are into the Pessac region now. The pleasures to come on this tour are hinted by increasing sights of vineyards. Eventually hectares of vines in trim, diagonal rows coat the horizon as we putter through ever smaller villages and towns. Laurent shares local historical facts and anecdotes. People in cars and on bicycles pass. Many, seeing our little car with its open top, wave. Laurent gives them a toot on the klaxon horn.
Our first destination is the Château Olivier. Turing into the estate, we drive down a neatly manicured, tree-lined lane, which to my sensibilities is the stuff historical epics and a thrill in itself. Laurent parks the deux chevaux. As we disembark its little engine ticks quietly as it cools. Over a short distance of lawn, graveled walks and lanes stands the Château and its outer buildings. This estate dates back to the 11th century and as we approach, its cloistered buildings stand in resolute and silent tribute to an age long past. Up close, we find that the Château, the grand mansion itself, is surrounded by a moat!
Standing amid this ancient splendor, I feel a curious mixture of having one foot in a grand museum of ancient history while the other is firmly planted in a thoroughly modern setting. The experience is unique. As we traverse the lanes and lawns we are reminded that we are amid a going business enterprise. Walking alongside the outer buildings, we catch glimpses of what is inside. These structures once stables, servants quarters and warehouses are now filled with batteries of large, gleaming vats and multitudes of oaken barrels. Amid ancient splendor we are within a world almost wholly repurposed to the task of wine making.
At Château Olivier, as was the case at all four Châteaux we visited this day, there were friendly, highly knowledgeable representatives who conducted tours of the estate, its wine making capability and the history of the estate and the region. These brief lectures are worthwhile. Through them one gets a sense of how life and commerce were conducted over the period of time these estates existed, right up to the present.
After touring the winery with its vats, barrels and machinery, we repaired to a great room to sample Château Olivier wines, white and red. Formidable!
Ahh-OOO-gah! Our tour of the Pessac winemaking region brought us to four independent Grand Cru Châteaux: Château Olivier, Château Carbonnieux, Château Smith Haut Lafitte and Château Léognan. Each has a distinctive character and place in the history of the region and its wines. Each offered well-paced tours led by an articulate guide. And, duly informed by our tour, we had the opportunity to sample the wines at each Château.
Following an afternoon tour and tasting at the Château Léognan, Laurent, ever the attentive host, broke out a picnic lunch of a crusty baguette, cognac pate and a white wine from the region. We enjoyed our lunch under the shade trees on the Château Léognan’s manicured lawn.
One note, tasting rooms at each Château are equipped with stands or buckets in which tasters after assessing the wine’s nose and mouth, can delicately release the wine into these buckets rather than swallowing the wine. As grandly flavorful as these wines are, to drink even sampling amounts over the course of a day’s wine tour is to court becoming affected by the alcohol. To enjoy the day at its fullest, which is to say to not become sleepy and lethargic, I strongly recommend swallowing your sample mouthful only infrequently if at all. Use the spits and take some water and/or cheese as available as you taste your way through these wonderful whites, reds and rosés.
Our tours completed, Laurent drove us home in the late afternoon. Pleasantly fatigued, full of wonderful sights, sounds and tastes we hummed back into the city. As we progressed, the now common sight of vineyards stretching across the horizon dwindled, replaced by the quotidian views of city life. Ah, well.
Ahh-OOO-gah! We are home. We thank Laurent and with a last sounding of the klaxon horn, the deux chevaux chugs into the distance as we ascend to our apartment in Caudéran.
There are many ways to visit and enjoy the winemaking regions of Bordeaux, which are spread far and wide and are peppered with storied Châteaux. However, many of the most celebrated are within an easy drive of the city. So, how can one best encounter and enjoy a tour of the region and its storied wines? We highly recommend the Bordeaux Chateaux tour. What better than a day among wines and celebrated Châteaux in an historic realm that abounds with well-preserved examples of that history, comported by a knowledgeable, affable host in a pristine Citroën 2CV? C’est formidable.