How times change (and not that plus ça change casuistry). The Bordeaux of my distant memory was a grey city, on the muddy Garonne, hoarding its vinous treasures with a kind of miserly hauteur. Its 18th century architectural glories were as grime-ridden as the ancient bottles slumbering in its fusty trade cellars.
Returning is quite a culture shock. After three decades of enlightened civic planning the centre has been transformed. Dazzling sun helps highlight its limestone treasures and riverside gardens. Bordeaux is baking. Tomorrow we’ll fly home before the temperature soars beyond 40 degrees. The steaming temptation is to dip one’s toes in the quayside Miroir d’eau in front of the Place de la Bourse. At 3,450 square metres the world’s largest reflecting pool.
Instead we head for shelter… and, naturally, wine. Inside L’Intendant the air conditioning is a comfort. Its true purpose? To protect 15,000 bottles of the fine wines associated with the city. They are spectacularly displayed around the walls of a 12 metre high, spiralling stairway. All for sale – this is a shop.
Half way up I get into conversation with a German connoisseur. “From Manchester, you say – ah, Hawksmoor, the great claret blunder, the world still talks about it.” He’s referring, of course, to that fateful day in May 2019 when diners at the Deansgate steakhouse were mistakenly served a £4,500 bottle of Chateau Le Pin Pomerol 2001 instead of the £260 Chateau Pichon-Lalande 2001 they had ordered.
The incident went viral, provoking mutterings of “how can any wine be worth that much?”. Market forces, supply and demand. Minuscule Le Pin produces just 200 cases a year and is a trophy red. There are a few of those dotted around L’Intendant, where vintages date back to 1945 (a legendary year), alongside relatively affordable wines.
From the vantage point of an English wine lover, with all the world to choose from, the old mystique of Bordeaux has worn off somewhat. Partly due to its reds in particular becoming a global commodity. The word claret is as démodé as cordon bleu cuisine.
Which brings us to La Cité du Vin, the focus of our return to a reinvigorated, scrubbed up city. The swift flowing, tidal Garonne river may be as muddy as back then, but the esplanade along its banks has been transformed and, 2km north reached by the sleekest of tram services, the old docks now play home to the the €81 million ‘Guggenheim of Wine”.
That label’s too glib, but it has stuck. Comparisons with Frank Gehry’s game-changing museum on the banks of the Nervión river in Bilbao are inevitable. But La Cité, just three years old, feels more a valuable addition than a turning point for a city’s touristic appeal.
Devoted to educating the public in the glories of wine and viticulture, it certainly catches the eye on the outside – an asymmetrical swish of gold and aluminium, topped by a leaning tower. Inside, it casts aside the old museum certainties of curated objects in favour of an immersive, interactive experience, involving all the senses. So expect to do a lot of sniffing out of little funnels to unleash various aromas. What am I getting here? Gooseberry, honey, farmyard? Book a tasting workshop to get the whole synaesthetic connection.
We chose to ramble around and felt slightly adrift against filmic backdrops. Of course, there’s a slight theme park appeal; that’s part of its populist, demystifying mission. A chance to be unafraid of terroir and minerality. All those daunting buzz words.
There’s also a lot of attention paid to the rest of the globe. This is breaking the mould in a France that for too long dismissed wines that weren’t French; indeed in Bordeaux Burgundy wouldn’t get much of a shout.
Further evidence of this sea change was to be found in the Cité’s top floor Belvedere tasting room – attractive for its 360 degree panorama and also for the complimentary glass of wine for each ticket holder. The array of bottles on the counter covered the globe. We sipped an Australian Shiraz as we gazed back through the heat haze to the city proper far beyond the futuristic Chaban-Delmas Bridge. Below us the Bassins à Flot – derelict tidal basins” – are undergoing gentrification.
The advance guard has been the resurgent Les Halles de Bacalan market across the road from the Cité’. It’s a smart food hall, hosting 24 traders. Fronting it is a separate brasserie. La Familia, named after a treasured 1920s neighbourhood cinema and celebrating the food and drink of South West France. The regional platters were the mot impressive food offering.
From here the promenade back to the city centre is via the Quai des Chartrons, whose warehouses were central to the wine and slave trade which created the city’s wealth. Evidence of which is more than 5,000 restored houses from the 18th century and 350 listed historic monuments. Such glories make it a delight to wander around the UNESCO World Heritage Status Chartrons district and the charming Jardin Public.
Most folk amble along the Rue de Notre Dame in search of antiques; we perversely discovered Rn7 Caviste at No.102, devoted exclusively to the wines of the Northern Rhone, where brave incomer Frederic Bennetot introduced us to the most impressive wines we tasted on our city break. Crozes Hermitage, St Joseph Cornas, Côte-Rôtie – a treasure trove homage to the Syrah grape in premises that proclaim their former incarnation as an upholsterer’s.
The city, as you’d expect, boasts some terrific wine bars. Close to L’Intendant is Le Bar a Vin, a Bordeaux institution in lofty ornate premises. Government-subsidised, it offers bargain, by the glass offers of some seriously good wines. Around the Place St Pierre is a fertile area for an evening’s carousing. Check out near neighbours on the Rue des Bahutiers, Italian-owned The Wine Bar with more than 300 wines from around the world and excellent snacks to accompany them, and the hipper Vins Urbains. By the glass is expensive, so definitely go for a bottle to share (400 to choose from) and don’t miss the delights of their with even more bottles and a white truffle croque monsieur.
Some palate-cleansing hoppiness? Venture further down winding Bahutiers to its junction with with the Rue Alsace at Lorraine and you’ll encounter the Bordeaux branch of the French craft beer chain, Les BerThoM. It has a fine Belgian selection, but do try the fine local Merignac beer.
At the other end of the food and drink scale Bordeaux has it share of Michelin restaurants, non more high profile the Gordon Ramsay’s two-starred Le Pressoir d’Argent inside the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel. Its name comes from the dining room’s centrepiece, a solid silver lobster press, on of only five in the world. Splash out well over €100 and they’ll serve you a native lobster fresh from the press, steamed with lemon leaf, corn, girolles, courgettes, coral and lemongrass bisque. Maybe the shadow of Brexit is straitening you purse strings? Stick to the €185 Origins Menu, featuring old Bordeaux’s signature fish dish, freshwater lamprey in a red wine sauce. We thought better of it.
Of course, you can dine superbly in small bistros, if you pick well, and then, it being France, make a beeline for a market. Les Halles de Capucins in the homely St Michael’s quarter, south of St Pierre, was in second gear the Tuesday we visited but could still maintain luxuriant fresh herb stall, the like of which I’ve never seen before (actually I recognised it from one of those Rick Stein’s Long Weekends programmes).
Mid-morning was a perfect time to indulge in a half dozen Arcachon oysters and a tumbler of Entre deux Mers white at Chez Jean-Mi, bistrot a huitres. A piece of old Bordeaux. Vive les traditions Bordelaises.
It’s not all about wine – Three must-visits in Bordeaux
The Cathedrale Saint-André
There’s nothing like a church tower panorama to help you get a feel for a city. We tried two. The gargoyle-thronged Gothic belfry, the Tour Pey Berland, was built in the 15th century alongside the Cathedral (a spire came later). 231 steps will take you to the viewpoint; be prepared to queue, visitor numbers are restricted.
St Michel’s bell tower
Its contemporary rival, the 114 metre high bell tower of the Basilica of Saint-Michel is also freestanding and spired. Known as La Fleche (‘the arrow), it’s quite a climb but you are rewarded with a view down onto a vibrant local street market. The tower’s crypt used to house a collection of mummies unearthed from a local burial ground in the 18th century. Our macabre expectations were dashed – they were reburied 40 years ago.
Get a masterpiece fix at the Musée des Beaux-Arts
One of France’s finest art galleries, built in 1881, has reopened after several years of renovation and offers an eye-opening primer in European fine art. The collection is housed in two glorious, separate wings – the south devoted to art from the 16th to the 18th century, and the north the 19th and 20th centuries. Artists who feature include Brueghel, Corot, Delacroix, Van Dyck, Kokoschka, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Rubens, Véronèse and Bordeaux’s own Odilon Redon.
For a full rundown on the city’s attractions visit Bordeaux Tourism.