The style of winery visits in Bordeaux can be different from those in the US or other parts of the world. There is a lot of emphasis on tradition and history, unique winemaking techniques, and wine education, which I think is great. You get to see historic castles, walk moist underground cellars, touch vats full of wine, and watch winemakers do magic in the way it was done for hundreds of years.
Plan ahead and do some research
At the end of the visit, you will be rewarded with a tasting of excellent wines. However, in many cases, especially on group tours, you will be offered to taste only 1 or 2 wines. It is not very generous, you might think. A chateau is typically a small independent operation that only produces one or two labels of wine. Voila, you tasted them both already.
Some wineries offer extended tasting options which are not always well advertised in my opinion. Vertical tastings, food, and wine pairings, lunch with a winemaker, or a wine blending atelier can make your experience quite unforgettable. If you are interested in those, be sure to ask in advance.
My favorite wineries mastered the art of combining the tradition of Bordeaux with the hospitality of Napa. Those are the ones where you still get a very personalized and culturally enriching tour and tasting yet with a touch of hedonism, relaxed luxury, and excellent customer service.
Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes is one good example.
Imagine overlooking gorgeous vineyards from the shade of an oak tree with a glass of dry white wine, a relaxing experience that leads to a winery tour and discovery of the legendary Sauternes noble-rot.
The takeaway is to decide what type of wine tourist you are. Many of our clients tend to ask for 1st growth chateaux. Don’t get me wrong, these are great wineries and iconic wines. However, if you are more up for a hands-on experience, a friendly chat with a winemaker, and a relaxed and generous tasting, I would recommend going to a family-owned winery. Chateau Hourtin-Ducasse in Pauillac is at the top of my list for customer experience. On the contrary, if you are in Bordeaux to taste its prestigious wines, plan to ahead, research the interesting options wineries can offer, come with a list of your favorite wines and vintages.
Actually, it is ok to wear anything. You may consider dressing up just a bit when visiting top wineries where your guide will likely wear a suit jacket. In the summer, bring a light sweater as cellars may be much colder than the outside. Some wineries with underground cellars would distribute blankets, but it is better to come prepared.
I can’t stress enough the importance of comfortable shoes. There are gravel, dirt, cobblestone, and cellar stairs to climb. The only thing, the French don’t really wear flip-flops outside of beaches, so probably better to avoid those for safety and a bit of a style.
Be on time
Our tour guides will watch the time, but if you are on your own, make the most of your day by being on time. Since all visits at Bordeaux chateaux are by appointment, there is a specific time slot allocated to your group. Being late rushes your tour especially the tasting part, as there may be another group waiting for their turn. If you are 15 minutes late, a chateau may deny you a visit.
A typical visit starts from a quick look in the vineyards, a tour of wine-making facilities and cellars, and it is followed by a tasting. I don’t really recommend visiting more than 3 wineries per day in this fashion. Opt for the ones with tasting only option to squeeze more tastings into your day.
Walk the vineyards
Outside tasting experiences are still quite rare in Bordeaux. Take advantage of a nice summer day and walk the vineyards to take pictures and taste some grapes. The latter is not always encouraged but isn’t prohibited either. Vineyards aren’t fenced, even those of Petrus and Chateau Margaux. Just be aware that some spraying may have taken place recently and don’t eat skins in that case.
Some wineries offer picnic options in their gardens. Don’t you love the idea of a relaxed picnic with a bottle of your favourite Bordeaux? This isn’t yet the widespread offer. If you would like to have a picnic lunch at a chateaux, ask your guide.
There is no pressure to buy wine after tasting
There is no expectation that you will. Sales push is almost non-existent here, but of course, wineries will be pleased to know you enjoyed their wines enough to get some shipped to your home. You will rarely be offered a wine club membership. It is bizarre, but I only know of one wine club so far.
Keep in mind that sometimes if you buy a lot of wine or an expensive bottle, your tasting fees may be waived. Some top wineries do not have any wine to sell at all as they fully rely on merchants to do their distribution.
If you would like to buy wines, be sure to let your guide know. They would make a stop at a wine shop or direct you to one in Bordeaux. It makes the best sense to buy older or rare vintages or small chateaux wines that may not be available back home. Be aware of quite significant shipping fees (approximately 100 euros for 6 bottles) and wine import tariffs in your country. Currently, 25% US import tariffs are applicable to French wines with an alcohol content of lower than 14 degrees.
Make sure you do not ship wines during hot months.
Do not serve yourself during a wine tasting
Servings may be small sometimes. You can politely ask for another sip, but don’t serve yourself. This is one thing that is frowned upon.
Take pictures and speak to a winemaker and a winery owner
It is ok to take pictures absolutely everywhere.
Talk to people you meet at a winery. Even just ‘bonjour’ (hello) goes a long way. Winemakers are very proud of what they do and they love interested guests. Sometimes, a friendly cellar master would let you taste wines from fermentation tanks or barrels which can be a great experience.
Not all wineries around Bordeaux are family-owned, as some are investment properties of insurance companies, banks, Chanel, and the likes, but when it is possible try to talk to the winery owner. You get to learn first-hand about their family history, their day-to-day life, and the economics of wine. When having a glass, I often get reminded about stories I heard by the vineyard.
Voila! Happy tasting and enjoy your wine tour!
Don’t hesitate to ask me any questions. Read more Bordeaux travel tips in our Blog. Write me about your experiences at wineries in Bordeaux and other wine regions. Do you have any other tips for travelers?
“How many bottles of wine are in a Bordeaux barrel?…”