Bordeaux — a name synonymous with fine wines — is a port city on the Garonne River in southwest France. Vineyards first planted here by Romans more than 2000 years ago “seeded” and shaped the city’s economic and cultural identity over centuries. Bordeaux’s location near the Gironde estuary (the largest estuary in Europe) proved ideal for the growth of the wine trade, offering easy access to the Atlantic Ocean.
Due to its unique mix of history, geography and terroir, the surrounding region (also named Bordeaux) now houses more than 8,000 wine-producing chateaux that export some of the best French wines enjoyed throughout the world. These include Sauternes, Médoc, Graves, Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and others. For more than 30 years, the international wine and spirits industry trade show, Vinexpo, has been held biennially in Bordeaux, drawing visitors from more than 150 countries. In 2016, the city opened a new immersive wine museum called Cité du Vin.
Bordeaux beyond the wine
Our 8-day “Chateaux, Rivers and Wine” cruise with Viking River Cruises launched from a picturesque quay on the left bank of the Garonne, near the historic center of the city (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007).
Once referred to as France’s “Sleeping Beauty”, the city of Bordeaux has, with enlightened leadership, undergone a renaissance in recent years that earned it the title of “European Best Destination 2015” in a competition among 20 major cities. In 2017, Bordeaux placed first on Lonely Planet’s list of top cities to visit.
The rundown waterfront area was redeveloped to make it more appealing and pedestrian-friendly. Facades of weathered limestone buildings that had blackened with age were cleaned to restore the original patina of their stone. New hotels and restaurants began opening. The now-lively city boasts more than 350 listed buildings of historical significance, ranking second to Paris. A high-speed TGV train service links Bordeaux to Paris.
When we chose our Bordeaux river cruise itinerary, we of course looked forward to being able to tour the city and taste the famous wines of the region in their own terroir. As expected, the wines were poured generously at both lunch and dinner on the ship. They were also featured at various port stops where we heard lectures, attended tastings, and spoke to vintners and wine merchants about the wines of Bordeaux.
However, three extraordinary optional shore excursions not only introduced us to the wines of Bordeaux but also allowed us to “branch out” and explore other epicurean foods and spirits identified with the region, notably Perigord truffles, oysters and cognac.
Searching for Perigord truffles
Enamored with the taste of white truffles in Northern Italy, we were eager to learn about the black truffles (sometimes called “black diamonds”) grown in this area of France. Early one morning, a motor coach took a small group of us on a scenic highway drive and then on smaller roads within the densely forested Dordogne Valley.
About two hours later, we reached La Truffière de Pechalifour, a small truffle farm nestled in a protected, picture-book hamlet of 17th and 18th century stone houses. Our Viking guide introduced us to Edouard Aynaud, a passionate, second-generation truffle farmer and his trained hunting dogs.
Part agronomist, biologist, teacher, and marketer, Edouard (called a rabassier, French for truffle hunter) taught us about the interdependence of the trees, soil, fungi and water that allow black truffles to grow here. He explained that these hard-to-cultivate, hard-to-find delicacies emerge beneath the roots of his oak and hazelnut trees.
We watched one of Edouard’s border collies scratch and sniff the ground. If we had tails of our own, we would have wagged them when she located a truffle beside one of the trees. The master immediately rewarded his helper with a treat and took over the job lest the collie bruise her precious find.
Then we were invited into his home where his wife, Carole, had prepared a mouth-watering multi-course lunch for our group, each dish served with black truffles. We had truffled toast; Brouillade truffée, a delicious dish made with whisked eggs, black truffles, butter and rapeseed oil; pan-fried and truffled goose foie gras (another local specialty) and truffled pasta, along with vegetables, salad, cheese and dessert.
Visiting an oyster farm
Half the fun of visiting an oyster farm on Arcachon Bay on a crisp, sunny day is getting there. We boarded the catamaran Kalume in the resort town of Arcachon, immediately falling in love with the colorful gingerbread cottages, sandy beach, and twin piers jutting into the bay.
Once onboard, we motored past scenic villages along the shores and learned that because of the tides, Arcachon Bay varies greatly in area (from 150km to 40km) depending on when you measure. We spotted Landes Forest, a pine forest of four million acres (half the size of the state of New Jersey) that was planted by man on a flatland where sheep were once raised. It is now a protected, renewable resource and recreational paradise for cyclists, hikers and walkers. We also breezed past the peninsula of Cap Ferret and the Dune of Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe.
The French government introduced paid vacations in 1936 so these bayside towns (much like those in the Hamptons or Cape Cod in the States) are uber-popular vacation getaways. Although year-round sunshine attracts visitors and inspires artists across all four seasons, the populations of these small towns swell as much as tenfold in summer.
A major portion of France’s oyster bounty has been harvested from these waters since the 1860s. It is estimated that the Arcachon Basin produces 8-10,000 tons of oysters a year. Traditionally served at Christmas and at New Year’s Eve meals—or more commonly, with a glass of white or rosé wine any other time of year – raw oysters topped with a squeeze of zesty lemon are an integral part of French culture.
We visited an oyster shack called Chez Yannick, one of many only steps away from the oyster beds. Farmer Yannick told us how oysters release their eggs into the water each year in late July and attach themselves to artificial beds. The oysters evolve from birth and become edible over a period of 18 months to three years. We watched him shuck the oysters by hand (quite expertly), and we sampled them fresh on the half shell. Although I’m usually a fried-oyster person, these (served with crusty French bread and a glass of wine) were the best I had ever tasted.
It turned out that this was just an aperitif! Before heading back to our motor coach, we boarded the catamaran and headed off to Cap Ferret, where we enjoyed a relaxing seafood lunch at L’Escale. Here, at one of the oldest restaurants on the peninsula, we dined and sipped wines with locals on a terrace overlooking the Bay.
Cognac, a type of brandy made by distilling wine, is another French product named after its place of birth. And like Champagne – which can only be produced in the Champagne region of France and under exacting rules of the appellation – the same holds true for Cognac. This is the only place in the world where Cognac can be produced and called that. (Oddly, it was originally created to avoid a tax on wine.)
Our bus trip to the riverside town of Cognac delivered us to the door of the House of Camus, the largest Cognac house that still remains family-owned and independent. In a stunningly contemporary, museum-like setting, we learned about the process of making Cognac, from harvesting to distillation to aging.
Then we were led to a room with a long table. Each place setting had a flask, measuring cylinders, funnels and glasses – tools we would use to experiment and determine our individual tastes and preferences. With the humor and presence of a stage entertainer, Master Blender Frederic Dezauzier dispensed his expert knowledge and introduced us to the art of Cognac tasting.
We sipped, sniffed and tasted Cognac with different food pairings before we were left to blend our own unique libations. We were able to bottle “personal blends” that were labeled with our names and sealed carefully in a wooden cask to survive the trip home. We also came away with a more refined taste for Cognac.
Lessons learned on a Bordeaux river cruise
A Bordeaux river cruise will help food-lovers who aren’t oenophiles become more knowledgeable about the basics of the fine wines produced in this region. Our advice: When choosing shore excursions, which typically offer numerous outings to wine-producing chateaux, don’t forget to look beyond the wine
If you go
- Viking River Cruises
- Bordeaux Tourism
- La Truffière de Pechalifour
- The Arcachon Basin
- House of Camus
Disclosure: Our “Chateaux, Rivers and & Wine Cruise” was hosted by Viking River Cruises.