With wine lovers flocking to the Médoc from all over the globe, it's little surprise that hospitality is big business. KATHLEEN BUCKLEY names 10 great places to stay and eat.

With wine lovers flocking to the Médoc from all over the globe, it’s little surprise that hospitality is big business. KATHLEEN BUCKLEY names 10 great places to stay and eat.

The beauty of the Médoc for wine lovers has always been in the glass. St-Julien, Pauillac, Margaux and the other appellations are the closest we get to drinking in Mother Earth. But when travellers arrive on the Left Bank, the reality of this vast, wind-swept land, edged by the dramatic Gironde estuary, is less hospitable: an austere landscape of vines no taller than your forearm growing from a stark, stony terroir, punctuated by amazingly beautiful châteaux.

But the gap between the Médoc that is wine and the Médoc that is wine country is closing. High quality hotels, smart B&Bs and chambres d’hôtes are on the up. Restaurants range from two-star Michelin through to intimate eateries and small owner/chef bistros. The distance on a tourist route between the vineyards and the beaches is also shrinking, making the reality of the Médoc’s location between the Gironde estuary and the Atlantic truly pleasurable. The food, even the famous salty Pauillac lamb, reflects its proximity to the estuary and the ocean. The chefs even show us that red wine and fish is not such a bad combination. The price range is wide, but in the case of the following ten personal favourites, the experience is more than likely to prove worth the hit.

Le Relais de Margaux

Tucked away behind Château Margaux’s vineyards, Le Relais de Margaux was always an anchor for the travelling wine trade. Yet it offered no more than reasonably good food and accommodation. How things have changed for the better under the new ownership of Belgian hotel group Belhotel.

Chef Laurent Blanchard is offering a well-conceived seasonal menu that relies on freshness and tasty sauces, including a jus made with carrots and thyme, and a vinaigrette with cocoa. Blanchard is in the kitchen five nights a week; on Sunday and Monday, in a nod to reality, the hotel offers diners a simpler menu.

The hotel has also benefitted from much-needed refurbishment. The suites (t325 for two sharing) and junior suites with a small sitting room and separate entrance (t205 for two) look great. The basic rooms (t180 for two) are undergoing renovation now.

This has always been a reliable hotel. With new décor, competent staff and improved facilities which include internet connections, it is now breaking into the superior bracket.

Le Relais de Margaux, Chemin de I’Ile Vincent, Margaux. Tel: +33 557 88 38 30. relais-margaux@relais-margaux.fr

Le St-Julien

You will find château owners here, all of whom will personally recommend the place – as I do. Claude Broussard prepares exceptional food that takes fresh, classic Bordelais cooking seriously, using top quality produce and meats. The wine list specialises in St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe. This is one of the few places where you can easily find old vintages such as 1975 and 1976, including Latour and Lynch-Bages.

The dining room is decorated with portraits by local artist André Massard (all are for sale) but if you are there on a fine day, ask for a table on the terrace, which has that Napa Valley Tra Vigne feel. The lunch menu is t16; dinner is around t30. The t61 degustation menu has two entrées, two fish and two meat dishes with cheese and dessert. Last summer, Broussard opened a second restaurant, on the quaie in Pauillac. Le Pauillac’s atmosphere is brasserie casual and the menu focuses on seafood. St-Julien is open daily for lunch and dinner.

Le St-Julien, 11 rue St-Julien, 33250 St-Julien Beychevelle. Tel: +33 556 59 63 87

Le Savoie, Margaux

Dynamic chef/owner Evelyne Abadieis took over this restaurant 18 months ago and it has quickly become a very popular spot. The food, which changes daily, is based on whatever she finds fresh in the market. The day I was there, she featured an excellent version of the river eel dish Lamproie Bordelaise. Abadieis’ other specialties include terrine de foie gras and delicious oysters and spinach with Margaux vinaigrette.

During the week, the room is buzzing with wine talk – lots of château owners eat here. Sunday lunch is a day out for the Bordelais, so book at least two weeks in advance. The menu ranges from t21 to t39. Located next door to the Margaux Maison du Vin, open seven days a week.

Le Savoie, 1 place Trémoille, Margaux. Tel: +33 557 88 31 76

Chateau Meyre

A delightful place to spend a weekend: an 18th century château, with friendly service, good tasting advice and comfortable rooms with beautiful antiques. Each room has its own distinct décor; I’d recommend the Maia (t105). Or for true luxury go for the Ceridwen suite with private garden (t200). The estate produces Haut-Médoc and Margaux wines, available for sale on the property. Corinne Bonne, owner and winemaker, also offers gourmet cooking sessions. Open from March to November.

Château Meyre, 16 route de Castelnau, 33480 Avensan. Tel: +33 556 58 10 77, vins@chateaumeyre.com, or visit the website at www. chateaumeyre.com

La Table d’Olivier

Olivier Millet is one of the region’s new chefs who sees a bright future ahead for Médoc tourism. He opened La Table d’Olivier last spring. The restaurant is perfect for summer dining on the terrace and, while still in the vineyards, is not far from Le Verdon where the estuary meets the ocean. His food is a good representation of south-west cuisine with a bit of Basque thrown in. The three-course lunch menu is t23, a five-course lunch or dinner is t34. There is a degustation menu (seven courses) and a seven-course gourmand menu, which is a bit more dramatic. The hidden advantage here is that Millet sells Médoc wines at cellar door prices. The list also includes wines from Loire, Alsace, the Rhône and happily, for summer, rosé from Provence. The atmosphere is contemporary rustic rather than formal.

La Table d’Olivier, 53 rte de Lesparre, 33340 Gaillen en Médoc, near Lesparre. Tel: +33 556 41 13 32

La Maison du Douanier

Yves and Marie-Jose de Tullio took over this restaurant 11 years ago with the aim of making the food and atmosphere merit the long drive along the Route des Châteaux. With the estuary in view, it has the best vista in the Médoc, and the huge windows make it a better day than night venue. Chef Frédéric Giron offers a well-presented menu of local fish and produce. The t53 degustation menu is good value: five plates and five glasses of matching wine. The wine list is reasonable, with wines priced from t18 to t40, and 90% is from the Médoc. The couple also have plans to add B&B accommodation. The restaurant is open daily (except Tuesday) from mid-April through October; and Thursday to Sunday in the off-season.

Restaurant La Maison du Douanier, 33340 St-Christoly de Médoc. Tel: +33 556 41 35 25. Website: www. maisondudouanier.com

Chateau Giscours

This château, a third-growth estate in Margaux, is a beautiful place to spend a wine country weekend. Its owners recently opened the estate for bed and breakfast accommodation. The three rooms are nicely decorated and look out onto the vineyards. It is the only classified estate with accommodation that is open to travellers not in the wine business. The peaceful atmosphere and ability to taste the estate wines make this is a great find. A wine estate for centuries, it is now owned by Eric Albada Jelgersma. Rooms are t180.

Château Giscours, 10 route de Giscours, 33460 Labarde. Tel: +33 557 97 09 20. www.chateau-giscours.fr

Chateau Cordeillan-Bages

If you like to chase stars, this is the place to go. Thierry Marx, a member of the elite two-star Michelin club, performs amazing feats with food fusion and presentation. The t85 degustation menu is a series of very small portions interspersed with tiny but very tasty amuses bouches. If this were music, I’d call it fusion jazz, but with no crescendo. The à la carte menu is a range of vegetarian, fish and meat presentations (t27 to t40). My unusual à la carte soy risotto was delicious but the artfully small portion left me wishing for more. The wine list is encyclopaedic, so best to ask for it while having a drink before dinner.

A Relais & Château hotel is a welcome companion to the restaurant for those who don’t fancy the 49km drive back to Bordeaux after dinner. The hotel has undergone a makeover that leans heavily towards Ikea’s Scandinavian look; a spa and fitness centre has just opened. Room rates range from t160 to t235. There is one suite. Winery tours can be arranged through the hotel for t14.

Château Cordeillan-Bages, 33250 Pauillac. Tel: +33 556 59 24 24. Website: www.cordeillanbages.com

Le Lion d’Or

Chef Jean-Paul Barbier has a reputation that extends far beyond the Médoc and you could find movie stars and diplomats at tables here. But frankly, unless you are with one of the châteaux owners, be prepared to be ignored. The food is good regional cuisine and the lunch menu, posted outside daily, good value at about t11. A la carte is much more expensive. Barbier has a reputation for shunning tourists, though when I asked him about this, he laughed. ‘Provided they are well behaved, I will serve anybody.’

Le Lion d’Or, Place de la République, Arcins. Tel: +33 556 58 96 79

La Guinguette

I like this place for its ‘down-home’, old-style atmosphere. After a Sunday spent fishing on the river, the place is packed with families, while on sunny Saturday afternoons it’s a young crowd’s hot spot. This is not haute cuisine – far from it – but after a day’s tasting, stop here for crevettes or mussels and a glass of basic white. These eateries dot the estuary ports. Across from La Guinguette is Chez Quin Quin, on the river with a great view but mediocre food and service; head there for a drink.

La Guinguette, Port de Macau, 33460 Macau. Tel: +33 557 88 08 12.

Gone fishing….

And one extra to finish off with. This is neither a restaurant nor a hotel. But take it from me, it could provide the venue for one of the best afternoons you will ever have. You will notice small fishing shacks jutting out from the river bank into the Gironde estuary. Amazingly, these are available to rent for an afternoon through the Pauillac tourist office for less than t50. There are markets in several villages throughout the Médoc where you can buy food. Alternatively, you could ask for a picnic lunch from your hotel. A fishing pole isn’t necessary; but good humour and a corkscrew are.

Maison du Tourisme et du Vin de Pauillac, La Verrerie, Pauillac. Tel: +33 556 59 03 08. www.pauillac-medoc.com

Kathleen Buckley is a freelance writer based in Bordeaux.

Written by KATHLEEN BUCKLEY