Whether you're a wine beginner or true connoisseur, there are scores of specialist tour operators catering for those who long to immerse themselves in Bordeaux's hallowed wine country. ANTHONY PEREGRINE weighs up the options.
You want to visit the Bordeaux region vineyards but prefer someone else to do the organising. Splendid idea. Do it yourself and you waste time booking hotels, trying (and often failing) to reserve châteaux visits, plotting itineraries,then getting lost. Bordeaux châteaux have an annoying habit of hiding down the most improbable lanes.
Fortunately, several specialist tour companies and agencies have sprung up over the last 20 years, as formerly secretive Bordeaux grandees realise that welcoming visitors to the region might just be in their best interests.
These folk will bed you down, get you around, open doors that might normally be closed to ordinary Joes like you and me, and generally ensure you see what you want to see. And if you’re not sure what that is, they’ll advise. Most can propose tours for everyone, from the absolute beginner to the crustiest claret collector.
They don’t necessarily come cheap. But if you’re planning a trip to the Bordeaux region, you’ll already know that economy isn’t its defining characteristic. And the companies – at least, the ones cited here – do know what they are doing.
Tour operators fall into two broad categories. There are those based outside France (for our purposes, the UK and US), offering mainly fixed-date, fixed-itinerary, fixed-price trips. Groups are typically small-ish. Then there are Bordeaux-based French agencies. These have outline trips on their books but will also tailor jaunts to the customer’s wallet and desires. Some will do this for as few as two people, but that assumes a thick wallet. Going in a group of six (better still, eight or ten) considerably lightens transport, guide and visit costs. Prices quoted in this category don’t include travel to the Bordeaux region.
Arblaster & Clarke (UK): In 1986, husband and wife Tim Clarke and Lynette Arblaster founded Britain’s biggest and best-known guided wine tour outfit. They attract enthusiasts from across the globe, emphasising that ‘it’s all about joie-de-vivre’. This is in contrast to some French operators, who liken their Bordeaux tours to devotional pilgrimages.
The A&C catalogue changes annually, so there’s no walking tour in the Bordeaux region this year, and you’re probably late for the only coach trip, which leaves on 28 July. However, there’s a weekend flip (19–21 Sept) for £399pp, flights included. And then the spectacular Reserve Collection tour, A&C’s nod to the prestige-seeking classes. Stay in Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron, lunch and dine in other great châteaux, meet Bordeaux’s crème-de-la-crème, taste their wines and tell them what you think. All for £1,849pp excluding flights, maximum 13 people. Tel: +44 (0) 1730 893 344, www.winetours.co.uk
Winetrails (UK): If walking or biking is more your thing, this Dorking-based bunch can put together all sorts of wine holidays. Its strength lies in guided, small-group ambling and pedalling. Nothing too strenuous; just ‘gentle itineraries for people who enjoy life’ and who, along with wine visits, want to take in a little history, nature and mixing with the locals. Accommodation is in small, character hotels, groups limited to 12 or so.
The company’s eight-day walk starts around St-Emilion, moves on to Bourg and Blaye, crosses to the Médoc and wends its way to Margaux. Cost, including meals but not travel to Bordeaux, is £920pp. Dates: 31 July – 8 Aug, 9–17 Oct. Bike tours also contain a Dordogne element, tasting Monbazillac and Pécharmant and taking in Les Eyzies. Seven days, half-board is £740pp. 9–16 Aug, 6–13 Sept, 4–11 0ct. Tel: +44 (0) 1306 712 111. www.winetrails.co.uk
France In Your Glass (US): Journalist and broadcaster Ronald Holden reckons his wine tours aren’t tours, but ‘travelling with friends’. He generally keeps numbers down to six per trip, so friends must be pretty well-heeled. The six-night Great Estates of Bordeaux outing takes in private visits and tastings in first growths across the region, château lunches, class dinners and cultural visits, limo travel and expert guidance. The included travel is to and from Paris, the price is $4,995pp and the dates are: 31 Aug – 6 Sept, 28 Sept – 4 Oct, Oct 26 – Nov 1. For the same price, Holden does three nights in Burgundy and three in Bordeaux (7–13 Sept, 5–11 Oct, 2–8 Nov) and, for an extra special treat, there’s a 13-night Grand Tour through the best of Burgundy, the Rhône and Bordeaux for $9,995 (21 Sept – 4 Oct, 0ct 19 – Nov 1). Tel: +1 800 578 0903. www.inyourglass.com
Classic Wine Tours: Pascale Rousseau’s operation is top-of-the-range: bespoke tours for the wealthy and exacting. If you’re after luxury hotels, private visits to the classiest châteaux or a heli-hop from vine to vine, Rousseau will oblige. Golf, tennis and horse-riding, too, there’s no standard trip. All are tailor-made. But you might consider, say, four nights in luxury hotels, daytime guide and travel to château tastings, a boat visit to the oyster park at Arcachon, a wine-tasting class, lunches and two gastro dinners, all for around £4,410 for four. Tel: +33 557 00 02 10. www.classic-wine-tours.com
Puzzle Evasion: Marie-Christine Duboscq, who has run the company for 13 years, says a weekend of wine is ample for first-timers. She adapts tours to demand, but typical weekends include three Médoc châteaux, from cru bourgeois to grand cru classé. The next day, it’s on to St-Emilion, the old town itself and a château such as Franc-Mayne with underground galleries. Then on to Sauternes. From around £230pp, including one night in a good hotel, lunches, guide and local travel.
Add another day and enjoy a jaunt to Sarlat and the Dordogne valley or up north, to Cognac. Tel: +33 556 13 14 04. firstname.lastname@example.org
Boulevard du Vin (BDV): ‘You will leave this region with a light heart and an educated palate’ boasts Boulevard du Vin. But arrive in at least a six-some to benefit. Otherwise, the cost of qualified guide, visits and local transport weighs too heavily.
BDV gains entry to the famous châteaux but is equally happy in less internationally celebrated establishments, where owners greet visitors themselves and may lay on lunchtime BBQs. ‘At the grands châteaux, the welcome, though correct, may be disappointing,’ warns the company’s Claire Dufau. She, too, thinks a weekend may be enough for normal folk – five châteaux visits, two nights in a hotel, two lunches, two dinners and guide, from £310pp. Tel: +33 556 90 01 11. email@example.com
Bordeaux Label: Based near Sauternes, Bordeaux Label offers myriad wine-based possibilities. Its Fugues Bordelaises weekends include a morning of light tuition at Bordeaux’s Ecole du Vin, followed by tasting trips to the Médoc and, the next day, St-Emilion. Dates are 20–21 Sept, 18–19 Oct. The £195pp price includes three-star accommodation, plus all meals. Book individually; the company makes up the groups.
The outfit also offers eight-day Grands Tours, trail-biking through the vines, plus individually-designed wine trips combined with golf, gastronomy, cooking, and even carriage-driving.
Of note is the English language Wine and Antiques weekend, 31 Oct – 2 Nov. This mixes wine instruction and tasting visits with consideration of eighteenth-century gold and silversmiths’ work, museum and antique market visits and dinner in a private salon. The price of £360 includes two nights’ accommodation and all meals. Tel: +33 557 98 22 77. www.bordeauxlabel.com
Agence des Grands Crus (AGC): The company is associated with ace taster Jean-Marc Quarin, publisher of the Carnets de Dégustation and referred to as the ‘new Robert Parker’ in some parts. Not least on his own website, which is among the most self-congratulatory in the entire wine world – quite an achievement.
There is no doubt, though, that – in a field where ‘exclusivity’ is everyman’s claim – Quarin-led trips hold up well. A typical day might include a private tasting at Château Margaux, followed by dinner at Château Beychevelle.
But AGC is not just about Quarin. The agency will craft any wine-based tour, as long as you come in a group of ten or more. Along with wine, they can arrange sport, culture and gastronomy, river cruises and oystering in Arcachon. Or any cocktail of these ingredients.
‘Impossible to state a price,’ says AGC’s Sandrine Lignac. ‘Depending on what’s chosen, it can vary from £60 to £600 a day.’ Tel: +33 556 35 83 93. www.quarin.com. firstname.lastname@example.org.