It’s the contrast between the stately and unfussy that gives Bordeaux such wide appeal.
The Médoc is a perfect example. You think you’ve enjoyed the richest beauty it has to offer in the elegant spires of Château Pichon-Baron or exotic pagodas of Cos d’Estournel. And then you keep going, through its outer edges where the vines drop away and châteaux are replaced by fishermen’s huts and nature reserves.
Here, the green of the vines transforms into the blues of the sky and the sea as the Gironde estuary empties into the Atlantic ocean. This is the part of the Médoc peninsula that is supposedly desolate, barren, bleak. And yet it’s bewitching, humming with life.
In the summer, the place to head is St-Vivien du Médoc, where you find oyster farms and neat inland reservoirs for the delicious estuary prawns. A market is held in the main village square every Wednesday morning, and you can head to several open-air restaurants in the port, where fresh grilled prawns are served on tables looking out over the water (try Guinguette de la Plage, open March to September).
This is the furthest north that you can go in Bordeaux, at least 80km from the city centre. Look out over the Gironde estuary from St-Vivien du Médoc to the far bank and you are facing the coastline of Charente Maritime. Seabirds and boats rule here, and you can feel the pull of the ocean history that made Bordeaux such an important port for so many centuries.
And yet head to the eastern edges of the region, about 50km from the city centre, to the sun-drenched limestone hills of Castillon-la-Bataille and St-Foy Côtes de Bordeaux, and you could be in a different world. Here there is a softer, sweeter swell to the landscape; the salty sting of the Atlantic gives way to the limestone escarpments, fields of sunflowers, fortified villages and black truffle oaks of the nearby Périgord and Dordogne region.
The complexities of the land are more than reflected in the complexities of the wine, and the fun comes in trying to experience both ends of the spectrum. Visit artisan wineries like the biodynamic Château le Puy in Côtes de Francs, where you’ll find a circle of standing stones from 3,000BC and a hectare of wild flowers or hedgerows conserved for every hectare of vines.
Follow that up with a visit to Châteaux Angélus or Pavie in St-Emilion, both premiers grands crus classés A, where you will find stunning architecture, atmospheric cellars and all the prestige and glamour of classified Bordeaux. The perfect way to get under the skin of this maddeningly contradictory place.
Have a meal at Au Bistrot, next to the Capucins market in central Bordeaux. Run by François Pervillé, who was part of the team that launched the much-loved Brasserie Bordelais, this brilliant restaurant opened in February 2015. It’s small so you need to book ahead, and Pervillé only takes reservations via his mobile.
There is a tiny menu that changes daily, and no printed wine list, but he has an uncanny knack for suggesting brilliant bottles from the cases that are stacked all around the walls.
Jane Anson is the Bordeaux correspondent and a columnist for Decanter and Decanter.com. This guide first appeared in the February 2017 issue of Decanter.