The French call Bordeaux “the pearl of the Aquitaine,” and few places in the world enjoy a more accurate sobriquet than this elegant city on the Gironde Estuary in southwestern France. Arguably the capital of the global wine trade, Bordeaux hosts the world’s most prestigious annual wine fair, Vinexpo, and has an annual regional turnover from the wine business of nearly $16 billion.
The city has recently re-emerged from a 20-year renovation of the majestic 18th-century limestone buildings that compose its core. These include the Place de la Bourse — the former stock exchange designed by King Louis XV’s architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel — the opera house and long stretches of neoclassical façades. Currently three hours from Paris by train, Bordeaux will be just two hours away with a new TGV (high-speed train) route that is scheduled to open in 2017.
For a city that hosts a regular stream of international wine buyers and brokers, Bordeaux has long had a curiously undistinguished roster of hotels. The InterContinental Bordeaux — Le Grand Hôtel — where British three-star chef Gordon Ramsay has been appointed to oversee Le Pressoir d’Argent restaurant — is still the best full-service property, but the city has lacked the small charming hotels that are commonly found in other major French cities. This has begun to change.
Winemaker Bernard Magrez, who owns four Grands Crus Classés châteaux in the Bordelais (plus vineyards all over the world), decided to open the six-room La Grande Maison de Bernard Magrez hotel in a residential neighborhood in the city because he wanted to create a showcase for the distinctive Bordeaux lifestyle and also to create a restaurant in cooperation with chef Joël Robuchon, a friend. So he acquired a handsome but rundown 18th-century mansion across the street from his Institut Culturel Bernard Magrez, where his superb collection of contemporary art and photography is open to the public. Interior designer Frédérique Fournier has given the hotel an elegant Napoleon III-style décor, with a specific nod to the year 1855, when the Bordeaux Grand Cru wines were first classified.
On arrival, the property seemed more like a guesthouse than a hotel. Following a cool greeting from the young woman at the reception desk, we carried our own bags upstairs. Our room was immediately appealing, however, with its high ceiling, floral-pattern carpet and silk taffeta fabrics from the eminent French textile house Braquenié. Well-lit and sufficiently spacious, it came equipped with a writing desk and an illy coffee machine. The bath provided Hermès toiletries — including colognes for men and women — a heated limestone floor, double vanities and a separate rainfall shower.
Perhaps the chief advantage of a stay at La Grande Maison is the opportunity to eat in Robuchon’s outstanding restaurant downstairs without being mindful of an after-dinner drive or fretting about a taxi. After a flute of Champagne in the bar, we were ushered to our table in one of the three elegant dining rooms, decorated with a Baccarat crystal chandelier and furnished with wood-framed armchairs at tables set with heavy white tablecloths, silver and crystal. That evening, the majority of the guests were French-speaking, and several of the well-dressed diners appeared to be wine merchants.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Robuchon’s talent is to try one of the tasting menus. We began with an elegant dish of crab aspic and a medallion of crab meat, topped with caviar from the Sologne region of France. Next came a choice of four trios of tasting plates, many of which featured miniature versions of some of Robuchon’s most famous dishes. For example, one sampler included a single truffled langoustine with green cabbage; a scallop with an herbal jus, olive oil and squid’s ink farfalle pasta; and a tiny goat-cheese-flavored soufflé with truffle cream. The main course was a chateaubriand of beef topped with a large lobe of duck foie gras — a riff on tournedos Rossini — that was carved tableside and served with a reduction of port, Robuchon’s famous potato purée and pommes soufflés, or fine slices of deep-fried potatoes blown up like little pillows. Cheeses came from Jean d’Alos, the best cheese shop in Bordeaux, and the menu concluded with four small desserts, including a caramel soufflé with citrus-fruit sorbet. An à la carte menu is also available with many dishes for two, including roasted guinea hen and a veal chop, both of which are carved tableside. A predictably outstanding wine list features all the Grands Crus Classés. Service throughout was gracious, precise and noticeably formal.
Ultimately, La Grande Maison is a pleasant and sophisticated small hotel eminently suitable for a short visit to Bordeaux, so long as you don’t mind the less-than-central location and don’t require amenities such as a spa or a gym. Chatting with several hotel guests over a Cognac in the bar after dinner, we discovered that the hotel has become a popular weekend getaway for couples from London and Switzerland, so it is advisable to book both your room and dinner as far in advance as possible.
Comfortable and beautifully decorated rooms; superb restaurant.
The slightly chilly style of hospitality; the €10 parking fee, which seemed cheeseparing given stiff room rates and the difficulty of finding parking elsewhere.
The hotel can arrange wine tastings and tours of Bernard Magrez’s châteaux; see luxurywineexperience.com for more information.
The other new small independent hotel in Bordeaux is the 12-room Yndō Hôtel, set within a 19th-century townhouse at the heart of the city. The property offers a variety of amenities rarely found in hotels of this size, including 24-hour room service and air-conditioning. The project of seasoned hotelier Agnès Guiot du Doignon, this beautifully renovated property is a fine choice for fans of contemporary design, since the rooms come with furniture from Edra and are accessorized with Louis Poulsen lamps and modern Murano chandeliers by Vistosi. The contrasts between the carefully restored 19th-century paneling and the modern décor are flawlessly executed.
Among the five room categories, I recommend the So Chic Suites. Ours was supremely comfortable and came with a king-size bed, two velvet tub chairs, a Lavazza coffee machine and an iPad. A spacious white-marble bath provided Bulgari amenities and separate tub and shower. Light meals are served upon request, and wine tastings can be organized. Service at the Yndō proved charming and perfectly bilingual throughout.
In short, both La Grande Maison and Yndō are excellent new options for travelers who prefer distinctive hideaway hotels with an abundance of individual character.
The fine location, excellent service, interesting décor and valet parking.
Room rates are hefty for a French provincial city.
The Jardin Public, a 10-minute walk from the hotel, is a lovely spot for a walk or a run.