For the wine lover, visiting France’s Bordeaux region offers the ultimate bacchanalian experience. While first-growth châteaux are very difficult to access, we can offer Hideaway Report members exclusive private tours and tastings at even the most hallowed châteaux. Our connection with these extraordinary wine producers also allows us to source top vintages directly from the libraries of all the collector-level châteaux of Bordeaux.
The Romans introduced wine to Bordeaux in the first century, and wine production has been continuous in the region since then. Today Bordeaux is the largest wine-growing area in France, releasing an average of some 700 million bottles in most vintages, ranging from $12 table wines to storied collector favorites that trade at auctions for many thousands of dollars per bottle. What earns top Bordeaux such stratospheric prices is their finesse. Other wines may have Bordeaux’s power and structure, but few move across the palate with such grace and elegance.
The Bordeaux wine region actually comprises a number of unique subregions that cover a vast area similar in size to California’s Napa and Sonoma counties combined.
The Médoc, on the Left Bank of the Gironde estuary, is home to the most important Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends. On the Right Bank are the famous appellations of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, which produce the world’s finest Merlots and Merlot-based blends. Pessac-Léognan, now in the suburbs of the city of Bordeaux, makes fine reds, but I especially love its dry white wines, made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. And arguably the world’s most extravagantly delicious dessert wines come from Sauternes, to the south.
As a testament to their monumental success, many of the top châteaux have replaced their original wineries with lavish new facilities. These modern architectural wonders are breathtaking in their scale and spare-no-expenses design. Changes in the French tax laws and European Union agriculture subsidies instigated this modern-day “arms race” in competitive winery construction about a decade ago. The result is a new era of opulent barrel rooms and private tasting salons that resemble fantastical designs from James Bond films.
When we visited Bordeaux ourselves recently, our cavalcade of tastings commenced at Château Margaux, nicknamed the “Versailles of the Médoc” for the Palladian-style mansion that graces the label of Margaux’s grand vin. This estate operates more like a self-sufficient hamlet, with its own water source, gardens and even an exclusive cooperage for constructing oak barrels for wine aging. Initially, visiting the formal gardens of Margaux felt like a stroll back in time to the height of the Empire period. We then passed through a secret door in a building disguised as a maintenance shed and descended into the barrel room, a sprawling, highly contemporary facility reminiscent of a modern art museum.
We sampled three vintages from the past decade. Collectors often regard Margaux as the most age-worthy of all first growths, given its prodigious tannins deftly melded with bold, dark fruit. The vintages we sampled displayed these characteristics in full measure, along with enticing notes of minerality and acid. The tasting set the stage for an epic tour.
Adjacent to Château Margaux is Château d’Issan, a relatively undiscovered gem that is extraordinarily picturesque and historic. Its wine is rumored to have been poured at the wedding of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 12th century. Our convivial host, co-proprietor Aymar Cruse, led us on a stroll through the winery’s splendid gardens. The centerpiece of the property is a moated Louis XIV-era château, elegantly appointed with family heirlooms and photos amid museum-quality antiques. We savored a sumptuous lunch featuring local beef paired with the château’s finest recent vintages. My favorite was the 2010, which displayed a luxurious texture and a panoply of baking spices, with hints of black truffles on the delightful finish. A real jewel, d’Issan provides an intimate experience that I highly recommend and wines that offer a breathtaking value compared with the most famous names in the Médoc.
Our second day continued on the Left Bank at the celebrated Château Mouton Rothschild. This spectacular property is a must-visit for a serious collector’s first excursion to Bordeaux, as it combines an impressive winery with an exclusive museum showcasing the art and history of each wine label since 1945. A shrewd wine marketer, Baron Philippe de Rothschild originated the château’s unique labels by artists and personal friends such as Picasso and Prince Charles. The 2016 Mouton Rothschild grand vin preview ranked as one of the top five wines I tasted during this trip. Many American collectors consider Mouton the most approachable (in its youth) of the first-growth Bordeaux, and the 2016 vintage shows why. The wine offers a deeply satisfying experience with a depth of dark-fruit flavors, plus espresso, graphite and pipe tobacco, combined with cashmere-like tannins and hints of vanilla on the finish from the highest-quality new French oak barrels.
Château Mouton Rothschild
Our next destination was Château Latour, home of the coveted red wine many collectors consider the best of Bordeaux. Latour occupies a historic property that dates to the Hundred Years’ War. The terrain is slightly more undulating than the rest of the flat Left Bank. Latour means “the tower” in French, and the name refers to the original military installation located on a prominent knoll with a strategic view of a large bend in the Gironde. Today the original tower is long gone, and it is a smaller, circular pigeonnier from the 17th century that graces all Château Latour bottles.
The sleek interior design of Latour belies the classical exterior and its utilitarian role as a winemaking facility. It also acts as an art gallery, proudly displaying impressive paintings from the collection of proprietor François Pinault, one of the most passionate art collectors in France. The subterranean winery also features a cavernous library of Latour vintages, plus an over-the-top large-format bottle lounge with an atmosphere reminiscent of a discotheque. For a wine lover, visiting Latour is an almost overwhelming experience.
Our affable host shared three majestic bottlings, including the 2010 Les Forts de Latour. While Les Forts de Latour is considered the second-tier bottling, the quality is superb in noteworthy vintages such as 2010. I savored the opulent dark-fruit flavors, notes of tobacco and creamy vanilla, and oak notes on the sumptuous finish. The 2010 Château Latour Grand Vin Pâuillac delivered classic notes of dark plums combined with savory notes of olive tapenade and hints of menthol on the glorious finish. This particular vintage is such a soaring achievement that famed American wine critic Robert Parker called the 2010 Latour a “liquid skyscraper in the mouth.” Both of these gems supported Latour’s reputation as one of the very best wineries in the world.
Our third day of tastings began at one of the most prominent château on the Right Bank: Cheval Blanc, established in 1832 and celebrated as one of only four to earn a premier grand cru classé A designation, the Right Bank’s equivalent to the Left Bank’s first-growth classification. Approaching Cheval Blanc, I noticed the serene, parklike setting; small private chapel; and stately château. Behind that regal building stands one of the most technologically advanced wineries ever built, with swooping exterior walls and a tranquil rooftop garden, offering a splendid panorama overlooking many prized vineyards, including Château Pétrus nearby. The tasting highlight was the recent 2011 release of the grand vin, which is a blend of roughly equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This bottling showed hints of herbs, walnuts and bittersweet chocolate, plus notes of raspberries and mocha and a hint of mint from the Merlot. Aficionados claim most Cheval Blanc vintages remain youthful for the first two decades after harvest, but I predict this vintage will thrill connoisseurs anytime between now (decanting recommended) and 2025. I savored every sip while enjoying the view north toward the village of Pomerol, overlooking the winery’s most prized century-old vines, which still contribute to the final blend.
Our next stop, Château Angélus, has ranked highly on my personal list of favorite Bordeaux since I opened a bottle of the 1990 vintage during the millennium celebration with my family. That elixir remains one of my most influential wine memories. It perfectly captured the luxuriant dark fruit of top Bordeaux vintages, combining both power and elegance. One might guess that the name of this château refers to angels, but it actually alludes to the Angelus bell, a traditional Catholic call to prayer.
The blend of Angélus is primarily Merlot, with varying levels of Cabernet Franc in support. The dazzling reds we savored met my lofty expectations. Angélus is often one of the most hedonistic Bordeaux, and the vintages we sampled fulfilled that reputation. Each exceptional bottling displayed notes of subtle licorice, menthol, crème de cassis and blackberries and hints of coffee and charcoal. Full-bodied, flamboyant and opulent, with low acidity and sweet tannins, Angélus remains a personal favorite and offers relative value compared with first-growth counterparts on the Left Bank.
We lunched in nearby Saint-Émilion, an enchanting enclave that traces its history back to prehistoric times and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The meal was an extravaganza hosted by our new friends from Château Angélus at their Michelin-starred restaurant, Logis de La Cadène. Our superb three-course meal included one of the freshest salmon tartares in memory, followed by an ample cheese course expertly selected to accompany the last sips of a bottle of distinguished 2011 Château Angélus.
Our final engagement turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of our journey. Tertre Rôteboeuf is a name that only a Bordeaux aficionado would recognize, but I suspect that will change with the release of its monumentally delicious new vintages (particularly the 2016) and a new distributor in the United States. The winery is a relatively modest structure compared with the extravagant châteaux we had previously encountered. Our engaging host, proprietor François Mitjavile, is a local legend for his effusive personality and encyclopedic knowledge of winemaking techniques and history.
The name of this château refers to the original designation of the property as a hillside for grazing cattle (boeuf) centuries prior to the planting of vineyards.
Mitjavile graciously invited us to select a vintage from his private cellar to sample alongside the new releases. We chose a bottle that ranked as the most exotic and opulent discovery of the trip. Tertre Rôteboeuf 2010 is enchanting, featuring dazzling red currants, black cherries, figs, herbs, baking spices and violets, chiseled across an ethereal texture with profound tannins. The wine will age gracefully for at least another decade. I rated it 99 points. The Tertre Rôteboeuf 2016 was also awe-inspiring, worthy of a few spots in any savvy connoisseur’s cellar.
The quality of this château’s wines is stunning, on par with many of my samples from the hallowed first-growth châteaux. But the prices are not yet completely over-the-top, because the wine is still relatively unknown except by true cognoscenti. Of course, now that Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate rated the 2015 vintage at 97-99 points and called it “a little bit magical,” Tertre Rôteboeuf’s status as an “insider” wine will likely change. Visiting this château provides an exceptional opportunity to sample world-class Bordeaux not yet discovered by mainstream collectors.
View a curated selection of Bordeaux wine from Hal Oates, our wine concierge.