Although it’s virtually impossible for Americans to travel to Bordeaux as of this writing, the prospect of a future trip there still brings a smile to my face. Any wine lover would find a visit deeply rewarding. But in addition to picturesque vineyard-blanketed countryside, Bordeaux is blessed with a world-class city at its heart.
An ambitious restoration program in the mid-to-late 1990s brought back the grandeur of the historic center’s harmonious 18th-century limestone buildings. The magnificent neoclassical Place de la Bourse, facing the Garonne River, is one of the most impressive squares in Europe, and the opera house, facing the pedestrianized Place de la Comédie, is one of the continent’s loveliest. With its many inviting cafés and wine bars, Bordeaux is a joy to explore on foot. And in 2016, the city opened the architecturally striking Cité du Vin, a dramatically contemporary multimedia exposition center devoted to the history, geography and art of wine.
My favorite hideaway in town is the chic Yndō Hôtel, housed in a 19th-century townhouse just outside the old center, a 15-minute walk from the opera house (and a 10-minute walk from the 500-bottle Cognac Only boutique, a mandatory stop). Although this hotel has just 12 accommodations, it offers an impressive array of services and amenities, including round-the-clock room service, air-conditioning and a guests-only restaurant. We had a splendid evening there in August 2015 starting with Kir Royales on the sunny patio, followed by a dinner of flawlessly fresh local oysters, handmade fettuccine with lemon and a delicious roast chicken for two. With glasses of Sauternes, we retired to the striking lounge, its ornate plasterwork and wall paneling stylishly contrasted by contemporary furnishings.
Since our last visit, the owner has opened the Yndō Cabane, a 90-minute drive southwest on the tip of the Cap-Ferret peninsula (not to be confused with Cap Ferrat on the Côte d’Azur). This former oyster-farm hut has been converted into a 650-square-foot villa-style accommodation with a full kitchen. It’s a two-block walk to the beach facing Arcachon Bay, and a 15-minute walk or five-minute ride on one of the complimentary electric bicycles to the tall dunes facing the Atlantic.
Should the contemporary style of the Yndō not appeal, the best larger hotel in the city of Bordeaux is the Intercontinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel, an opulent 130-room property with a perfect location directly on the Place de la Comédie facing the opera. I opt for a square-view Executive Room whenever I stay, avoiding lower categories, and on each occasion, I have found the hotel to be comfortable and welcoming. And don’t miss the chance to relax in the atmospheric Roman-themed spa. Its main restaurant, Le Pressoir d’Argent Gordon Ramsay, has two well-deserved Michelin stars. If you dine there, be sure to order a dish involving the pressoir, a tall and impressively wrought contraption of solid silver used for pressing flavorful juices from lobster shells.
Outside the city of Bordeaux, I recommend three additional properties, any one of which would make a delightful counterpoint to a stay in town. The 28-room Château Cordeillan-Bages is housed in a former 17th-century monastery on the Left Bank amid Cabernet vineyards in the commune of Pauillac. It is an excellent base from which to make excursions to wineries in the Médoc. This flat region lacks visual drama, but it is here that some of the world’s greatest Cabernet-based wines are crafted. Pauillac is home to icons such as Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild and Latour, as well as a favorite of mine, Pichon Baron. Besides Pauillac, the communes of Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Julien and Margaux are all within easy reach. And the village of Bages, a short walk from Cordeillan-Bages, was revitalized by the hotel’s owners, who opened a bakery, bistro and wine-tasting school there.
The hotel’s public spaces display traditional elements, such as floral wallpaper and carved mantelpieces, enlivened by contemporary artworks. Accommodations have an attractive Danish-modern aesthetic, although some can be small. I recommend a Junior Suite or Suite, or perhaps one of the new Premium rooms, which opened to guests in 2017. They have garden views and heated floors in the bath, which is divided from the rest of the room by a glass wall that turns translucent at the touch of a button. Breakfasting outside overlooking the vineyards is a great pleasure, as is relaxing by the outdoor heated pool.
Cordeillan-Bages can arrange for private tastings in the hotel, cooking classes and even the creation of one’s own wine at the VINIV winemaking center. In addition, the family that owns the property also possesses the well-regarded Château Ormes de Pez in Saint-Estèphe and Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac (currently closed for renovations), which “The World Atlas of Wine” calls “Mouton for not quite millionaires.”
Bordeaux’s Right Bank produces the great Merlot-based blends of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. In the United States, Merlot’s reputation suffered after the overrated 2004 movie “Sideways” disparaged the variety, but here, the grape reaches great heights. The supple wines are well-structured and refined, full of dark cherry fruit, often leavened with mocha and/or white pepper. The Right Bank is also home to the most charming wine town in all of Bordeaux.
A towering bluff divides Saint-Émilion, and at its bottom is a broad and lively square filled with the outdoor seating of wine bars, restaurants and cafés. Carved into the bluff itself is an extraordinary 12th-century monolithic church, with an interior longer than a football field. Its weathered Romanesque bell tower of golden limestone rises up right next to one of my favorite hotels in all of France, the Hôtel de Pavie (formerly the Hostellerie de Plaisance). The situation of this 17-room family-owned property is quite special: It is in the center of town, yet it has lush gardens and a broad panoramic terrace overlooking the rooftops and manicured countryside beyond. Starting the day on a such a terrace — with rich coffee, farm-fresh eggs, a bowl of fruit and a basket of delicately flaky pastries — fosters a feeling of deep contentment.
While staying at the Hôtel de Pavie, I also make sure to dine in both its casual wine bar and Michelin two-star restaurant. The former, L’Envers du Décor, has an evocative walled garden for al fresco meals in summer, and in cooler weather, I like to take a table inside by the woodburning fireplace. Its list of wines by the glass is all too tempting. The gourmet La Table de Plaisance trades casual coziness for warm grandeur, with wood-paneled walls and a ceiling festooned with crystals. Splurge on its eight-course “Souvenirs” menu, inspired by sense memories from the chef’s childhood.
Accommodations in both the main building and Village House are appealing. The latter is a newer acquisition, a historic structure with ancient Roman tile work separated from the main building by the terrace. In either case, rooms have a cheerful, colorful décor that feels fresh and contemporary but not affected. In the best of all worlds, I would make time to spend two or three nights in the main hotel and another couple of nights in its Vineyard House, a four-room villa set amid the vines of Château Pavie, about 2 miles outside Saint-Émilion. Its accommodations can be reserved individually or all together.
After exploring the town of Saint-Émilion and visiting nearby wineries, head back toward the city of Bordeaux and the appellation of Graves, just to its south. Graves is responsible not only for superlative red wines but also many of Bordeaux’s finest whites, notably from the subregion of Pessac-Léognan. There’s no better way to finish a trip to the region than with a stay at Les Sources de Caudalie, a spa resort of 40 rooms and 21 suites surrounded by the vineyards of Château Smith Haut Lafitte. The architect used local salvaged materials when adding new buildings to the historic ones already on the site, which means that the resort offers character without sacrificing modern comforts.
Likewise, all accommodations blend contemporary furniture and décor with period touches such as exposed wood beams. Request one of the second-floor garden-facing rooms or suites in the main building, or try the romantic stilted L’Île aux Oiseaux suite, designed by Rabih Kayrouz, which overlooks a picturesque pond. For families, the Coeur des Sources, encompassing two bedrooms, a kitchen and a dining room, is ideal. I would love to bring a larger group to the 11-bedroom Chartreuse du Château Le Thil mansion, located about a mile from the resort. Guests of this country house, built in 1737 and surrounded by forest, receive breakfast on-site, can request the services of a private chef for other meals and have full run of Les Sources de Caudalie’s facilities.
These are ample and luxurious, most notably the resort’s celebrated vinotherapy spa. In a striking space of rough wood and stone, therapists provide treatments incorporating wine and grapes, as well as natural hot spring water. On our last visit, we also enjoyed relaxing beside the resort’s swimming pools. The indoor pool is at the center of a dramatic room resembling a cross between a Palladian villa and an old barn, and outside, loungers line a deep-blue 80-foot-long pool heated between May and October.
The property’s gardens and henhouse supply most of the vegetables, herbs and eggs for its restaurants, including the Michelin two-star La Grand’Vigne. (On Saturdays, the chef’s team offers a three-hour cooking class followed by lunch.) I also love the more casual venue, La Table du Lavoir, housed in an airy former laundry building. Its cuisine centers on ingredients roasted in an oversized woodburning fireplace. And I enjoy the resort’s bars, the bright and cheerful Rouge and the cozy and clubby French Paradox. The selection of wines by the glass from the surrounding Pessac-Léognan region, both red and white, is unsurpassed. The cellar contains approximately 16,000 bottles from all over Bordeaux, as well as a variety of other regions.
It’s possible never to leave Les Sources de Caudalie and have a wonderful time, but the property also makes a fine base for visiting neighboring wineries in Pessac-Léognan and Graves. I always make an excursion a half-hour south to Sauternes. This unique region makes stellar botrytized dessert wines rivaled only by Tokaji from Hungary. In both places, the beneficial botrytis fungus, also known as “noble rot,” concentrates the grape juice and changes its chemical composition, resulting in additional complexity. Sweet wines are unfashionable, but Sauternes can be nothing less than transcendent. Its combination of honeyed richness, brilliant acidity, focused spiciness and flavors such as tobacco, mint, jasmine and/or oak is attention-grabbing and enchanting. I often indulge in a glass with dessert after dinner. Sauternes also works beautifully with a sweet-and-savory breakfast. Perhaps that sounds like heresy, but on vacation, one is allowed a heresy or two.