Bordeaux wine coun­try

A scenic river cruise through vine­yards and his­tory

Cape Breton Post - - Destinations - BY JOHN AND SAN­DRA NOWLAN John and San­dra Nowlan are travel and food writ­ers based in Hal­i­fax.

In France, the best wines are served with the cheese course, just be­fore dessert. In our case we were at Chateau Gis­cours, a huge wine-grow­ing es­tate in the Mar­gaux re­gion of Bordeaux for a gala din­ner or­ga­nized by the staff of our river cruise ship, Scenic Di­a­mond. As we cruised along the Garonne and Gironde Rivers in South-West­ern France, our 120 fel­low guests had been pam­pered for sev­eral days by fine ser­vice and ex­cel­lent com­ple­men­tary wines at both lunch and din­ner on the ship. But the out­stand­ing French wines and won­der­ful cui­sine served at this dress-up af­fair were par­tic­u­larly tasty. The cheese course in­cluded Os­sau-Iraty, named the best cheese in the world, ac­com­pa­nied by a su­perb Chateau Gis­cours 2001 Grand Cru.

Our week-long ad­ven­ture be­gan in Bordeaux, a his­toric UNESCO World Her­itage city of a quar­ter mil­lion, sec­ond only to Paris in the num­ber of pre­served build­ings from the 18th cen­tury. We stayed in one of them – The Grand Ho­tel, now known as the In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Bordeaux. The op­u­lent ho­tel, with its 86 rooms and 44 suites, over­looks the cen­tral Place de la Comédie and the re­mark­able Opera House, dat­ing from 1780.

Famed Scot­tish chef Gor­don Ram­say runs a two-star Miche­lin restau­rant in the In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Bordeaux but, sadly, it wasn’t open when we were there. But the celebrity chef also su­per­vises a sec­ond restau­rant. Brasserie Le Bordeaux Gor­don Ram­say em­pha­sizes fresh and lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. His lamb shank, ac­com­pa­nied by onion rings the size of donuts and his cre­ative lemon meringue pie were spe­cial treats.

River­boat cruise

The next morn­ing our ship, the Scenic Di­a­mond, awaited us along the ti­dal Garonne River (it even has a ti­dal bore, like Moncton’s). Scenic, an Aus­tralian com­pany with a rep­u­ta­tion for lux­ury, now has 29 river boats cov­er­ing much of Europe and Asia.

River cruis­ing in Europe is now highly com­pet­i­tive but Scenic prides it­self on hav­ing fewer guests (max­i­mum 150 com­pared with 180 on other sim­i­lar sized ships) and a to­tal all-in­clu­sive pol­icy. As they told is, “Once you step on board, ev­ery­thing is in­cluded.” Our room had a very com­fort­able bed, a small “sun lounge” bal­cony (most river ships have only a French bal­cony) with two chairs, a mini-fridge with pop, wa­ter, wine and spir­its, and snacks re­plen­ished daily. A per­sonal but­ler is avail­able for any re­quest (ours, named Bora, was won­der­ful), free laun­dry is in­cluded and there’s free wi-fi through­out the ship.

All tours and gra­tu­ities are in­cluded with Scenic and even elec­tric-as­sisted bi­cy­cles are avail­able at no cost. If you like fine wine, this re­gion of France is ideal for tour­ing. The Bordeaux re­gion, with 10,000 wine pro­duc­ing chateaux, in­cludes fa­mous names like Mé­doc, Saint-Émil­ion, Graves, Pomerol, En­tre-Deux-Mers and, for su­perb sweet wines, Sauternes. Its 120,000 hectares of vine­yards pro­duce over 800 mil­lion bot­tles of wine an­nu­ally, ac­count­ing for a quar­ter of to­tal French pro­duc­tion.

All meals on the Scenic Di­a­mond were ac­com­pa­nied by im­pres­sive French wines (even Moet Cham­pagne for mi­mosas at break­fast). This was the first cruise of the spring sea­son and ser­vice was a bit chaotic the first evening but the food and ser­vice im­proved as the week pro­gressed. The lamb, beef, chicken and pork dishes were won­der­ful, but all the fish was frozen and var­ied in qual­ity. Salad choices and imag­i­na­tive veg­eta­bles with French cheeses at the noon buf­fet were su­perb. The chef did bring in fresh pro­duce at sev­eral stops. Scenic Di­a­mond also has a small, spe­cialty restau­rant at the front of the ship called L’Amour. We en­joyed the six course set menu with per­fect wine pairings. The truf­fle honey with cheese course was es­pe­cially mem­o­rable.

Ev­ery day a choice of tours was avail­able and al­most all of them were wine-ori­ented. Al­most ev­ery square kilo­me­tre is filled with vine­yards along­side many im­pres­sive and his­toric chateaux. We vis­ited nu­mer­ous winer­ies, some of which were on prop­er­ties dat­ing back to Ro­man times. At all of them, we had a chance to sam­ple many out­stand­ing vin­tages that gave us new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the va­ri­ety and qual­ity of French wine.

We par­tic­u­larly en­joyed our vis­its to St. Emil­ion, known for its full-bod­ied red wines, es­pe­cially Mer­lot. The UNESCO pro­tected town, which now boasts of a wine shop for ev­ery eight res­i­dents, was named for a mir­a­cle-work­ing monk who lived in a nearby cave around 750 AD. Those mas­sive lime­stone caves, with their con­sis­tent tem­per­a­tures, have been used for wine stor­age for cen­turies.

With the won­der­ful, rich red wines of Bordeaux, it was sur­pris­ing to learn that the world’s most fa­mous sweet wines are also pro­duced here, around the small vil­lage of Sauternes. End­less vine­yards and huge chateaux cover the land­scape in­clud­ing Chateau d’Yquem whose ex­quis­ite sweet Sauterne can sell for thou­sands of dol­lars a bot­tle.

Grapevines and his­tory are in­ter­wo­ven through­out the Bordeaux re­gion and we vis­ited some re­mark­able towns (Cadil­lac, a walled vil­lage founded in 1280, was par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive) and cas­tles (the mas­sive Chateau de Ro­que­tail­lade, dat­ing from about 1306, has been lived in by the same fam­ily for over 700 years).

Scenic guests are very loyal with many re­turn guests. Most are mid­dle aged to se­nior (Aus­tralian, Cana­dian and Amer­i­can) with a love of travel com­bined with an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of good food and wine. As one guest from On­tario told us, “I’ve learned a lot on this cruise. I don’t ever want to go on va­ca­tion where I don’t learn some­thing ev­ery day.”


The Scenic Di­a­mond river cruise ship in Bordeaux.


Grapevines, chateau and his­tory are in­ter­wo­ven through­out the Bordeaux re­gion.


Winemaking ex­plained to a tour group.


Dat­ing from 1306, the Chateau de Ro­que­tail­lade has been lived in by the same fam­ily for over 700 years.

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