We planned our wine trip to Bordeaux for about a year but, having never been to France, we knew we couldn’t go all that way and not see Paris or Normandy. So, we began our trip there, saw the magnificent sights of each city, and learned so much about the country’s history. However, we must admit we equally enjoyed spending time in little cafes, such as Le General, Rosa Bonheur, and Flottes, drinking wine on the streets of Paris. Furthermore, after the surreal yet wondrous tour of the Normandy beaches, we were spoiled by a special private luncheon at Ferme de la Ranconniere, a farm in the Calvados region of Normandy.
After a quick yet full few days, we high-tailed it on the fast train to meet 22 of our close friends and family on the Amadolce of Amawaterways for a river cruise to Bordeaux. The first night we were all so excited to see each other, most from Arizona. Still, some from Ohio, Kentucky, and Colorado we hadn’t seen in some time, so we decided to imbibe on the boat and enjoy the fine wine and food provided for us. I should mention we wanted for nothing on the boat. Each morning started with coffee and breakfast; if you were around in the afternoon, lunch was always available; each evening, we gathered for happy hour and a delicious heavenly dinner. The bread alone was enough to bring a foodie to tears.
We woke up that first morning and headed to the fabulous region of Sauternes. The tour bus stopped to show us the spectacular Chateau D’Yquem, the only Premier Cru Superior (Premier First Growth) in the Sauternes region. Bordeaux has a ranking system called the classification of 1855, and this one is in a league of its own. As a Sommelier, it moved me beyond measure to lay my eyes on something I’ve only had the chance to read about. I’m not sure the others on the bus felt that same out-of-body experience, but I think they appreciated the stop. We ventured to Chateau Guiraud, where we tasted the wines made possible by noble rot, delicate picking, and constant attention to each bunch of grapes in the vineyard. We made our purchases and headed to the Roquetaillade Castle, which is still owned by the same family for 700 years. The castle was built in the 10th century by Charlemagne as his army advanced toward the Pyrenees. The entire structure was restored and transformed by Viollet-le-Duc, a French architect, and author who restored many prominent medieval landmarks in France, including the Notre Dame Cathedral. That evening my group of 24 was invited to the Chef’s dining room for a private dinner. There were five delectable courses paired with various wines of the region. It was surrounded by windows to view the river, and the staff treated us like royalty. I could get used to this life.
The next day we got to experience the Medoc on the left bank of Bordeaux along the Garonne river. We got the opportunity to tour and taste one of the only fourteen second growths, Chateau Leoville Poyferre. Again, I was probably the only one who had to take deep breaths as we approached, but I think everyone would agree that this place was extraordinary. As we made our way back to the boat, our guide made sure we got to stop and snap photos of three of only five first growths in the 1855 classification system, including Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and Mouton Rothschild. We also saw a few second growths, including Chateau Cos d’eEstournel and Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron. Seeing these top-classified wine estates up close and personal brought everything I’ve studied about for years to life. It was truly magical.
I was about 4 months after breaking my foot, so I decided to pass the morning walking tour and get a foot massage on the boat to help me continue walking on these cobblestone roads. We joked that the French must have good feet. Now along the Dordogne river, our next stop was Blaye and Bourg. Some of our group did bike or walking tours. My parents and I decided to go out on our own that day and walked through the Blaye Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by famous military engineer Vauban. This is an impressive piece of history with exceptional military architecture. In Bourg, we joined the others for a walking tour through picturesque alleyways down to the harbor via the Porte de Mer and the King’s stairway and the upper town. We were lucky with warm sunny days until the rain came about halfway to the Horse-Carriage Museum and the World War II Petrol Cistern. It didn’t phase anyone, though; we happily marched in the rain to the Bourg Wine Festival, where we enjoyed incredible wine from local winemakers and a live performance of typical French music.
In the morning, the boat was docked in Libourne, the wine-making capital of northern Gironde near Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. We set out to St. Emilion to taste the wines of the Grand Cru Classe winery Chateau de Ferrand. The very hospitable tour guide led us on a tour through their vineyards and took us down to the barrel room for an exceptional tasting experience. It was pretty dark down there, but she had a light shining down over a white table top so that everyone could examine how to identify the grape by its color. Everyone seemed to really appreciate the intensity of this exercise which brought me great pleasure. It’s challenging and humbling to blind taste correctly, but when you get it right, what a feeling. We then had some time to spend in the village of St. Emilion, with a population of 300 and a rich history. This afternoon may have been at the top of everyone’s list. I think it is safe to say the steep cobblestone streets full of shops and cafes, along with the breathtaking views of the region, will be embedded in our brains for life. On the way back to the boat, our driver gave us a memorable treat by swirling past the famous Chateau Cheval Blanc. As of 2012, it is one of only four to receive the highest rank of Premier Grand Cru Classé status in the Classification of Saint-Émilion wine. He also made a quick passer-by Chateau Petrus in the region of Pomerol, a small estate of only 11.4 hectares consisting of only Merlot grapes. Although Pomerol holds no classification system, there isn’t a Chateau in the region that would argue against it being the crown jewel. I held back my happy tears for fear of being labeled the aberration of the group.
The next day, my group of 24 was invited to a private tasting at Grand Cru Classe Chateau Villemaurine in St. Emilion. We walked through the vineyards and toured the underground quarries where we could see the vines coming through the limestone over our heads. Our host was a wealth of information and demonstrated extreme gratitude for our excitement about the region. She gave us a brief history lesson on St. Emilion, which was more like watching a play at the theatre. She dimmed the lights, and slowly a set appeared with a small room and a bed; a recorded voice shared his story. Apparently, he was somewhat of a Robin Hood with an outstanding reputation for caring for the poor. We finished the visit with an exquisite wine tasting paired with little cakes. Back in Libourne, we wandered the streets, did some shopping near the bastide town and market and stopped in a local café which overlooked the Dordogne river and our beloved Amadolce that awaited our return.
On our final day, my husband and I thought we’d take a side trip without our group to the region of Cognac. Wow. A town of about 30,000 lined with charming shops and cafes. First, we visited Hennessy, where we hopped on a pontoon boat to cross the river Charente to tour the barrel room. The walls of the building were black inside and out. This indicates the fungus that feeds on the alcohol that evaporates, aka the angel’s share, during the aging process. We learned that if you see a building from the outside that is black, it most likely contains or did contain Cognac. Our guide led us through an elaborate educational tour of the history of Hennessy and the people responsible for its success. This gave us a vast understanding of the magnitude of this operation that is now owned by a conglomeration of Louis Vuitton, Moet & Chandon, and Hennessy (LVMH). We then tasted a VSOP and an XO which were both quite smooth and even better with the little cakes they served us.
We never had Cognac on the rocks, yet our tour guide had us try it both ways to compare; we both favored it neat. Compared to Bordeaux, Cognac is quite young as its origin dates to around the 1700s. We ventured through the town and visited the historic churches and buildings. Next, we visited the Otard Cognac House, which was something out of the Game of Thrones, especially compared to Hennessy’s much more modern style. We walked through the enormous castle and barrel rooms with black walls and plenty of spiders. Our guide said the spiders are a great way of keeping out other insects that could present a problem to the spirit. Finally, we had lunch at the famous Brasserie Coq d’Or in the middle of the square and shared a seafood platter for two, which was plenty for four. We gave it the old college try and made a pretty big dent in it, though.
Time to head back to Bordeaux and join our family and friends for our last dinner on the boat, and goodbye light show up on the outside deck. The boat circled the city on the Garonne river showing off all of the lights that Bordeaux has to shine. It was a magnificent ending to an incredible trip.
The 24 of us expanded our circle as we connected with others on the ship, especially the excellent staff on board the Amadolce. I’ll never forget how the staff took care of us and how it seemed we’d known them all our lives. Cheers to our Cruise Director Helen, Bartenders and Servers Rosen, Miro, Nikolay, Stephan, Cosi, and Roland, head of housekeeping Valentina, Executive Chef Bogdan, and Maitre D’ Octavian. Cheers to your countries of origin cheers to France, and cheers in particular to Bordeaux, where a piece of my heart will remain forever.