There was a time when a trip to Bordeaux for us would have meant booking tours and tastings at some of France’s biggest named Châteaux. But back then we were young and inexperienced in both the ways of the world and in the ways of wine. Some hundred gallons of vin later, the allure of French “First Growths” is mostly lost on us now.
That’s not entirely because the Bordeaux wine classification system established by Napoleon III, and still in use today, isn’t a terrific indicator of who’s producing the best product 160 years later. It is, however, a great predictor of who is charging the most for their wares.
After uncorking a few thousand bottles over the years, we’ve learned that higher prices don’t necessarily mean better wines.
We’ve also learned that wineries aren’t the best places for tasting wine or for buying it either. It’s no longer true, if it ever was true, that expending the effort to get yourself to a winery will net you a good deal. And mostly gone are the days when wineries offer free or discounted tastings in an attempt to win new customers. Now tasting rooms are more commonly treated as profit centers that offer expensive pours alongside overpriced bottles.
That seems to be just as true in Bordeaux as it was when we toured California’s Napa Valley. Unlike in California, though, you can’t typically just pop into a Bordeaux winery for a tasting. You often need to book them in advance. And booking ahead didn’t really fit our schedule or our mood.
So mostly we busied ourselves doing things in Bordeaux that we absolutely couldn’t do anywhere else in the world, like driving around and gawking at the incredible architecture looming over acres of vineyards.
Or climbing the cobbled hills of ancient cities like St. Emilion, where we drank in the atmosphere, if not the wine.
That isn’t to say we didn’t stop at any wineries. We were lucky enough to join a tour in progress at Château Prieuré-Lichine, a Quatrièmes Crus (“Fourth Growth”) producer in the Margaux appellation. What surprised us most on the tour was the degree to which Bordeaux’s storied traditions have given way to modernization.
And of course we didn’t turn our noses up at the sample that came along with our tour.
But we saved most of our tasting time and dollars for places where we knew we’d not only get better prices but also find a wider selection of wines to sample. If that’s your aim, you can’t do better than a dedicated wine bar. And in the city of Bordeaux, where tastings are often treated as tourist attractions, it’s hard to do better than Le Bar à Vin.
Supported by Bordeaux’s major wine association, Le Bar à Vin is what a tasting room should be. Its wine list includes 32 different wines that span Bordeaux’s major appellations. That way you can taste a wine from the Medoc next to one from Graves alongside one from Pauillac, all from the comfort of your exceedingly comfortable chair. A similar winery tour would take all day, most of which would be spent in the car.
And even after driving all those miles to visit the wineries in person, you’re not likely to beat Le Bar à Vin’s prices. After our tasting we tracked down one of our favorites at a grocery store. We were surprised to find a bottle of 2009 Chateau Saint-Hillare on the shelf for exactly the same price we paid at Le Bar à Vin (about €15 for a 750 ml bottle compared to €3 for a 150 ml pour).
Best of all, we just walked into Le Bar à Vin off the street. No need to make arrangements in advance, and that fit both our schedule and our mood just perfectly.
* Yes, I know this isn’t Napoleon III