Bordeaux is a wine region shaped by its rivers. Reminders are everywhere (the etymology is uncertain but one meaning of the name could be “beside the water”). Visitors at Château Beychevelle in the Médoc are often reminded that the estate takes its name from the instruction baisse voile or “lower the sails”, reflecting its history as the former property of Jean-Louis Nogaret de la Valette, Great Admiral of France. The rivers of Bordeaux have been vital to its growth as a commercial powerhouse, but they’re even more important than that: they have created the style of a wine that is famous throughout the world. Top Médoc estates close to the Gironde estuary are said to “see the water”: they benefit from a microclimate that limits potential frost damage, buffering more extreme temperatures further inland – and that means wines of power and freshness, the inimitable style of the region.
The vast majority of visitors to this great watery region see little of its rivers. A trip around the great chateaux nowadays almost always means a dusty drive up the D2, the busy artery that runs through the Medoc. But there’s another option – a thoroughfare that is as old as wine itself: the river.
But who visits by boat? As late 2017, less than ten tour boats existed for vineyard trips, says Laurent Némery of Bordeaux’s tourism office. For the majority, coming to Bordeaux vineyards means long, boring drives, ugly roadside architecture and worry over alcohol intake. Navigating the Rocade, the city’s busy ring road (dubbed “the beast of the Gironde”), can be excruciating.
So when PR consultant Paige Donner proposed I take a tour on a luxury barge, I took precisely no time to decide. Barge Tango is a spiffy craft with fine dining, queen size beds, private showers, and an on-board jacuzzi. It runs regular cruises for private clients, so Donner and I devised a special two-day itinerary of top châteaux.
Soon after I came aboard, Captain Daniel Sak (“Captain Dan”) checked tide flows to estimate speed for his 130-horsepower engine and weighed anchor. Within minutes we were cruising at a gentle 15kmh down the Garonne River, which, along with the lovely Dordogne, form the 80km Gironde Estuary. If you’re making the equivalent journey in a car, you zoom (or crawl) past fast food joints, concrete overpasses and swimming pool superstores. Here, birds flew overhead as we puttered past the carrelets, Aquitaine fishing huts on stilts. The difference is stark. Brushed by a late summer breeze, the background of forest and meadow proved a perfect backdrop for sunsets. Only the occasional cargo ship – we saw one monster carrying an Airbus A380 fuselage – interrupted the pastoral setting.
The two-and-a-half-hour journey took us via the Dordogne River to dock on the Right Bank, where a Tango crewmember picked us up in a van to reach Château Nenin in Pomerol, and Château Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion in time for tastings and visits.
We re-boarded the Tango just in time for a gorgeous sunset, our appreciation enhanced by Dom Ruinart Champagne. Captain Dan navigated for 20 minutes to reach a Left Bank dock, where we dined aboard. Pierre Baudon, former sous chef from L’Opera in Saint Tropez, prepared dinner from local ingredients: soup from butternuts he had collected that morning, homemade pasta and a girolles mushroom sauce with roasted local chicken.
Next, the great Léoville estates: Léoville Barton, Langoa Barton, Léoville Poyferré and Léoville Las Cases. Back in the 1700s, these were unified as “Domaine de Léoville”; soon-to-be US president Thomas Jefferson praised the wine in the late 18th century. Although long since divided, the estates today are still owned by local families such as the Bartons, unusual for such high-end Bordeaux properties in modern times.
We’re constantly reminded of the river and the sea. There’s a wonderful view of the Gironde estuary from the shared courtyard that splits Léoville Poyferré from Château Léoville Las Cases. At Léoville Poyferré, a three-dimensional soil sample shows how the famous heat-retaining Médoc gravel, so essential for ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, had been brought over centuries from the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers. At Langoa, owner Lilian Barton-Sartorius pointed to an old oven dating to the 17th century. It would probably have been used to bring fresh bread by boat to the locals, at about the time that Dutch engineers were draining what were marshes and swamps to allow for quicker transportation of Bordeaux wine – and to create more land suitable for vineyards.
Later, at Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, director Nicolas Glumineau remarked that he refers to weather reports about Médoc surfing conditions rather than inland reports: his vineyards are influenced more by weather patterns closer to the water.
We docked in Bordeaux the next day. The river has proven a wonderful way to rediscover the vineyards of this great and ancient wine region. It makes perfect sense – as Némery points out, when you don’t need to build roads but only docks, the infrastructure costs and environmental impact are tiny compared to road building.
As of this writing, 18 boats are operating, with more expected for the spring 2020 tourism season. Lilian Barton-Sartorius is looking forward to more river-borne visitors. “It would be fun if we had to pick them up from a St-Julien dock.”