Taste of the high life: Bordeaux’s Fête le Vin

Every two years, Bordeaux hosts Europe’s largest wine tourism festival. As the 2014 event approaches, Dominic Rippon explains what visitors can expect

No, I didn’t bring a dinner suit,” I admitted. I rarely bring anything smarter than a pair of chinos on a trip to France and I was already several days into a two-week stay. “That’s a pity,” said Gwenaëlle from the Bordeaux tourist office, “because we’ve got you a ticket to the Fête de la Fleur on Friday night.”

I hung up the phone and pondered the situation. I still had a day to spend in the Savoie region before making my way to Bordeaux Fête le Vin. A suit is not an easy thing to hire in France, but I had been offered the vinous equivalent of Willie Wonka’s Golden Ticket, so I resolved to beg, borrow or steal the appropriate garments before Friday.

I met Gwenaëlle in Bordeaux the following day – Thursday, 28 June 2012 – at the opulent Café de l’Opéra in Place de la Comédie. She shook her head when I asked about finding a suit within 24 hours, and handed me my pass dégustations, which I would need to obtain tastings from the wine pavilions scattered along the banks of the River Garonne.

Before diving into the festival, there was a chance to explore a city that I had not visited in many years. Since my last trip, Bordeaux had become a Unesco World Heritage site (in 2007) and the changes were a revelation; once-shabby facades gleamed in the afternoon sun and the eerie quiet that I remembered from the small plazas had been replaced by buzzing bistros and chic cafés. Ten years of regeneration, spearheaded by the mayor, Alain Juppé, transformed the tougher neighbourhoods of Bordeaux into vibrant social centres.

During my tour, I had tastings in wine shops with cavernous cellars and sampled Bordeaux canelés in a pâtisserie. Even these famous little cakes had a wine connection. The owner explained how traditionally they were made from egg yolks discarded by winemakers, who only needed the whites for fining (clarifying) their wines. Then it was time to stroll through the Chartrons district, once populated by English, Irish and Dutch wine merchants and now a haven for antique dealers and trendy bars.

Three hours of urban exploration had given me a thirst, so I headed for the magnificent Palais de la Bourse for the first main wine tasting: the ‘Grands Crus Classés en 1855’, the year of the famous classification of top Bordeaux wines. I began by sampling the 2005 vintage from one of my favourite Saint-Julien estates, Château Léoville-Poyferré, before moving on to the table devoted to Château Batailley, from the Pauillac appellation. Cellar master Arnaud Durand joked with a group of tasters as he stamped their passeports – a device designed to deter greedier guests from returning to the same table for top-ups.

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As I walked around, the bustle became more intense and seemed to be focused on one place. A small sign offered the explanation: Château d’Yquem. Like most guests, I had never before been offered a glass from the legendary Sauternes estate, so I joined the scrummage to enjoy a share of the eye-wateringly expensive nectar before the bottles were emptied.

That evening, in the towering headquarters of the Banque Populaire d’Aquitaine, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux held its opening festival dinner. The mayor formally welcomed Hong Kong, the festival’s 2012 ville invitée d’honneur, with fine wines and dishes prepared by local Michelin-starred chef Nicolas Masse. The dress code was chic and décontracté (relaxed), so my chinos were, on this occasion at least, passable.

After the meal, more wine was served on the balcony and everyone’s attention turned to Place de la Bourse, on the opposite bank of the River Garonne.

As the clock struck 11, the Palais’s façade lit up amid a booming symphony of music; transformed into a giant 3,000 square-metre screen on which a film about Bordeaux wines was projected. Half an hour later, the International Pyrotechnic Art Festival began. Every night of the festival, a different nation is invited to put on a fireworks display and now it was the turn of the United States. The sky blazed with flashing rockets, crimson stars and blue rain, bringing the day to a spectacular close.

The festival provides the perfect opportunity to visit surrounding wine estates, which is how I came to be heading to the vineyards of the Haut-Médoc the following day. I went with Pierre-Jean Romatet, who runs Bordo Vino, which offers small group trips to estates that might otherwise be off-limits to the public. Our destination was Château Giscours in the Margaux appellation, a magnificent neo-classical residence flanked by equally impressive limestone caves. Château Giscours is the largest property in Margaux, with 140 hectares of vines. Businessman Eric Jelgersma took over the troisième grand cru estate in 1995 and renovated its buildings and vineyards. The château has the latest technology, the EuroCave Professional ‘tasting machine’, which preserves open bottles of wine for up to three weeks, allowing visitors to try a range of vintages.

Back in Bordeaux, I learned more about the vigneron’s art during a wine-blending course at the stand of the École du Vin de Bordeaux. Winemaker Sabine Silvestrini explained how different styles of Bordeaux wine were influenced by the region’s main grape varieties. Each table received one test tube sample of cabernet sauvignon and another of merlot. The cabernet brings structure and colour to red blends, while merlot provides soft fruit flavours and a fleshy texture, Sabine explained. We tasted the wines separately, before making a 50/50 blend of the two. The groups then experimented with different combinations, until the perfect blend was reached. A few glasses and several failed experiments later, our table decided that 70 per cent merlot worked well when seasoned with 30 per cent of the more robust cabernet.

As I thanked Sabine for the class, my mind turned again to the Fête de la Fleur and my elusive dinner suit. I caught up with Gwenaëlle at the Palais de la Bourse and she had good news: she’d found me one. I was going to the ball! I changed hastily and we made our way to the giant marquee that filled Place des Quinconces.

The Fête de la Fleur shows Bordeaux at its most elegant; an annual celebration of the vineyards in flower that has become a who’s who of the Bordeaux wine trade. Inside the marquee garden, we were handed drinks and watched the induction of new members into the Commanderie du Bontemps – the robed brotherhood that organises the Fête de la Fleur. There followed a feast prepared by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Luc Rocha, of the Château Cordeillan-Bages hotel and restaurant in Pauillac. Each dish was served with a wine from the Médoc, Graves or Sauternes vineyards.

The pass dégustations was put to good use on my final day as I strolled along the two-kilometre stretch of the river at the heart of the festival. A dizzying array of pavilions served the wines of 80 appellations, from Saint-Émilion to the Médoc, with ‘stickies’ grouped under the endearing Anglicism ‘I’m so sweet Bordeaux’. I paused to admire the collection of 23 giant wine bottles that animated the river bank, each decorated by a different artist. The Nadalié cooperage was preparing oak barrels for the barrel-rolling race, while the triple-masted 19th-century sailing vessel Le Belem bobbed majestically on the tide.

My trip ended back at Place des Quinconces, where I raised a glass to the sublime voice of jazz singer Dianne Reeves as she gave an open-air concert.

Highlights of 2014

Bordeaux Fête le Vin returns this year, from 26-29 June, when the River Garonne will once again welcome half a million wine-loving visitors to its banks. Los Angeles, which twinned with Bordeaux 50 years ago, is the 2014 ville invitée d’honneur.

River events will include sunset cruises with aperitifs on the water, and tours of the Portuguese four-mast training vessel the Santa Maria Manuela. Firework displays this year will be staged by Mauritius, Italy and Colombia, while the final evening’s pyrotechnic display will be set to the music of French composer Eric Serra.

More stands than ever will feature wine and food pairings, and an open-air theatre will pay homage to Hollywood, screening two films a day. Place des Quinconces will host a fresh line-up of concerts and the ‘literary cuvée’ reading room will welcome authors to discuss their wine-related books

The stylish charm of Bordeaux Fête le Vin will doubtless remain unchanged from previous years. Let the pass dégustations be your guide to the days’ events; and just in case you find a spare ticket to one of the prestigious evening banquets, don’t forget your best dinner suit.

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GETTING THERE

By air: Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport is well served internationally.

By rail: The TGV from Paris Montparnasse takes just over three hours.

By road: Bordeaux is around eight hours’ drive from the northern ferry ports and five hours’ from Saint-Malo.

WHERE TO STAY

Mercure Bordeaux Cité Mondiale

Centre Ville

18 Parvis des Chartrons

33080 Bordeaux

Tel: (Fr) 5 56 01 79 79

www.citemondiale.comModern hotel a stone’s throw from the festival. Doubles from €105.

WHERE TO EAT

Restaurant La Tupina

6 Rue Porte de la Monnaie

33000 Bordeaux

(Fr) 5 56 91 56 37

www.latupina.comWonderful street-side dining; a favourite with the Bordelais. Menus from €18.

Café de l’Opera

Place de la Comédie

33000 Bordeaux

Tel: (Fr) 5 56 44 07 00

Enjoy an aperitif at this opulent café.

WHERE TO VISIT

Bordeaux Fête le Vin

A pass dégustations costs €15 in advance from Bordeaux tourist office or €20 at the event; a pass vignobles for full or half-day vineyard tours costs from €60; and a passeport for the ‘Grands Crus Classés en 1855’ tastings costs €65.

www.bordeaux-fete-le-vin.comOrganised tours

Bordeaux tourist office organises full and half-day vineyard tours (including the pass vignoble during the festival) in French and English, throughout the year. Or contact Pierre-Jean Romatet at Bordo Vino directly for a tailor-made package (tel: (Fr) 5 57 30 04 27, www.bordovino.com).

TOURIST INFORMATION

Bordeaux tourist office

Tel: (Fr) 5 56 00 66 00

www.bordeaux-tourisme.comBordeaux wines

Tel: (Fr) 5 56 00 22 66

www.bordeaux.com