This morning we sail up the Garonne north of Bordeaux toward the Atlantic. Our stop will be just past the Confluence or point where the Garonne and Dordogne meet and become the Girone Estuary. As we are sailing all morning we have a talk on the rest of the itinerary by Sharon our Cruise Director and then one on the Estuary itself by Sarah one of our guides who is from Ireland.
This is the Aquitaine region which is one of 13 regions of France and the largest with over 6 million people. The Garonne River is the largest in SW France over 350 miles beginning in Spain. The Dordogne not as large starts close to Lyon and flows to the sea.
The muddy waters of the Estuary and its waterway traffic are very much influenced by the tides. They come in and out 2 times a day up to 60 miles up the river. They are one of 6 areas in the world that have a Tidal Bore or Mascaret. In fact, twice a year during the equinox up to 200 people surf the wave created for up to 10 minutes even though it is only about 2 metres high.
Along the entire route are little fishing huts which are on stilts to stay above the tide. From here the fishermen lower nets wait for the tide to come in and out and then just raise the net to see what they have ‘caught’. These huts called Carrelet catch shad, salmon, eels, white shrimp and lamprey. The incredibly ugly latter look like an eel with a big sucker mouth.
The eels and lamprey are two delicacies. The baby eels or civettes are lightly fried unfortunately their stocks have been depleted by almost 90% due to Asian smuggling. The lamprey are chopped into smaller pieces and the blood is retained. Then it is combined with a bottle of wine, leeks and sautéed like a casserole for at least 24 hours. We find some later at a market and it looks incredibly unappealing to say the least.
They are constantly needing to dredge the river of the silt that comes in and out with the tides. Even a two day hiatus can make passage very difficult. At is widest point near the entrance to the Atlantic it is 11 km wide and the widest in Europe. Apparently we learn that the St Lawrence Seaway at home is the widest in the world.
This afternoon we had hoped to join the bike ride through the vineyards but the weather is terrible and out of the original 24 only 2 guys brave it. We land at Fort Medoc but quickly get on the boat and head into the famous Medoc region famous for its bold reds. We have been split into 5 groups so that we don’t overwhelm any Chateau.
We arrive at Chateau Branaire Ducru in Saint Julien another family owned estate, the original chateau dates back to 1680 with Jean Batiste Branaire... His daughter married a Duluc. Here the main grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a small appellation of gravelly soil with very low lying vines, even lower than Sauterne. There are 11 Grand Cru Chateaus in the region
This chateau is quite modern including a special fork lift to move the barrels around that I have never seen before. They make only the Bordeaux blend here blending 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 % Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. Their young wine called Duluc is made from 3-15 years old vines. The other vines reserved for the Classic Grand Cru.
While we are thrilled at home to talk about 30-40 year old vines they are starting to consider replacing them. While they use 50+ year old vines as long as they are still producing good grapes the average age is 35 years. They replace portions every year to maintain quality and quantity balance.
The winery has a small staff most of the year but for the 3 weeks of harvest this grows to 80-90 people. They pick for 14 to 15 days of harvest. On each plot about 100 berries are tasted to determine what are the optimal picking days. This is difficult back breaking work with how low the vines are and it is all done by hand.
They follow a specific process of stainless steel vats for about 20 days for fermentation, keeping each plot separate during this process. Twice a day they do a pour over the ‘free’ wine, which is blended and put into French barrels. The skins and seeds or cap that has floated to the top in the vats is then pressed again and used in the blending.
Sales of wine in Bordeaux is done strictly through wine merchants who we can see in the tasting room with the wine master and owner during our visit. This winery makes 300-350,000 bottles a year out of the only two kinds they make, the young and Classic Grand Cru.
The barrel process involves racking every 4 months to take away some of the sediment with the final racking requiring egg whites to act like a magnetic to get the final bit. They test for remaining sediment using a glass over a candle. But don’t worry they don’t waste the yolk, it is used to make the famous Bordeaux Caneles treats
This time of year they are pruning and leave only two stems to get the best quality. The remaining stems are kept and used during the year to give great flavour at BBQs.
All the wines are delicious the Classic Grand Cru being very bold and deep in colour. The younger retailing for 20-30 Euro, the Classic up to 80 euros in a particularly good vintage. Of course as Cindy our guide informs us there are no ‘bad’ vintages only difficult or challenging ones.
On our way back to the boat we pass many of the top chateaus including Latour, Pichon Baron and Lafite Rothschild. The weather has remained cool and rainy so we keep hopping on and off the bus to get pictures.
Another wonderful dinner and drinks with four very fun ladies from Atlanta and North Carolina which keeps us up later then we want or should have.
Our next morning finds similar weather in the town of Blaye. Here we first visit the famous Citadelle built by Louis XIV in the 17th century. During his reign there was fighting for more the 33 years and over 350 citadelles were built around France to defend the country. Here at Blaye there is a small island between the right and left bank. On the opposite bank is a smaller citadelle Fort Medoc and on the island a small tower. In this way the entire river was secured.
The last siege was 1814 where the English and French battled for 2 weeks but with the two sets of walls the citadelle was never breached; in 1914 the last 800 troops to live here were sent to the German border. Finally in 2008 it was named an Unesco site.
After a short visit to the local market below the citadelle where we see the first white asparagus of the season we head out for a drive along the seaside on the Corniche de la Gironde. We are halfway between the ocean and Bordeaux. Here left side is dotted with Quarry homes built into the soft limestone. On the other side of the narrow road along the river are the gardens to these homes.
Amongst the vines are the Romanesque Tulip, a yellow tulip planted 1,000 years ago by the Romans to aerate the soil. Today they are a protected plant in this area still serving the same purpose.
Back on the boat we sail a short distance to the small town of Bourg constructed originally by the Romans. Here our first stop, in the rain, is the Wash House built in 1828. The local men called this the Chamber of Representatives as the women would get together and their tongues would wag. The wash house is spring fed.
As with the Quarry houses many of the buildings are built right into the rock. There is not much in the town and it is pretty quiet especially with the bad weather but we try a delicious almond stuffed figs.
That evening before dinner Gail and I take part in a special wine tasting held by our Sommelier Nedko. There are 10 of us in the little Claret room off the dining room. We of course start with a champagne and Nedko talks to the steps to tasting wine properly.
We move on to 2 whites and I get lucky and identify that the first one is a Chardonnay which impresses Nedko right off the bat. We follow up with 2 very different reds both of which benefit from the cheese or cold meats served as well. None of the wines are French which is a way to compare what we are trying every night with dinner.
It is a very informative and enjoyable event. The wines all delicious and the group a lot of fun. In fact, the next day we end up tasting in St Emilion with one of the couples Fran & Sue while practicing our newly acquired skills. A little quieter night but still late. And unfortunately the weather forecast is not improving.