Today we are taking our most expensive excursion of the cruise. We are going to the Margaux region outside Bordeaux to visit a winemaker, tour a chateau, and have lunch. I thought we were also doing tastings yesterday, but Boris and I got our wires crossed. I am hoping for a special day today. We are just before the harvest. The grapes are being picked in a few weeks.
Tom and Patty are on our tour today too so we made sure we were on the same bus so we could enjoy lunch together. Noreen and Jeff were sitting behind us. Although I have seen them on some of our other tours, I met them on this tour on the return ride back to the ship.
As we left the city, our guide pointed out a few local landmarks like the wine museum and the football (soccer for my USA readers) stadium. Several people from our ship are visiting the museum. La Cite du Vin is considered more than a wine museum; it is billed a wine experience. The interesting multilevel structure has a different experience on each floor. There is more than 10 hours of audiovisual material. They say it takes 2-3 hours just to see the permanent exhibits and 4-hours for a themed visit. Of course, you will want to take some additional time to sample some of the wine.
We quickly started to see the vineyards as we left the city. Our guide told us about the regulation of the wines, how they were classified, and a little about the process itself. One of the things I was surprised to learn was that most Bordeaux wines are a blend of different grapes. “At the Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris, Emperor Napoleon III asked each wine region to establish a classification.” This classification is the most prestigious and our destination, Château Prieuré-Lichine, Cantenac, AOC Margaux, holds the honor.
We also found out that each winemaker bills itself chateau, regardless of the structures and their size. The designation has nothing to do with a castle or manor house, which I always thought was the meaning of château (plural châteaux) in French. Well actually it is, but not in this context. This should have been my first clue that this tour was not going to be all that I expected.
When we reached Château Prieuré-Lichine, we were taken into the wine shop. I joined the long queue for the toilets. Boris went shopping. When they were finally ready to get started, we all gathered outside a small house. We learned that the property was originally the priory for a group of monks and this was where they lived and made wine. The structure was right next to a small church. Only two items from the priory remain. With the French revolution, the monks were forced to flee. The tradition of wine making continues.
Most of the properties started out in families but over the years many have had to sell out to companies and foreign investors. Few can afford to self-pay the estate taxes when the older generation dies.
Well back to that small house. We found out that no one lives on the property except when the owner comes to visit from outside the country or if special visitors are on site. It was shuttered closed. If you look at the picture on the company’s label and on the promotional literature for the excursion, you will see what looks like a large home on a vast estate, not this shuttered building with wine production buildings and a church around it. It was probably that picture and the word chateau that made me think we were going to visit a French estate in addition to a winery. Apparently not.
The tour continued with a stop at the owner’s vast collection of fireplace backs. These were rather interesting and in some cases opened to the vats in the room behind it. This used to be the way that they reached the vats. You could still see some of the taps. It was an attractive display.
Next we went into the room with the large concrete vats. Apparently the company had innovated and moved to concrete on a previous occasion. However, concrete is porous and it was determined that it effected the taste of the wine. They moved away from that method, but have previously returned to it as concrete varieties have improved. From our tours in California, we know that the material the vats are constructed with is just one area where winemakers options differ. The shape of the vat has to do with how the liquid is separated from the skins.
We stopped in the room where barrels were stored and then we were taken back into the shop that also served as the tasting room. We tried two of their wines. Very good, but neither Boris nor I was interested enough to purchase them. I walked around outside and got a few pictures of the grapes on the vine. They are just a few weeks from the harvest.
So apparently that was the winery and chateau visit. We drove next into the village of Margaux to have lunch. In spite of the very warm day, we are eating outside on a covered patio that was surprisingly cool. It was a charming setting. Lunch was a fixed menu with open bottles of water and wine on the table. The bread was wonderful.
Everyone gave himself or herself a generous pour of wine, so there was little left when it reached our end of the table. Patty wisely ordered another bottle and then sat it on the ground next to her for refills. I think the four of us drank three bottles.
Then I learned I was having salmon. I love seafood, but am not a fan of salmon. I also thought it was an odd choice. I asked the waiter if I could have something else and he said that I had confirmed the order. Wait; I was never asked. Apparently the cruise line confirmed for me. I couldn’t even offer it to Boris since he doesn’t like salmon either. Okay so at least there were potatoes…and wine.
Then I saw a couple of other people getting something else, so I asked again. Still no. Boris, Tom, and Patty all thought I should see if the guide could do something about it. So he came over and said that they had all this salmon prepared and that it would go to waste and that I had confirmed my selection last week. I said that others got an alternative and he added that they had an allergy. Boris told them I was allergic in French, but I didn’t want to be dishonest about it so I said that wasn’t the case. Boris asked them to bring me more potatoes. I just let it go.
Then a woman three seats down announced that she had just asked for something else, was not allergic, was not even asked if she was allergic, and that she was being served an alternative. That was it. It became the quest of the people at my dining table that I should be served something else. The French waiters just glared at me. I was ready to eat more bread and my potatoes. About 10 minutes later, I received duck. It was fabulous. I even shared with Boris. The women down the table asked if I wanted her duck; she liked that less than salmon.
Since that was the whole tour, I was glad I got a lunch I enjoyed. I did thank the servers later for accommodating me. Really it wasn’t their fault at all. There was lots of rumbling around the room. Apparently one woman was highly allergic and had to completely leave the patio because she couldn’t be around the salmon and was worried about cross contamination. Others were very upset that only seafood was being served. One of the servers made the mistake a telling a guest how much the cruise line was paying per person-it was less that 14% of the cost of the tour-that caused more problems.
Everyone was confused about what the tour included-how many places we were going. Some thought the lunch was supposed to be at the winery. Others were frustrated with the lack of choice with the food. The cruise line had started passing around a tablet for us to complete a survey on the way back on each tour. The tablet was not passed today.
I learned a lot of what was said when I met Noreen on the bus. She and Jeff were at another table. From there our group got into a discussion about food preferences and Boris had to tell everyone about how he is educating the kitchen staff on the ship on the correct way to make the grits. I really should say the correct way to serve grits to him. Boris has never cooked grits before in his life; he just wants it done his way and the cruise line is always ready to oblige.
I think my favorite part of the day was the bus ride back. We all had so much fun together that we reconvened that night on deck for the white night dinner-no grits or salmon in sight. We will overnight here in Bordeaux and then then leave after light in the morning. I am looking forward to seeing the vertical lift bridge over the Garonne River, Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, introduced in 2013. At the time of its introduction it was the longest vertical lift bridge in Europe.
This is our farewell to France. We will be in Spain tomorrow with a stop in Bilbao.