In France’s most legendary wine region, gorgeous châteaus are opening their gates and even welcoming guests. What are you waiting for?
In the past, my advice to people interested in visiting Bordeaux was to go somewhere else. Seriously. Not because of the wine, which is great, but because of a less-than-warm welcome at the world-famous châteaus. To anyone who wasn’t in the wine business or a major collector, the wrought-iron gates were firmly closed. And that was not only for tastings. Staying overnight at a major château? Not a chance. You might as well have walked up to Versailles to ask if they had somewhere you could crash.
Which is why the fact that you can now call up (or email) to reserve a room at a top property like Château Beychevelle or Château Pape Clément and not pay a fortune for it is somewhere past exciting. We’re firmly in the realm of mind-blowing.
On a recent trip to the region, I stayed at châteaus every night for almost a week. I wandered 18th-century halls in the Médoc at midnight, blended my own wine in Pessac-Léognan, ate the best escargots of my life in Saint-Émilion (hey, it’s France) and ended my tour with a glass of red, overlooking vineyards and the Garonne.
The best part? Anyone can. No special introductions or keys to the kingdom are needed, just a few email addresses, a plane ticket and maybe a phone. When it comes to Bordeaux these days, I just say: Go now!
I never found the resident ghost. Though some might say that’s a good thing, I, for one, am pro-ghost, and after ambling around the ornate rooms and vast, chandeliered entry hall of Château Beychevelle at midnight, I admit I was disappointed that the spirit estate director Philippe Blanc had mentioned didn’t make an appearance.
Even so, Beychevelle is spectacular. The 15,000-square-foot château has 13 guest rooms, starting at $235 a night, all with windows looking out over the expansive terrace. It’s an ideal base for visiting other top Médoc properties: Branaire-Ducru is directly across the road; Gruaud Larose, Pichon Baron and Lagrange are all within a 10-minute drive; and the staff is happy to help arrange visits.
But why leave? Other guests are few; if you walk out on the terrace in the morning with a cup of coffee and gaze across the sweeping gardens to the Gironde, as I did, you’ll find it easy to succumb to the illusion that you are lord of this manor.
One of its earliest owners, the Duc d’Épernon, was the admiral of France in the 1600s. Beychevelle’s name derives from the command “baisse voile,” or “lower the sails,” which ships were required to do out of respect for the Duc’s office whenever they went past. Evidently, the man wanted a building proximate in size to his ego; as the château’s affable hospitality director Christine Pinault noted, “Walk the length a few times and you can eat as much foie gras as you want.”
Guests typically have at least one dinner at the property during their stay, often with Blanc, and always with bottles from the château’s cellar. Like all great Médoc reds, Beychevelle’s owe their character to Cabernet Sauvignon; they are elegant, formidable and long-aging. Beyond that, they fit the surroundings; it’s hard to imagine drinking a juicy California Cabernet here. It would feel like serving meatloaf to Paul Bocuse—or to a French admiral, for that matter.
Château Pape Clément
It's important to have standards while traveling. For instance, after staying at Château Pape Clément, southwest of the city of Bordeaux, I’ve decided that, from now on, anything good enough for a medieval pope is good enough for me.
Pape Clément is one of four grand cru classé châteaus owned by Bernard Magrez, a wine magnate who seems determined to single-handedly broaden the idea of what hospitality means in Bordeaux. Three of the four now offer guest rooms, and all provide tours, tastings and activities ranging from the basic to the ultraluxe. Surprisingly, despite M. Magrez’s willingness to help his guests spend a small fortune on caviar-pairing seminars or helicopter vineyard tours, the room rates—from $290 per night—are fairly reasonable.
I chose to stay at Pape Clément for a simple reason: I love its wines, which are among the best in Bordeaux. So while I enjoyed the opulent red-and-gold furnishings (appropriate: The original owner was Pope Clément V, and popes are big into red and gold), the extravagant breakfast spread (with honey from the château’s bees) and the peacocks strutting around the property (though their cry sounds more or less like a cat getting its tail stepped on), the highlight of my stay turned out to be blending a wine one-on-one with the tasting room sommelier, Pierre Gros.
The B-Winemaker program gives visitors to the estate a chance to sit down with Gros and blend barrel samples of the château’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot into a personalized version of Pape Clément. It’s a great way to learn exactly how big a difference a small change in a blend can make (a lot), and you get to bottle and label the result and walk out the door with your own cuvée to take home.
Château Troplong Mondot
Bordeaux's Right Bank—the region north of the Dordogne River—produces wines no less great than those of the Médoc. But the feel here is different. The immaculate lawns and turreted towers of Médoc châteaus can have an almost forbidding perfection; nudge a blade of grass out of place and you half expect it to be invisibly smoothed right back. The Right Bank, and Saint-Émilion in particular, is more forgiving.
That doesn’t mean less gorgeous. Château Troplong Mondot’s 18th-century building isn’t as grand as Beychevelle (or nearly as big), nor as opulent as Pape Clément (no peacocks), but it’s lovely in its own way. The château rents out three spacious guest rooms starting at $218 a night, plus its “vineyard house”: a cottage for four people, right in the middle of the vines. Xavier Pariente, the owner, oversees the design. (Actually, he oversees everything; as he said to me, rather archly, “I’m the god around here. But I’m a benevolent god.”) His taste is campagne chic, as the French say—country chic—with terra-cotta tile floors, eclectically filled bookcases, a casually tossed orange throw here, an antique Chinese serving tray there.
Troplong Mondot also has one of the best restaurants in Bordeaux (and one of the most beautifully situated, with a terrace offering a view of the château’s vineyards and the little town of Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes). At Les Belles Perdrix, chef David Charrier takes advantage of the château’s orchard and garden for such dishes as a single organic egg turned into a weightless, dome-like soufflé atop tender squid tagliatelle, or succulent snails from a nearby farm wrapped in spinach cannelloni and served in a lambent green sauce. Not remotely food to try to re-create at home, but who travels to Bordeaux to experience the mundane?
For all the grand châteaus of the Médoc and the loveliness of Saint-Émilion, the single most spectacular setting I found in all of Bordeaux was at Château Biac. That wasn’t entirely surprising—the Entre-Deux-Mers region isn’t as renowned for its wines, but it does have the best natural landscape in Bordeaux, all rolling hills and green forests.
Biac stands midpoint in an amphitheater, its vineyards stretching down to a slow bend in the Garonne. In the distance across the river lies a sprinkling of other châteaus. That Biac’s vineyard is a south-facing bowl is partly the reason the estate’s wines far surpass most nearby reds; having Patrick Léon, the former winemaker for Château Mouton Rothschild, on hand to fashion them doesn’t hurt either.
In fact, it was Léon who told Biac’s owners, Tony and Youmna Asseily, that they were, essentially, nuts if they didn’t try to produce a great wine here. Tony Asseily, a Lebanese financier, bought the property in 2006 as a vacation home. He says, “I didn’t want to chew my fingernails up to my elbows out of worry about frost, hail and the weather in general. I had absolutely no intention of making wine—none whatsoever.”
Today, however, the Asseilys produce 3,000 cases of red each year, from their ageworthy Château Biac red down to Félix de Biac, which Tony refers to as the family’s “happy party wine.” They also rent out three guesthouses. The rooms, which start at $168 a night, aren’t full of Frette linens and designer toiletries, but they’re homey and comfortable. To sit amid the wildflowers in the garden, sipping the Asseilys’ wine and contemplating the boats slipping by on the river is perhaps the perfect Bordeaux experience.
A room with a vineyard view
These 4 châteaus operate more as chambres d'hotes (the French equivalent of bed-and-breakfasts) rather than as full-service hotels: a morning meal is included, but don't expect next-day dry cleaning or daily yoga classes.
La Table de Beychevelle at Château Beychevelle. Doubles from $235; beychevelle.com
Château Pape Clément. Doubles from $290; bernard-magrez.com
Château Troplong Mondot/Les Belles Perdrix. Doubles from $218; chateau-troplong-mondot.com
Le Vieux Biac at Château Biac. Doubles from $168; chateaubiac.com
Not ready to book a flight? Here's how to get a taste of the château life anywhere.
2010 Amiral de Beychevelle ($50). Beychevelle's less pricey second wine offers a good sense of the château's style: black currant fruit, firm tannins, impressive focus.
2012 Château Pape Clément ($95). Smoky cherry and savory roasted notes, the classic signature of Pessac-Léognan reds, are in full evidence in this formidable wine.
2011 Mondot ($35). This affordable Troplong Mondot bottling offers rich Merlot fruit plus mocha notes at a third of the flagship wine price.
2011 Château Biac ($55). Despite crazy weather, Biac produced a spicy, finely tuned red from its Cadillac-Côtes de Bordeaux vineyards in 2011.