En route to the city of Bordeaux from Bergerac, France, where Belingard is located, is the impeccably preserved medieval town of St. Emilion. Its winding, cobblestone streets are lined with expensive wine shops, all touting “worldwideshipping” in English and Japanese. Here you can descend into the cramped hermitage where the monk, Emilion, received pilgrims in the 8th century. The disciples who followed Emilion herewere the ones who started a wine trade in earnest.
At Chateau Franc Mayne, a nearby vineyard, it’s possible to tour the former limestone quarries whose pale ochre innards were used to build the town. The quarries beneath this and many other St. Emilion chateaux are now wine caves-happily, they possess the perfect conditions for aging wine in oak barrels. A tour guide points out a skylight punched into the roof of Franc Mayne’s cave. It shows the cross-section of limestone that gives St. Emilion’s mostly merlot and cabernet franc grapes their character, along with the stories of Roman poets and monks and queens, of course.
In Bordeaux, the busy Place de la Comedie is the city’s social center. Mayor Alain Juppe launched an aggressive clean-up and modernization initiative when he was elected in 1995, and today the city is an obvious “after.” A sleek tram makes it easy to get around, and the bulk of 8th century facades have been sandblasted to remove centuries of built-up dust and grime from the porous yellow limestone. The broad avenues gleam, and the tiny squares at the ends of the St. Pierre quarter’s narrow streets are packed with students, young couples and families, caffeinating, kissing and splashing in fountains.
On the banks of the Garonne River, many plaques advertise the offices of negociants, or wine merchants. Negociants have been trading from this port since the mid-r2th century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henryof Plantagenet, the future Henry II of England, which led to many trade exchanges between Bordeaux and England and the golden age of claret.
That tidbit is imparted duringatwo-day course called “Bordeaux Wine Tasting, from A to Z” at L’Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux, a few blocks from the Regent Grand Hotel. After this crash course in a classroom with white-slab countertops and chrome spit-sinks, it’s practically required to apply the new knowledge downstairs at the posh Le Bar a Vin. More than go wines by the glass are available, and little foldout maps on each table pinpoint where each wine originated. The servers are well equipped to steer people toward clarity when the breadth of choices becomes overwhelming.