• Day25

    Entre Deux Mers - Bordeaux Wine Region I

    October 4, 2018 in France ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    I arrived back in Bordeaux as planned and navigated my way to Albert on the public transit system using bus and tram. The system is slick and in the late evening was virtually empty. I was anxious to see if all was well since we'd left the RV in a parking area with several warnings concerning parking there but my worry was for not. All was well and I found everything just as I'd left it.

    I woke the next day and quickly met a couple of the barge dwellers, the first of whom was totally rude to me - obviously not happy with me parking there. The second was initially upset also but when I explained the situation they became very friendly, told me I could stay as long as I wanted and use their barge name in case anyone questioned me! We are finding that a little French goes a LONG way here, and this is one example. Despite the invite though I decided I had better move, so in the afternoon I moved Albert back to the marina parking near the Mcdonalds which was a much better spot, close to Wifi and toilets and with a nice view of the marina.

    With the RV repositioned, my next task was to do some minor improvements including installing some blinds. As I've mentioned our RV didn't come fully equipped, and the privacy of blinds was something we both put as a top priority. Just as with anything in a foreign country, these small projects tend to take more time and effort. It just isn't as easy as heading down to your local Home Depot or Bunnings. After doing some searching online though I found something similar about 8 km away and set out on my bike.

    I purchased the necessary tools and materials, and found the perfect blinds that fit all the windows. As usual though, I needed 3 trips back to the store to get various tools, screws, drill bits and to exchange the blinds for different sizes. On the third trip I decided to take the RV because I'd had enough of the biking by that time! I finally finished the 'blind project' late in the evening, and decided to head to town to 'celebrate' a bit at the local 'craft beer festival'.

    I headed out by bike after reviewing the venues for the festival, and found a quaint bar in the centre of town that was hosting a 'tap takeover'. It was pretty full of lively beer drinkers and I enjoyed a couple of the offerings. But overall such an experience just isn't the same on your own, it is much better enjoyed in the company of friends and family. So I called it an early night and rode back through town to the marina. It was amazing how many people were out and about at midnight in the streets and along the paths. In Bordeaux the riverfront esplanade is a favourite hangout for the locals and that night was no exception - the bank was packed with young people enjoying libations and picnics.

    The next couple days were spent doing minor work on the RV during the day, exploring by bike and prepping for Gin's return. I managed to take in the Natural History and Maritime Museums as well as the "Cite du Vin" which stoked my interest in the wine regions of the area. I plotted out a plan for Gin's return to base and bike and stocked up the cupboards and fridge so we would be ready to go.

    An ongoing challenge in our type of RV living is with topping up the water and emptying the grey water tanks. Living on the boat we learned to conserve water but the RV carries only 1/6th of the water the boat did so it runs out fast! Even by myself after only a few days I was again running low, so this became a priority for us when Gin finally got back.

    Gin had a great time in Canada celebrating a friend's 50th birthday party, and arrived back happy but exhausted and jet-lagged. Due to the location of the Merignac airport on the other side of town, it was better for her to take transit than for me to pick her up, but I welcomed her 'home' with a nice meal of fresh fish and greens. We ate and got caught up on our adventures and plotted our strategy for the wine region biking in the coming days before hitting the bed early.

    Having covered a good part of Bordeaux city we were ready to head out to the wine regions and the following day we finished up our provisioning, got water, dumped the grey water tank and filled up our propane tanks. We finally got all our parts for the BBQ so we needed both tanks to have LPG in them to use that and we were anxious to try it out at our next stop. We have been extremely happy with our 'upgrades' on the RV, none more than the 'dual' LPG tank system and external 'fill' that allows us to refill at service stations rather than doing bottle exchanges. This allows us to easily top up the system and we have adapters for all the countries of Europe so this will work everywhere we go. Without it we would need to discard the bottles in every new country!

    Full of provisions and fluids we negotiated our way through the narrow streets and accross the Garonne river to Creon, a small village in the 'Entre Deux Mers' wine region that was recommended to us by the tourist information centre. We found a good spot right by the bike path and walked into the city to explore. Unfortunately, Creon was a big disappointment - other than a Medieval church and town square there was very little there and what was there was closed for the season. We did find a nice cheese shop and purchased some local delicacies and a bottle of regional wine for our cocktail hour. With nothing really to see around Creon we decided to press on to another location for our wine touring.

    The tourist office produces a wine touring map for cyclists that has about 10-15 different wine 'routes' on it. Each one explores different areas, attractions and 'terroirs' which are outlined on the map. Another interesting thing is that many of the wineries allow RV's to stay on their properties, often for free, in order to encourage visitors and sales from their shops. The tourist office publishes a list of these 'Chateaux' and we chose one adjacent to the route that we wanted to stay at near the small town of 'Haux'. After the night at the camping spot in Creon we set off early and arrived at our chosen location just before 10 AM.

    At Chateau Peneau we were met by a friendly lady who directed us to our parking area and offered us a tasting. The 'cost' of the camping was that we were expected to buy a bottle of wine from the shop, which given that the prices ranged from 4.80 Euro to 10 Euro seemed a right bargain to us. Although it seemed a bit early we obliged her with a tasting and purchased a nice bottle to enjoy later. Then we set the RV up adjacent to the vines near the chateaux and readied the bikes for the day's riding.

    We spent the day riding the wine route as published in the map. The weather continued to be perfect and we meandered amongst the villages and terroirs, stopping at the Medieval town of Rion, riding along the Garonne to Cadillac and then back around to our RV at Haux. We've been to many wine regions in the world over the years, but it seems like the tasting experience hasn't really caught on in Bordeaux just yet, at least in this particular area. Most of the wineries have a sign directing bikers and tourists to the shops, but the 'tasting rooms' themselves are usually an afterthought to the main operations. Unlike in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US that we've experienced where entire buildings have been built to cater to the tasting and sale of wines on site. Regardless, we were always warmly welcomed, particularly by the Richardsons who recently purchased, renovated and took over operations of Chateau Amanieu d'Albret winery near Haux - realizing their lifelong dream. Nearing the end of our tour we pulled in here randomly and enjoyed an amazing personalized tasting and tour of the winery as well as some history of the property where grapes were first planted by the Romans and taken over in 1228 by Sir Amanieu VII. We received a great lesson on Bordeaux wines and in particular the many nuances of bottling and labeling that have confused us for many years. We were taught that 'Bordeaux Superieur' had a particular legal meaning - concerning the density of the vines (a quality indicator), the harvest, production and quality control (at least a year in the bottle before commercialization), and was a good initial indicator for the uninformed. We also learned that 'Mis en bouteille a Chateau' meant that the quality of the wine was deemed sufficient to not be mass produced, mixed and transported for 'table wine' all over Europe - rather, it was bottled on site in smaller quantities and sold at more premium prices. We were surprised to note the pricing was very consistent across all the wineries - with very few offerings above the 15 Euro price point and most between 5 and 10 Euro, which we considered very cheap based on our experiences elsewhere in the world. Also, we were informed that the wineries don't adjust their prices according to the quality of the vintage, only on a cost basis initially, and only after several years of ageing does the value of the wine (and thus the price) go up following further analysis. In this way you might end up with a very good bargain by buying a young wine should its character develop favourably over the years. We also found out that the 'new oak' barrels used are in a particular 'Bordeaux' style - with 6 rings vs. 8 for example in Burgundy - and cost about 800 Euros new. These barrels can be used for 3-4 years for ageing wines and then need to be disposed of as they add no value to the wine after that time. We tasted 'oaked' and 'unoaked' wines and much preferred the former which was more to our palate probably based mainly on our experiences in Australia. We also discovered that many more white wines are produced in Bordeaux than we thought, and the Sauvignon Blancs we tried were much drier than those we were used to in Hawkes Bay, though they were still very good on this hot and dusty day! We finished up our 50km ride with a cheese plate and glass of wine overlooking the vines back at the RV, where we BBQ'd fresh organic salmon for dinner and slept amongst the grapes on a perfect, peaceful evening.

    From Chateau Panneau we moved to another of the bike routes at Domaine du Cheval Blanc. After a slow morning we arrived at 11AM to find the friendly proprietor - the 11th generation at this terroir - tending to his harvesting duties. He showed us around and invited us in for a tasting which we of course obliged. This parking area was even better, with a toilet, (hot water) shower and even free electrical plug in for the RV! The wine was good as well and we bought three bottles after trying everything on offer, and it wasn't until after lunch we finally got on the bikes for 'round two' of Entre Les Deux Mers region exploration.

    Day two proved much more difficult on the bikes but no less enjoyable. The reason was it was much hillier than day one and we were constantly going up and down, so our 40KM ride seemed much more difficult than 50KM had been the day before. Nonetheless we found some great hidden gems, picnic lunched in the Medieval town of Saint-Macare and took in the sweeping views from the elevated town of Semens above the Garonne river. Our tasting was done at Chateau Garbes-Cabanieu near Monprimblanc before returning to Cheval Blanc for another stay in the vines for the night. We had planned a third day but after some more research we decided to carry on and spend an extra day in the more renown 'Medoc' region further north, where red wines are more prevalent and there is much to see and explore. Conscious of my looming return to work and the cooling weather thought it better to hit the Arcachon region before too much time had passed.

    We set out early and took the back roads out to the coast, where the basin of Arcachon awaited us. The back roads brought us through the small towns and villages which was enjoyable enough but the driving is quite stressful because the roads are narrow so there is very little room to maneuver when the big trucks pass in the opposite direction. We came across many hunting parties along the fields, where the hunters released their dogs and waited by the road for the inevitable results. We were surprised that they were able to shoot shotguns so close to the road!

    We eventually found our way to the basin and the quaint fishing town of Arcachon. Established by Napoleon in 1875 this 'new' city was established as a fishing village and blossomed when steam overtook sail and rowing - because the fishing boats could get across and back from the open Atlantic much more easily and safely over the large sand bar that fronts the entrance to the basin. The entire basin is a mariners and fisherman's paradise, and we marvelled at the boats returning from fishing with many fish on the deck, the sailing club racing and the myriad of shops and chandlers all supporting the thriving boating and fishing scene. After hitting the TI we parked near the center and walking up and down the waterfront searching for a good place to park for the night. We've found there is really no advantage at all the paying for parking at an Aire or official camping spot, since particularly now in the shoulder season there are great places to park for free that keep us away from the sterile and unfriendly 'RV scene' we've encountered in the RV parks. We enjoyed an ice cream and walk along the shopping street, out to the pier and around the marina, where we found a perfect place to park for the night right on the beach with free wifi and public toilets nearby.

    The weather turned against us and has been raining and cool the last couple days, so we have been less active outdoors. We ate our dinner at 'The Pitt', which consisted of fresh oysters, cockles and prawns - accompanied by canned pig lard, bread and jarred sauces. When Gin enquired about fries or salad she was told 'no' only seafood! This restaurant was an example of the power of social media. It came highly recommended with 5 star ratings, but these obviously came from the friends of the 8 'co-proprietors' because although the oysters and cockles were fresh, there was nothing we had that could not be purchased at the fish market and grocery store on our own - nothing was prepared and nothing was cooked! We paid 11 Euro for a can of sardines that literally came on the plate with the can overturned on top of it! Again reinforcing for us that we are generally better to cook ourselves and not always trust 'reviews' even on generally trusted sites like Tripadvisor, particularly when those reviews are in English!

    We passed a stormy night on the point at the marina, with the RV swaying back and forth and the wind and rain lashing us all night. The rain continued in the morning and we decided to check into visiting a spa. We found out there was an 'open house' that day and got 50% off the entry so we took advantage of that. The spa was not well done overall but the salt water pool, steam sauna and a hot water massage bath were very welcome after the chilly night in the storm! Plus we both had an unlimited hot water shower so were feeling pretty good by the end of that!

    We capped the day off with a visit to the largest sand dune in Europe - the 115m tall Dune de Piyat. At first we didn't think much of this site but when we arrived we were truly impressed with the scope of this thing. It is more than 3km long and is gradually eating away the pine forest as it grows eastward pushed by the relentless Atlantic wind. We hiked up the dune for a spectacular view, with the stormy conditions making for a blustery end to our day and making our hot showers seem far away.

    We are now making our way around the Arcachon basin, up the coast and back inland toward the Garonne where we will stop in the Medoc wine region for a couple more days of biking and tasting (weather permitting!) before heading back south to Bordeaux and down towards San Sebastien in Spain where I will head off to work. Gin will carry on to Bilbao and then fly to the west to complete some of the Camino de Santiago trail before we meet up again in San Sebastien in a few weeks' time.

    Until then.

    Derek and Ginette
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