(the closest we got was this picture from our bus)



  The world of visiting wineries in France is pretty much divided into 2 categories - Bordeaux and the rest of France. In Bordeaux, I don't know if every winery is called a chateau but it seems that way, although there are places called chateaux which look like old ramshackle farmhouses. Most of the chateaux will accommodate visitors, although a reservation is required. I selected the chateaux I wanted to visit and wrote to each via email.  I received a response from almost all of them, although many of the responses came after many days.  All the chateaux in Bordeaux charge a fee of 5 to 10 Euros per person for a guided tour and a tasting of 2 or 3 vintages, and this is a good thing for both sides. It relieves the chateaux of the problem of being overwhelmed by visitors who are only vaguely interested in wine, and it relieves the visitor from the feeling that a purchase is required. It makes both sides feel more comfortable.

I had read that at Bordeaux chateaux, wine is not sold on the premises. I found this to be mostly not true, although I assume it may still be true in the largest and most prestigious of the chateaux. We didn't visit Chateau Latour, or Petrus or Lafite Rothschild. At the chateaux we visited, there was either a gift/souvenir shop or it was possible to buy whatever wine we wanted.  
As far as attire is concerned when visiting chateaux, "neat and clean" is enough. You are not going to meet the Queen, or even the chateau owners (not in Bordeaux anyway). Most of the chateaux have PR people on the payroll who handle the tours and visits. Usually they are young (pretty) girls, although we did run into one very tall handsome male guide.  This is not true outside of Bordeaux, where for the most part, we were greeted and guided by the winery owners or senior personnel. We visited Bergerac, (an exception to this rule), Cahors, and Gaillac on this trip and very much enjoyed the visits in these smaller appellations.  In Bergerac, we visited Chateau Monbazillac,  which is a major local industry, as it includes a full tour of the very impressive chateau and then tasting and buying in the gigantic chateau gift shop. Also, outside of Bordeaux, not every winery is a chateau. Smaller ones may be called "domaine" and even smaller ones may be found which  aren't called anything.

For those not inclined to make their own arrangements for visiting wineries in Bordeaux, there are dozens of companies and private guides waiting to take you on a tour including pre-arranged visits to chateaux. These tours range from one day trips from your hotel, to several days including overnights and opulent dinners in one or more chateaux. There are too many to list here, but a search on Google will provide you with plenty of offers.   
  Below is a capsule description of the various chateaux, including the ones we visited in the framework of the Grand Cru Weekend.  
  CHATEAU BRAINAIRE-DUCRU                     (St-Julien)              
  The origin of the Branaire-Ducru vineyards may be traced back to the 17th century, when they were once part of the estate at Chateau Beychevelle. The owner of Beychevelle, Bernard de Valette, the Duc d'Epernon, left behind a string of unpaid bills when he died in 1642. In order to meet the demands of his creditors, Beychevelle was sold off, leading to the parcellation of the estate. The chateau and some of the vineyards were regrouped by subsequent owners, but part of the estate, purchased by Jean-Baptiste Braneyre in 1680, was destined to become what we know today as Branaire-Ducru.
Chateau Branaire-Ducru is tucked away in the south-eastern most part of the
St Julien appellation, close neighbours being Beychevelle, which lies between Branaire-Ducru and the Gironde, and Chateau St Pierre. The vineyards run west-east in several plots close to the chateau, over typical Médoc terroir of alluvial gravels. There are 50 hectares in all, planted with 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot and just 4% Petit Verdot, with an average age approaching 40 years, although there are many vines approaching a century. The harvest is manual, and fermentation takes place in a modern, well-equipped cellar. This is where we had our lovely dinner on the Saturday night of the Grand Cru Weekend.
To the right is a picture of Alisa, Paulo and Rebecca outside the chateau.


  CHATEAU LYNCH-BAGES                          (Pauillac)  


If you have time for only one visit in the Medoc, many think that this chateau is the one to visit. In 2007, John Michel Cazes handed over the day to day running of the chateau to his son Jean-Charles, who has continued a tradition of warmly welcoming visitors. The chateau is immaculately maintained, both inside and out and there are often art exhibits and a permanent collection of traditional wine making equipment which looks especially interesting when set against the modern equipment nearby.  The tiny village stores of Bages are right outside when you leave the chateau.
We were on a bus tour with 25 other people, but the tour was friendly and professionally done


  CHATEAU KIRWAN                                      (Margaux, village of Cantenac)  


Kirwan is a perfect combination of a stately chateau, a third growth wine that is still affordable to mere mortals, and a warm welcome by the chateau owners. The very un-French name comes from Irishman Mark Kirwan who owned the place in the 18th century and who numbered among his guests Thomas Jefferson who had visited several times. Kirwan offers picnics on the ground including a full rug, wicker basket, cheese, ham, bread, and wine experience, and our sit-down lunch here was very nice.
We were guided by one of the owners, Ms Schyler, who was both elegant, and patient and in addition, spoke excellent English.
The 37-hectare vineyards are planted 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Petit Verdut. The soils are sandy and gravelly. The average age of the vines is 30 years.

  CHATEAU PRIEURE-LICHINE                     (Margaux)  
  Château Prieuré-Lichine, a large Cru Classé Margaux estate, is one of the most fragmented in the Médoc with as many as 40 separate parcels of vines scattered throughout the Margaux appellation. Prieuré-Lichine was purchased in 1951 by the great Bordeaux visionary Alexis Lichine who improved the quality of the wines through investing heavily in new vineyards and by modernizing the vinification techniques. He died in 1989 and the estate is now run by his son Sacha, with guru oenologist Michel Rolland acting as consultant.
Prieuré-Lichine has 68 hectares of vineyards and the wine is typically a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. It is matured in oak barrels (40% new) for 18 months.


  CHATEAU DE LA RIVIERE                     (between Libourne & St-Emilion)  


A very impressive set up for visitors, with 50 hectares that make it easily the largest estate in the Fronsac appellation, with large grounds for strolling around. Some of the vines here are over 80 years old, which sadly is practically unheard of in Bordeaux today, and others stand just a few meters from the river Dordogne, protecting them from winter frosts. Unusual also for the Right Bank, there is a relatively high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the wine, up to 13%, giving it structure and good ageing potential. The château itself is no less impressive, from the wrought iron gates to the underground cellars that are some of the biggest in Bordeaux covering eight hectares. The chateau can trace its origins back to the 8th century and produces around  300,000 bottles.                          
  CHATEAU PETIT VILLAGE                    (between Libourne & St-Emilion)  


Not long ago, after 3 years of work, the Chateau Petit Village in Pomerol unveiled its sleek new winery and visitor center. For Pomerol, this really is a big deal, because today there are almost no wineries that are truly easy to visit, especially unannounced. This chateau is owned by AXA Millesimes (also owners of Chateau Pichon Baron in Pauillac and Chateau Suduiraut in Sauternes), and run by Christian Seely and technical director Daniel Llose.
Many of the ideas for the architecture came from Rioja, where architecture in the wineries has been taken to an art form. The new tanks are all made from cement, which are seeing a return to popularity in Bordeaux, after years when they were taken out to make way for stainless steel. Of course, this being Petit Village, the cement tanks here are entirely black and look like art installations.

Its success is due to its highly unique soil. Clay helps provide regular nourishment to the vines, and gravel gives the wine finesse. Iron oxide and mineral salts present in the sub-soil also contribute towards the wine's special character. The wine of Petit-Village is smooth, powerful and flavorsome.



CHATEAU FIGEAC                                 (4 KM west of St-Emilion)


Figeac is a very ancient estate, going back at least as far as the 2nd century AD, during the Gallo-Roman period, when a certain Figeacus gave his name to a villa he built on this location. The site has been continually inhabited ever since then, as proved by vestiges: a water-supply system dating from the Gallo-Roman period, foundations of buildings from the Middle Ages with defensive walls, and the remains of a Renaissance chateau reflected in the present-day chateau's great door and tower.
Figeac has belonged to the same family for more than 500 years, and was nearly 200 hectares by the late 18th century. Unfortunately, the estate was sold a number of times in the 19th century. Successive owners sold numerous plots, which explains the birth of various chateaux that appended the name Figeac to their own. Figeac continues to be the largest estate in the commune of Saint-Emilion, with 40 hectares of vines. The central part of the chateau, built in a very pure, classical architectural style, dates from the late 18th century


  CHATEAU MONBAZILLAC                    (5 KM south of Bergerac)  


There are many glorious chateaux in the Dordogne, most well established on the tourist trail. The Chateau de Monbazillac is not only off the beaten track, but is also responsible for one of the finest dessert wines in the country.

Built in the 16th century, the chateau, symmetrical and perfectly preserved, exhibits the classic French characteristics of soaring steep roofs and high dormer windows. It also boasts one of the finest restaurants in the country and a Wine Museum (Musée du Vin).

The modern Monbazillac cellars, responsible for a third of all recent and present-day Monbazillac vintages since 1960, are located 2km from the chateau. Monbazillac is made from a combination of Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle grapes. The sweet taste associated with the grapes is created by the encouragement of the Botritys Cinerea fungus responsible for "Noble Rot" that occurs in sufficiently humid conditions - the vines in the region are swamped in the mists that rise from the Dordogne river.
A visit to the chateau involves a full tour, and at the end, wine tasting at the chateau store, a place to purchase Monbazillac and other Bergerac wines, as well as many local Périgord gourmet products (foie gras and conserves, stuffed prunes and walnut oil), as well as fine delicacies and fine wines from other parts of France. 


CHATEAU LAGRÉZETTE                       (8 KM NW of Cahors in Caillac))


Known as the best undiscovered French wines is the appellation of Cahors, which has a history dating back to the Roman times. The key grape here is variously known as Auxerrois, Côt or Malbec, and legally must represent 70% of the blend – the balance is made up with Merlot, or less commonly Tannat. Historically, Cahors had a reputation for producing dark, heavy wines, which are known as “the black wine” that were often used to bolster less substantial wines from Bordeaux. Today, the traditional "black wine" is now rare, as wine-making methods have changed to produce a softer wine that is drinkable more quickly. About 30 million bottles are produced on 4200 HA.
To get a feel for Cahors wine, when you visit the Pont Valentre bridge, situated opposite the bridge is Lagrazette Cave (an outlet of Château Lagrézette). Here you will find reasonably priced Cahors wines at €6 a bottle alongside rare aged Cahors wines for up to €1600 a bottle.
Chateau Lagrazette became a national monument in 1982.



CHATEAUX DE MERCUES                  (19 KM north of Cahors in Mercues)



When Georges Vigouroux, winemaker in Cahors, acquired the Château de Mercuès in 1983, not only did he decide to turn it into one of the finest castles/hotels in France, but he also turned it into a prestigious wine estate with a 32 hectares vineyard and an underground winery and ageing cellar under the castle’s terrace.
The first grapes were harvested in the autumn of 1987. Since that year, each vintage has contributed to make Château de Mercuès famous worldwide as a flagship of the Malbec grape and a great vineyard of the Cahors Appellation, and member of the exclusive “Grands Vins Seigneurs” Association. 
Chateau Haut-Serre, which is located about 15 KM south of Cahors near  Cieurac, is also owned by the George Vigouroux family.
This is the chateau we didn't visit.

  DOMAINE DE PIALENTOU                   (just south of Gaillac in Brens)  

This winery is a modest family owned affair, located just a few KM from the town of Gaillac in the village of Brens. On the local pebble and gravel slopes, the vines benefit from exceptional exposure to the sun. Since October 1998, the Domaine has been the property of Jean and Kai Gervais. They immediately threw themselves into a large-scale vineyard and winery modernization program with the single aim of bringing out the excellent ageing qualities of the wines of the estate, whilst preserving all their charm and personality.
We found the domaine's reds and whites to be remarkably tasty and drinkable. The reds have a brilliant garnet-red color, with lots of fruit and aromas (blackberry and spices) and very well-balanced tannins. The white we tasted was rounded and balanced, with a bouquet of flowers and fresh fruit. We bought several bottles even though we had no more space in our suitcases. They make a rosè as well, although we didn't taste it. Excellent value for money here. They produce about 55,000 bottles annually.



CHATEAU LASTOURS                      (west of Gaillac near Lisle-sur-Tarn)



With a long driveway lined with plane trees and a majestic approach, the Chateau Lastours immediately breathes of art de vivre. An old estate of the 18th century, the owners, the Faramond family, offer their visitors an experience that is both historical and oenological.
Tours of the winery, informative wine tastings, historical commentary on the estate, the gardens and the dovecote; these are all the ingredients for a very pleasant visit in a beautiful and authentic setting. Our tour was conducted by owner Hubert, who was very entertaining and cordial. We bought wine here too. 
The vineyard stretches out around the winery, covering forty hectares of gravelly lands, which lend the wines their refinement and make them ideally suited for aging.




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Enjoy your next trip!!                         ~Steve & Alisa~