Home of the great sweet whites - dry whites and reds too
By Jane Anson
This Guide was last updated on 11 May 2010
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Harvesting in the vineyards of Château Suduiraut in Sauternes with Château d'Yquem in the distance. ©Mick Rock/Cephas
These two regions lie to the southwest of the city and were the site of some of the earliest vines in Bordeaux, dating back over 2,000 years. Today, there are still plenty of Gallo-Roman remains to explore, alongside other, more recent national treasures such as Château de La Brède, where the philosopher Montesquieu lived and worked. The northern section of Graves, which owes its name to big gravel stones which store the heat of the sun and help ripen the grapes, is called Pessac-Léognan and is treated separately in these guides. But there are plenty of excellent châteaux in this southern section, many making a high proportion of white wine as well as red, and offering serious interest to the gourmet food-and-wine traveller.
Sauternes seems surprisingly little visited. In 1855, it was the only place other than the Médoc and Haut-Brion to be recognised in the ranking of Grand Cru Classés. Even today, it is stacked with stately châteaux obviously built with serious money. Don’t be fooled though – Sauternes is an expensive wine to make and there may well be a fair amount of peeling paint behind the wrought iron gates. This is because this famous sweet wine comes from grapes that always have very low yields, can only be picked by hand,and have uncertain volumes from one year to the next. This makes the production cost per bottle several times higher than in any other appellation. But for the visitor, it's an attractive landscape of gentle slopes, endless vines, and good opportunities for picnics along the Ciron River - the same river that creates the microclimate responsible for noble rot.
This micro-region covers the area on the left bank of the Garonne River from La Brède and St-Médard d’Eyrans down to just south of Langon, bordered on the west by the Landes pine forest. It has a mild maritime climate influenced by the Gulf Stream and the river with only occasional spring frost. There is plenty of rainfall coming in from the Atlantic falling mainly in the spring. Summers are usually dry and hot with good weather often extending into autumn, although rain can be a threat to the harvest.
Here the terrain comprises well-drained gravelly slopes with more sand than in Pessac-Léognan. Further south, the Sauternes and Barsac vineyards lie around the valley formed by the Ciron, a tributary of the Garonne. Autumn sunshine combines with the morning mists rising from the Ciron to provide ideal conditions for botrytis to form. The Sauternes soils consist of clay, limestone and chalk under gravel; the best vineyards are on gravel slopes. Less hilly than Sauternes, the soils are more alluvial in Barsac.
Southern Graves is located between the left bank of the Garonne and south of Bordeaux. The fastest route from Paris, by car, is to take the A10 which takes you straight to Bordeaux. To reach southern Graves you continue on the ring-road heading south and circle around the city centre. From the ring-road take the A62 heading south and take either exit 2 or exit 3 at Langon. By train, the TGV Atlantique service will get you to Bordeaux in less than three hours from Paris, five hours from Lille and seven from Brussels. From Bordeaux there are local train services to the region on the Bordeaux/Toulouse and Bordeaux/Agen line. The closest airport is found at Bordeaux-Mérignac.
La Maison du Sauternes,
Place de la Mairie, 33210 Sauternes
Tel: 05 56 76 69 83
La Maison des Vins de Graves,
61 Cours du Marèchal-Foch, 33720 Podensac
Maison du Vin de Barsac,
Place de l’Eglise, 33720 Barsac
Langon Tourist Office,
11 Allée Jean-Jaurès, 33210 Langon
Tel: 05 56 63 68 00
Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vins de Bordeaux (CIVB),
1 Cours du XXX Juillet, 33000 Bordeaux
Tel: 05 56 00 22 66
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