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by Wendy Narby
It's not really that surprising that Chateau Lynch Bages was announced as Best of Wine Tourism Grand prizewinner for France, despite the stiff competition. The owner, Jean-Michel Cazes, has been welcoming visitors to his family estate ever since he took over in 1975. He was a pioneer of wine tourism - long before the phrase was invented.
His inspiration was for people to meet the wine maker behind the label. A quick anecdote; in 1979 Guy Stout, now a leading Master Sommelier from Texas, was visiting Bordeaux for the first time, a young man just starting out in wine. He had bussed up from Bordeaux city and was hitch hiking around the classified growths of Paulliac. Jean-Michel took pity on him and lent him the winery car so he could get around - their only connection being Texas - Jean-Michel had lived and studied there. This typical generosity goes a long way to explain the continuous success and reputation of the wines of Chateau Lynch Bages that he jokingly refers to as ‘lunch bags’ and the warm welcome visitors still receive at the hands of his team today.
This desire to share was behind the opening of the Chateau Cordeillan Bages hotel in 1989. The tiny 2ha vineyard next to Chateau Lynch Bages, has an elegant 19th century 'Chatreuse House', which became a Relais and Chateau in 1992. As well as 28 rooms, Chateau Cordeillan Bages boasts a 2 star Michelin restaurant. I remember when the young chef Jean Luc Rochas took over the kitchens from the innovative Thierry Marx in 2002. He kept the 2 stars - no mean feat - and then went on to become a MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) in 2007.
The façade at Chateau Cordeillan-Bages
Chateau Lynch Bages is a classified growth, a member of an elite club of 61 red and 27 white properties, all classed together as the elite of Bordeaux in 1855 to be showcased at Napoleon III’s Universal Exhibition in Paris. Prestigious yes but like the owner very accessible; open 7 days a week with visits in 3 languages including the cellars dating back to the 1850s.
It is at the centre of Bages, once a derelict hamlet on the edge of Pauillac, which is now a destination. In 2003 Jean-Michel opened a bakery, the heart of any French village. This was followed in 2008 by the bistro restaurant ‘Café la Vinal’ which is now frequented not just by thirsty tourists but the local community - you will always find a few wine makers and vineyard owners there for lunch. Now there is the ‘Bages Bazaar’ selling wine, of course, but also an eclectic selection of ‘arts de la table’, a wine school, a cooking school, a grocery and a bike rental – to work off the calories cycling around the vineyard.
the terrace at Café Lavinal
The family also owns Chateau Ormes de Pez in the neighbouring appellation of Saint Estèphe - with guest rooms and the possibility of renting the entire building should you wish to experience the full French Chateau Lifestyle.
Wine, gastronomy are the unifying themes which explains its subsequent expansion into Lynch Bages et Compagnie in 2010, regrouping all these activities. It is Lynch Bages & Cie that was awarded the prestigious Best of Wine Tourism award for Services.
You would expect an excellent concierge service in a Relais Chateau hotel, and with all they have to offer, they could keep everything in house, their philosophy is to act as an open door to the region. Enticing people up an hour north of Bordeaux city to the very heart of the left bank and then sharing with them a myriad of activities. They work in close collaboration with neighbouring vineyards including organising appointments with other chateaux but also cycling tours, on horse drawn carriages or even hot air balloons and helicopters.
Jean-Michel wanted it to be a democratic and a hands-on experience. Yes stars may fly in with their helicopters but the 2* 3 course Michelin lunch menu starts at 45 euros, just 60 if you include wines and coffee and the Café la Vinal menus (also created and overseen by Jean-Luc) start at €11.50 a head. Hands on? You can learn about the wine at the wine school but also take a cooking class with Chef Jean-Luc Rochas in the kitchens of the hotel or dine at his chef’s table to get a front row experience. Want to try your hand at wine making? You can do that too, at Vine where you can make your own Bordeaux blend from selected plots of grapes in the region, labelled and bottled under your signature with a bit of help from team from next to the cellars of the chateau.
Or you could of course just dine amongst the vines, soak up the sun by the pool and sip on your glass of Chateau Lynch Bages - welcome to the Medoc way of life.
Enjoying a cooking course