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The Graves is known as the ‘cradle’ of fine Bordeaux. It is an historic region, with vineyards and chateaux dating back to the middle Ages. In the 17th century they began making ‘The New French Claret’ here, which would come to define the style of red Bordeaux. Known for the quality of both its red and white wines, Graves is the only Bordeaux region that has a classification for its dry white as well as its red wines. Since 1987, the Graves has been divided into two appellations: Graves to the south and Pessac-Léognan to the north.
The diversity of soils here supports a range of grape varieties; layers of gravel (Graves is French for gravel) brought by the Garonne River, interspersed with clay washed down by smaller rivers and streams allow both Cabernet and Merlot to flourish alongside the white Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Red Graves are blended to give wines that enjoy the structure and elegance of Cabernet and the accessible fruitiness and early drinking potential of Merlot. The whites are a blend of Sauvignon Blanc for freshness and aromatic complexity with the rich and smooth weight of Semillon.
These wines have too often been over-shadowed by the reputation of their Medoc neighbours to the north, consequently they remain excellent value, accessible both in style and price – what is there not to like?
To the south of this appellation you will find the famous sweet white wines of Sauternes, Barsac and Cérons, made from the same grape varieties as the dry whites. Here, in this South Western corner of the region, a small cool river, the Ciron, runs through the Landes Forest and flows into the Garonne River. In late summer and autumn, when this cool water meets the warmer Garonne River, morning mists rise, encouraging mould to grow on the ripe grapes. In the right climatic conditions, Botrytis Cinera or Noble Rot develops, naturally concentrating the grape sugars giving the raw material for wine makers to create the great sweet wines of Bordeaux. The 1855 Bordeaux classification included these Sauternes and Barsac wines, enhancing their reputation for excellence.
Graves and Sauternes is the perfect wine playground to discover the diversity that Bordeaux has to offer: sweet and dry white wines, red wines, beautiful landscapes and historic properties offering a warm welcome. Discovering this region has never been easier thanks to 'La Route des Vins de Bordeaux en Graves et Sauternes', a website that brings all this together in one place. There is even a page dedicated to Best Of Wine Tourism winners with information about when they are open and the different tastings, tours and activities you can enjoy at each one. The on-line map clearly shows where they are in relation to each other, so you can plan your Wine Trail. There are also hotels and bed and breakfasts tucked away in the vines and of course you can enjoy the gastronomy alongside the wine. If you can't decide where to go the tourist office will put together a complete package for you - all you have to do is turn up.
To get you started here are some suggestions for your Graves and Sauternes Wine Tour. Head south from Bordeaux, you might be surprized how close the vines are to the city centre. Your first stop will be in Pessac Léognan, where you will find the classified growths of the Graves. Start with a visit to family owned and run Chateau Carbonnieux, one of Bordeaux's oldest properties, founded in the thirteenth century by the Benedictine monks. Then call in to the beautiful 16th century Château Bouscaut.
Not all the Pessac Léognan vineyards were included in the classification, so make sure you make time for properties outside the classification too such as Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, tucked away in the rolling outcrops of vines near Léognan and Château de Rouillac, once owned by the Baron Haussman, where you can discover the vineyards in a horse-drawn carriage.
There's a lot to see, so you may need a little refreshment. No problem, call in for lunch at Le Manège Restaurant of Château Léognan. You can also stay the night here or at Château Le Pape a beautiful, recently renovated château hidden away in the vines with just five guest rooms, its own pool and terrace.
Once refreshed you can start the next day by heading south again. If you are visiting in autumn, make it early enough to see the famous morning mists - but don't get lost in them!
Leaving Pessac Léognan follow the Garonne River south. Call in at Château de Portets. This fortified castle with its Renaissance facade and 14th century Tour de Gascq has spectacular views of the Garonne River across its park of century old trees.
Today relax for lunch with a picnic. There are lots of picnic stops along the river from the Port of Portets or the Port of Barsac, but I advise calling in at Château de Cérons. This historical monument is built on gravel terrace next to a 12th century church by the Garonne. Here, after a visit of the beautiful interior of the chateau and a tasting of the red, white and the sweet Cérons wines, you can linger in the park under the shade of the trees for a bucolic picnic chosen from the regional specialities on offer in the château boutique.
For the more adventurous head to Château Rayne Vigneau where you can don a harness and hoist yourself up a 200-year-old Cedar tree. Here you can sip your wine seated at a suspended table high above the vines. Or you can get up close and personal with the terroir on a horse-back tour through the different soils that make up this beautiful region. Return to the chateau to blend your very own wine from the individual grape varieties that make this famous wine.
You will have worked up an appetite after all this activity, so head to Château Guiraud. This first growth of Sauternes is organic and biodynamic; as well as discovering the wine you can learn what goes into making an eco-responsible wine. Finish your Graves and Sauternes tour with dinner at La Chapelle de Guiraud, a beautiful restaurant in the recently renovated chapel of the property. Choose from a by-the-glass list of wines from the region and reminisce about your Graves and Sauternes adventure.
Top Photo credits: Route des Vins en Graves et Sauternes