Make no mistake: Bordeaux is not Napa Valley. Though the French wine country’s legendary châteaux are increasingly rolling out the welcome mat for visitors, many of the region’s most highly regarded labels only open their doors for a select few. Enter Mary Dardenne, whose Decanter Tours holds the key to tastings at elusive wineries like Châteaux Latour and Lafite Rothschild. Here, she takes us inside Bordeaux’s best.
How do you decipher the different crus?
There are huge contrasts in Bordeaux. Most visitors don’t realize that only five percent of the thousands of properties in the region are classified as premium châteaux. The rest are attainable, affordable, and accessible. Visitors often remark that they are surprised at the diversity in Bordeaux—not only of the soils and grape varieties, but also of the wine styles, types of people, and châteaux.
What’s the best strategy for experiencing that large diversity?
We try to plan a mix of bling châteaux—like Pavie or Mouton [Rothschild]—and family-owned châteaux. We also suggest visits [that] are exceptional and surprising, like Lamothe Bergeron, a château that most people may not have heard of but that offers a unique tour.
How do we get into the grand crus?
We have access to all the most famous wineries, but I would caution a word of advice: Plan at least six months in advance. Most of the top properties are not in the tourism business and generally only offer one or two visits per day.
Which winery is a must-see right now?
Château Sigalas Rabaud, the smallest first classified growth in Sauternes. It has a new terrace where you can enjoy an aperitif with views over the vines, and you’ll likely be welcomed personally by a member of the family—perhaps even the Count of Sigalas himself. What are the best châteaux for a meal? In the Medoc, I like to have lunch at Château Pichon Longueville Baron; it’s very exclusive and just what one expects of a château experience. We also offer a picnic on Saturdays at Château La Croizille in Saint-Émilion for a more informal experience. The château is located on a hillside with plunging views, and we have a picnic table amongst the vines.