Birthday Bash in Beautiful Bordeaux!

9 February, 2011

Well happy 2011!

To make up for a lack of blogging last year, I promised myself that this year I would blog every adventure that we go on.

So here goes…

As most of you know, January 20th is Cath’s birthday, so we try and have a mini adventure to celebrate her big day.

This year we decided to go to Bordeaux France, to see what its all about.

As a kid, Bordeaux seemed to be a very exotic place, where cheese eating, striped top wearing bicycle riding French people living in giant chateaux making garlic necklaces and the most expensive wine in the world. I definitely hadn’t ever seen or drunk any of this famous stuff, and I didn’t know what “Bordeaux” was, or why it was so special, but probably thanks to the movies and British TV shows, i knew it just was!!!

But then after cutting our teeth on new world wines in Australia and New Zealand (and a glass or two of Brasilian wine to give us some perspective), and nearly 8 years living in England , we did get to drink some Bordeaux wines, and after the easy drinking, bold flavours of the new world wines, there really wasn’t enough (to my uneducated palate) to make me bother with Bordeaux wines, but with prices so high, and all the hoopla that goes with great bordeaux we thought we should go and check it out.

Now first for those who haven’t visited some background on Bordeaux:

Bordeaux is here:

They have been growing wine in Bordeaux since the about 48AD, and the English liked the wine (known as claret in England) so much that in the 12th century thanks to the marriage of Henry Plantagenet and Aleinor d’Aquitaine, the region became part of English territory and they established a free trade zone between England and Aquitaine!

There are 60 appellations that make up the region of Bordeaux, some of them (like Margaux and St Emiliion) are really no bigger than a standard kiwi farm, others like haut medoc are pretty decent sized. One of the chateaus we visited explained that 1 hectare of land in a good appellation planted with grapes generally sells for about €1,000,000!!!

The châteaux don’t actually sell their own wine, they sell all of their output to a “negociant” or wine merchant who then sells it on their behalf, this is believed to be why many chateaux still don’t sell any wine at their vineyard door, or in neighbouring shops or wine stores, one staff member told us that they don’t even know who their customers are, as they have no contact with them!

Bordeaux isn’t having an easy time at the moment, exports are falling (in 2004 sales to the USA fell 59% and in the UK, Australia has overtaken France as the largest importer), so they are trying to reduce the glut in Bordeaux, removing about 10% of the grapes to try and recover the price.

A traditional Bordeaux bottle doesn’t actually tell you what it contains, just the chateau that made it, the classification (ie how fancy it traditionally is) and the appellation (or region within Bordeaux) where it was grown, whether or not it was bottled at the chateaux (lots of chateau’s now share trailer based bottling plants, allowing them to share the bottling plant between their chateau’s)!!!, and the vintage.  It is now believed that this complex naming convention is hurting their export sales as almost all of the rest of the world now gives the consumer what they want, the grape variety, the region and the year!

So i hear you scream!  “what is a Bordeaux wine?”

It’s normally a blend of at least a couple of the following varieties: Cab Sav, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.

* thanks wikipedia!!!

Whites are also grown in smaller amounts including Semillon, Sav Blanc and Muscadelle (generally blended to make a sauterne).

So armed with all small bit of knowledge we headed off for the weekend to Bordeaux, we flew into airport and picked up (very optimistically) a fiat 500 convertible  – hoping that we could get some cold crisp winter sunshine!

The first thing to realise is that its very different to visiting vineyards in the new world, first most of the chateaux* are closed for the winter, then they may only open on weekdays, not weekend, then if they are open (many don’t accept visitors), then if they do accept visitors, you need to book ahead, (our hostess told us of people who arrived 4 minutes late and were turned away)! Then once you get in the door, you cant just taste the wine, you need to do a tour first, as you can imagine the visible parts of the wine making process is exactly the same in every place, so after the first tour there isn’t much to keep up the interest up – except the wine at the end!! Even after you have tasted some of their wines, they may still not actually have any for sale, so if you liked it, you cant buy any at the cellar door, and the wine maker may not even be able to tell you where you could buy it, because they are not involved in the selling process – its an amazing set  up!

But I have to say our host’s at the chateaux we visited were all very accommodating and very well informed on their product, so they made the trip worthwhile. Plus even though it was the off season, we still ate at some amazing restaurants and set a new record for consuming foie gras three times in 48 hours!

* double thanks wikipedia for teaching me that chateaux is the plural of chateau!!!

So here are some snaps from our trip:


It was cold, clear and really really windy!

It’s a bit quiet around here (wandering around the village near Château Lynch Bages in the appellation Pauillac)

Really quiet around here!!

They really don’t make wine like this anymore, but stainless steel tanks don’t make such great photos..

Sadly they no longer press the grapes with their feet in these large trays either, they use a whiz bang motorized presses instead!

Barrels and barrels in the cellars – each one containing approximately 300 bottles of wine!

The biggest most beautiful chateau we saw, reminds me of the house i grew up in back in Nelson!

Us at Château Giscours in the appellation of Margaux – not only is this place stunningly beautiful, it has a cricket oval and really friendly staff!

French oak barrels, apparently american oak is not held in high regard here!

Our chateau for the weekend, Chateau Beau Jardin our hosts Jean and Michele were totally awesome!

Grapes growing, you can see nicely rounded river stones poking through the thin layer of soil…

Just in case you thought all the houses were grand chateaux, here is one very cute little cottage

But, some of the chateaux were truly amazing!

Winding our way through the villages of the left bank!


Thats all for now folks!


This is the end… the final days of our adventure!

28 August, 2009

So this is it, the final post on our adventures, we are now back in Sao Paulo, the last days were a bit more hectic, so here is where we went:

The 2,800km round trip

The trip looks pretty massive, and over three weeks it was quite a big drive, but i think its good to compare our drive, the whole of Brasil and the UK together to understand what a tiny piece of the country we actually covered in our adventure:

Brasil and the UK to the same scale


All good things must come to an end and thus after a long day of driving we ended up in Petrolina. That’s all I need to say about Petrolina.

Ok, there is one more thing worth saying about Petrolina, its the only place in the world where the climate is so perfect, they can grow grapes, and have to harvests of graps in a season! Unfortunately the last thing the world wine industry needs is more grapes, but its an interesting fact in itself (ok maybe only interesting to Greg – but its his blog)

The drive to Petrolina was pretty amazing, as well as the “bandit advisory” route, there was another national highway that had a “badly maintained” advisory on it, but as usual we thought, it can’t be that bad and made straight for it, turned out it was that bad, it was so bad it was amazing, most of the highway was so worn out and potholed that it was actually faster to drive along the verge, which is what all the locals were doing! To be fair it was in the process of being fixed, but there was a lot of work still to do. The quality of the roads on our trip ranged from “autobahn” perfect, to “afghanistan” bad, the good bits were great, the bad bits were definitely the worst roads i have ever driven on!

The border between Ceara and Paraiba states, one definitely makes good roads a priority and the other is Ceara!


Okay, so 800km north east from Lencois, was Sousa. To be fair, we were just looking for a halfway point between Joao Pessoa and Petrolina and we found Sousa. The guidebook mentioned that Sousa had “dinosaur” footprints… hhmmmm…. So we like Dinosaur’s, Ross from Friend’s was OK, and the first Jurrasic Park was pretty good, but I was sceptical that such a world treasure would be in such a sleepy country town, so we went out for a look.

OMG! It was great. It started off in literally a tin shed, a sign that was about 50cm long, which read “Dino Pe” Dinosaur Footprints…. We found a really nice old bloke, and a guy called Fernando who was about 25… We did the tour, so cool. Yep, they were definitely footprints, so close, so big, so real. I couldn’t help but mention that perhaps it would be promoted a little better? And then he explained that Petrobras are about to invest R$1m into it, starting from next month and start charging people an entrance fee…  yeah I can understand that! So, then three guys showed up and Greg and I got our 10 minutes of fame. Photos, names and comments were taken, and apparently we are going to be used for publicity for the renovations…

Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but giant 60,000,000 year old dinosaur foot prints!

Raptor claw print – perhaps the only Brasilian footprint on record that is not wearing Havianas

Ok, probably only Ross would think this was funny, but we did!

That night we had yet another churasscaria experience, you may remember our £7 all you can eat motorway experience, we followed that up in Salvador with a £75 each luxury churasacaria experience at the always good Fogo de Chao, then on the road between Petrolina and Sousa we had a small town lamb and goat churasscaria experience – just awesome, but our fourth experience was probably my favourite. Its specialisation however was Bode (Goat), all for the whopping sum of £4 each!!!

At our hotel in Sousa we asked the football watching receptionist for a recommendation for dinner, he suggested a place called Sao Vicente – which was just down the road, so we headed down. Now lets paint a picture of Sousa, its in the middle of Serato – the semi desert area of the north east where things are pretty barren and life is pretty tough, it’s the kind of place where life is so tough that even the motorbikes have bull bars. Its really an area a lot like outback Australia where men are mean and sheep (and goats in this case) are afraid.

So we drove into town and tried to spot the churcussario.

We did so, actually it wasn’t that hard… three quarters of the town were there, along with 3 dogs and 1 cat to match every human. This is what always amazes me about Brasil, the locals are genuinely interested to know your name, where you are from and seriously getting very excited if you respond in a little Portuguese.

As an aside, if anyone is thinking of coming over I would seriously recommend at least 100 hours of Portuguese lessons just to cover the basics. My only regret from the last 18 months is not investing the time to learn this beautiful language. Still, life ain’t over yet, and I have every intention of continuing to learn in London. For a decent Portuguese teacher in Sao Paulo, it costs at least R$80 (£26) per hour, this compares to £18 in London. If you happen to being learning English in Sao Paulo, this costs only R$40 per hour, definitely one of those cases where the Paulistano’s know their market … so be warned!

Anyway, the beach was calling us again and it was time to head back east … off we go to Joao Pessoa.

Joao Pessoa

The drive from Sousa to Joao Pessoa was about 430km. In total on this trip we travelled through six Brasilian states / provinces, plus we have also driven in three other States. It’s fairly clear that each State applies different levels of petrol tax and this has a correlation (very unBrasilian-like) to the state of the roads…

Woooaahhh… The state that definitely wins “worst roads” (drumroll) has to be Ceara, with a very close second going to Bahia. Unbelievable. For the first time ever, we suffered a smashed hub-cap and dented rim… I don’t think were the first with the number of Barrocharias (tyre changes) on the side of the road. So we toddled off to one, thinking we would pay Gringo prices, nope, not up north! We had to buy four more hubcaps (for a total of £13) and then have them all refitted for … £5 total. Road kills numbers included a couple of chickens, one bird and god knows how may bugs / critters…

So were relieved on this dirve that most of the km’s were in Paraiba which is priding itself of building dual carriage way highways, it almost felt like we were cheating after the previous days travels!

Joao Pessoa was lovely, but completely focussed on being a beachside town, and when the weather is rainy and windy, well you get the picture… We stayed for three nights, not doing a great deal but reading & chilling… aaaghhh the bliss.

So now we are on our final day, we got up early (yes another 7am departure!), en route to Recife but via Olinda. For those who may not be that familiar with Brasilian history, Olinda is the “oldest” city (by Portuguese standards) in Brasil. Similar story to most of the northern cities, settled by the Portuguese, overtaken by the Dutch, taken back by the Portuguese, all built on the sweat of slaves taken from Africa, and never quite recovered from the downfall of commodity prices (sugar, cotton, coffee).

Olinda’s buildings are brightly painted, rustic, protected by UNESCO, but however construction still is underway as there just aren’t the resources to adequately preserve these treasures.

So alas, we are now flying back to Sao Paulo, for our final two nights in Brasil.