Walking through his small vineyard in France's Bordeaux region, Bernard Lartigue tells visitors his philosophy of winemaking: "I want my wines to resemble me," says the portly, exuberant Lartigue. Rich and tannic, wines from his Chateau Mayne Lalande may become "one of the stars" of the 1990s, says wine guru Robert M. Parker Jr. But they haven't reached U.S. shelves yet, so to taste them, you'll have to pay Lartigue a visit. He'll give you a personal tour and tasting that will immerse you in the warm glow of French wine culture.
Even if you're only a modest wine buff, few European vacations are as good for the soul as a tour of the Bordeaux wine country. The world's leading producer of fine wine, it's also a microcosm of all that's appealing about France: fabulous food, charming people, and a gentle countryside that's a child's vision of nature. And even though the dollar has weakened a bit recently against the French franc, the region offers great value--especially if you stay with one of the many farmers and vintners who take in guests. That's by far the nicest way to see the area in any case.
Near the village of Saint-Ferme, for example, Dominique L vy rents two huge rooms oozing with charm in her 18th-century stone farmhouse. Her rate for two is $40 a night, with private bath and breakfast. She'll also cook you a gourmet dinner and share her recipes (011-33-5671-8857). Not far away, the Chateau du Parc is a family-owned manor house with a wonderful French country kitchen, and five elegant suites starting at $70 a night (011-33-5661-6918).
EFFERVESCENT. Both these hostelries are in the Entre-Deux-Mers district, 30 miles east of Bordeaux. A producer of simple vintages, this pictur-esque area is off the main tourist track. All the better. Unless you like only pricey grands crus, Bordeaux's lesser-known areas are the most pleasant for touring. You can drop by unannounced at most vineyards--unlike the top chateaus of Medoc and Saint-Emilion, where you may have to reserve in writing weeks in advance. And you'll meet the owner at lesser vineyards, not a guide.
In Entre-Deux-Mers, knock on the door of Chateau Lavison, a tiny 12th-century castle built by the English during the Hundred Years War. Its effervescent owner, Martine Martet, will walk you through her fortress home and let you taste wine from her vineyard. Chateau Margaux it ain't, but at $4 a bottle, it's perfect for a picnic beside the nearby millstream.
The wine country is vast, with 53 government-designated appellations and thousands of producers surrounding Bordeaux. The city's Maison du Vin will send you piles of brochures (1, cours du 30 juillet, 33075 Bordeaux, France). Once there, drop by this nonprofit promotion center for a free wine tasting. You can pick from dozens of wines from all Bordeaux districts. An oenologist will explain the fine points of tasting. If you crave deeper knowledge, the center will give a three-day tasting course in English starting on June 28--a once-a-year event that costs $350 including meals (011-33-5600-2266).
SOFT-SELL APPEAL. Another great place to learn is the Maison du Vin in Saint-Emilion--far and away the wine country's prettiest town. The center organizes two-hour tastings twice a day, from June 19 to mid-September, at a cost of $18. You'll sample only local wines, but they're among the world's best. Be sure to visit the town's underground chapels, carved from bedrock and dating to the 8th century. The tourist office gives a daily 2:30 tour: Make sure to book in the morning.
If you have time for only one Saint-Emilion winery, go to Chateau Pavie. Perched on a hill, with 11th-century wine cellars carved in a cliff, it commands a view of the town and the Dordogne River. Owner Jean-Paul Valette is one of the Bordeaux region's most engaging vintners, eager to share his passion for wine. "I ask visitors to stay at least an hour," he says. "If they have only five minutes, there's no point." His wine is stunning--and pricey. You can't buy it at the chateau.
A soft sell is one of Bordeaux's great appeals. Mostly family-owned, its wineries don't have the made-for-tourists feel of many in California. There's no pressure to buy, and vintners understand that U.S. Customs limits Americans to two bottles. Shipping larger quantities is complicated and more expensive than buying at home. If you love a wine you taste but can't find it in the U.S., ask a wine store to arrange an import order.
Bordeaux's biggest collection of upper-crust wines comes from the Medoc district. Such renowned chateaus as Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, and Margaux stretch along a peninsula that ends at the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the area is flat and grim, with no interesting villages--so touring there is mainly a pilgrimage to the fount of greatness.
HARVEST CREWS. One of the greatest, Mouton-Rothschild, has a wine museum that's worth a visit. It displays such artifacts as gold wine chalices from pre-Christian times. As at many top chateaus, you need an appointment. The Maison du Vin in Bordeaux can help make one. If you're a golfer, the Golf du Medoc--one of Europe's better courses--has a top-chateau sponsor for each of 36 holes. Its restaurant serves their wines at cut-rate prices.
Possibly the region's best wine bargains are in the Graves district, south of Bordeaux. Though not well-known in the U.S., its reds are smooth and sophisticated. Have lunch at an auberge near Podensac with great regional cooking--Le Luma--and order a 1986 Chateau Respide-Madeville. Nearby, you can stay at Chateau de Malrome, the vast hilltop home of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's mother, where the painter spent his last years.
To get truly close to the vine, you can join the harvest crew at some wineries. It's tough work--for two weeks, in late September or early October. But you'll be well fed, see winemaking first-hand, and even earn $6 an hour. Try Chateau Crusquet Sabourin on a hilltop above Blaye (011-33-5742-2269).
When you head into the vineyards, take good maps: The roads are labyrinthine. And of course, take a good thirst.