The real attraction of Bordeaux’s countryside for a cycling holiday is not simply that the lower Garonne and Dordogne river valleys offer easy lowland pedalling, but that they give access to the wide range of landscapes that host a tremendous variety of wines and winemakers.
The estuary plain to the north-west is home to the Medoc reds, and provides big skies, salt marshes and very grand chateaux where the chais hold millions of euros’ worth of vintage wine. This is either the ultimate languid cycling terrain or, for those who like to ‘clip in and go’, the chance for a fast 10k.
By contrast, the hilly ground between the two rivers – the ‘Entre Deux Mers’ – is characterised by working farmers on relatively modest properties producing the basic reds – Bordeaux Superior, and Cotes de Bordeaux (with some whites and ‘Clairets‘). These might now be tagged with the name of a district but are essentially the direct descendants of the ‘Clarets’ that were the staple of the export trade to England for centuries. You would find this described in most brochures as ‘rolling countryside’ (there are never any ‘hills’ in brochure world). We think we have found the best ‘rolling’ route through it to Cadillac and onto St Macaire.
Cross the Garonne at Cadillac, or St Macaire, and you are soon in the terroir of one of the great Bordeaux wines – Sauternes. Here again you find large imposing Chateaux but within a tightly defined area that is claimed to owe its particular characteristics to the Ciron river and its autumnal fogs. The river also offers a convenient navigation feature as it emerges from the Landais forest at Villandraut and heads east to reach the Garonne between Preignac and Barsac. When I tell you that the family that owns the Louis Vuitton Luxury brands range has bought the Chateaux at Fargues-de-Langon in the heart of the Sauternes, then you know that you are in polo pony territory.
Yet venture north to the other side of the Dordogne, and you are faced by a complex map of tiny appellations – one so small there are only six producers. This area includes the international ‘brands’ such as Pomerol and St Emilion, but also small and adventurous producers who have chosen to disregard the shackles of the appellations rules and produce distinctive quality wines using vinification techniques developed elsewhere.
These ’Garagistes’ (yes, sometimes they are literally making wine in the garage), are the innovators and independents who represent an older tradition of peasant producers often with small plots and no budget or inclination to set up sophisticated marketing operations. It’s a landscape too varied to conveniently sum-up, embracing the table flat Dordogne river bottom, the limestone scarp as far north as the L’Isle valley and a mix of rolling hills and flat estuary coast to the north.
The area on the left bank of the Garonne that is Pessac-Léognan and Graves, is a completely different landscape again, consisting of land captured from the enclosing Landaise forest. This too has its big name chateaux – it’s Haut-Brion is just one example – some of them embedded in the suburbs of Bordeaux, but alongside the river you could sometimes imagine yourself to be in Constable country with big blonde Aquitaine cattle standing hip deep in meadows of tall grass. That sliver of riverside pasture, too wet for vines, is one of the routes we have for escaping Bordeaux without traffic and reaching places such as La Brède where the Montesquieu chateau can be visited, or Podensac, where the Lillet Distillery offers an alternative to philosophy.
We have made no mention of the Landaise forest with its Turpentine Pines and sweet chestnuts, wildlife, lakes and dedicated cycle tracks. We don’t want to be thought to be showing off.