On Crystal tour, a taste of Bordeaux

By Tom Stieghorst

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Vineyard tourAsk any wine connoisseur where the best wines come from, and more often than not the answer would be Bordeaux.

This region of Southwestern France wrings from its limestone soil and seaside climate some of the most expensive bottles of wine in the world. So a visit to Bordeaux on a cruise ship is a chance to find out what all the fuss is about.

"For every destination, there's one word that summarizes it," said John Stoll, vice president for land programs at Crystal Cruises. "Wine is the opportunity in Bordeaux."

I had the chance to visit on a Crystal voyage between Southampton and Rome. The cruise line had arranged a tour of one of the grand estates known as chateaus for a group of travel agents.

Our destination, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, was hardly the most French-sounding name in the area. But its pedigree dates at least to the 18th century, when Scotsman George Smith acquired the estate and its 192 acres of planted vineyards.

The chateau sits about 20 minutes south of Bordeaux, France's ninth-largest city, which anchors the namesake wine region. Although white wines are produced, the area's fame rests on its vintage red wines, typically a blend of two to four grape varieties.

All this and more was explained by our French escort on the bus ride to the vineyard, along with the fact that in 1990 the estate was purchased by its current owners Daniel and Florence Cathiard.

Since it was April, the vines surrounding the production buildings of the estate had been heavily pruned and presented themselves as low rows of gnarled brown stumps, with bits of green starting to emerge from them.

After descending the bus, we walked a cobbled path to the entrance, then down a couple of sets of stairs through the stainless steel vats where white wines are produced at harvest.

The first stop was a low room perhaps half the size of a football field that housed more than 500 barrels of wine, which were being aged before bottling. Tiny electric candelabras illuminated the dimness. Each oak barrel (French oak, bien sur) held about 300 bottles of wine.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte cellarWe were told that we were standing in the biggest underground cellar in all of Bordeaux. We tasted the red and white second label of the estate — the good-but-not-great wine that is more affordable and available than the superior-quality grand cru first label.

For that, we would go upstairs to a light-filled reception hall. A variety of cheeses were paired with our samples of the Smith Haut Lafitte reds and whites, while owner Florence Cathiard addressed the group.

We savored a vintage 2007 red, which Wine Spectator magazine described as having "medium body, good tannins and plenty of fruit for the vintage." To my taste it was very dry.

Bart Dufour, head sommelier of the Crystal Serenity, said even though the wine has aged seven years, some of its tannins won't mellow for a while. Also, our large group of more than 100 made it impractical to decant the wine, which would have helped, he said.

Indeed, Cathiard said small groups are more ideal for tours, as they can fit in the chateau's purpose-built tasting room. But she welcomed the chance to show the winery's features to a group of agents.

"I hope you will be my great ambassadors to all your different countries," she said.

Crystal offers a variety of tours, from a basic escorted walk through the city of Bordeaux, a Unesco World Heritage site, to a small-group tour of a chateau with wine author Dewey Markham Jr.

A new option is a bicycle tour of the wine countryside, one of 16 worldwide on Crystal's expanded menu of bike tours this year.

Harry Carboni, a retired owner of a cable manufacturing firm in Windham, Conn., was one of about 25 Serenity guests who took the sold-out tour. It lasted about four hours, with most of that cycling time.

"We went through the outside of the towns and out into the vineyards," said Carboni, who rides about two or three times a week at home. "I tried it because you can go places you can't go on a bus."

His criticisms were that the French tour guide's English was hard to understand and that there was no wine-tasting as part of the trip. "I think they should put that on [the description]," he said.

Stoll said that tours and guides are periodically benchmarked to Crystal's standards and that serving wine during a bike tour would present a safety issue.

Not every cruise ship can dock in central Bordeaux because of the low bridge north of town.

In fact, while the Crystal Symphony can sail beneath the bridge, its sister ship the Serenity, about one-third larger, cannot. We docked at the industrial port of Bassens, 10 minutes from town.

Ships even larger must pull up at Le Verdon, at the mouth of the Gironde River, an hour-plus drive from Bordeaux. Which suggests that in Bordeaux, for both cruise ships and wine tours, small is beautiful.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 

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