Studying Abroad in Bordeaux: A Crash Course in Wine

place de tourny bordeaux

On New Year’s Day last year, I boarded an 8AM flight to Bordeaux, France, my home for the semester. I went to Bordeaux to study literature but ended up receiving an education in everything French, from Baudelaire to Bordeaux Blends.

Five minutes after entering my host family’s house, Dominique and Patrick proposed “un apéritif” to celebrate my arrival. Ironically, my new parents stuck with whiskey while I opted for a glass of red wine, whose taste has been lost to a combination of jet lag and culture shock.

Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux
Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

Having arrived in utter oeno-ignorance (I had turned 21 two days into my voyage), my host parents took it upon themselves to charter my wine education. Over time, I gathered the basic nuggets of French wisdom. Here are a few, among others: never drink white after red, traditional French only drink French wines, and moelleux gives the worst hangovers.

My university was located across the street from a vineyard in the Pessac-Léognan appellation, providing a scenic tram ride to school. I took great joy in shopping at wine shops or “caves.” I always introduced myself as a novice and tested the staff’s seemingly infinite patience with barrages of questions. My favorite was L’Intendant, consisting of a single spiral staircase spiraling up through a 360 degree wine display; the prices ascend with the customer. I toured a family-owned vineyard, whose Bordeaux Blend stood out for featuring 8% Malbec (compared with normal at 1-2%).

Most fascinating were the myriad ways in which wine fits into French life. Patrick would rarely purchase wine in town. Instead, he would drive into the country once a year to buy cases from producers he knew personally. Some of these bottles were to keep, but others were to trade with friends and family from other regions. For my host sister Laurien’s birthday, we celebrated with champagne. The men wore suits and the women dresses and high heels. Laurien’s boyfriend brought a bottle from Languedoc, where his family lived. Restaurants offered two or three-course meals with wine (called “formules”) at different price points, allowing me to experience a French dining experience on a student budget.

Chateau La Braulterie Blaye, Cotes de Bordeaux
Chateau La Braulterie Blaye, Cotes de Bordeaux

My most memorable dining experience came early in my trip and was quintessentially Bordelais. At a bistro, I had magret de canard, or duck breast—a specialty of Bordeaux—paired with a big, leathery Bordeaux red. They served the duck on a cutting board with a bowl of potatoes, a pail of bread and a jar of the most delicious mustard I have ever had. With the first cut into the magret, juice rushed out onto the wood. As I savored the rich flavors, I applauded myself for the decision to get out of the Bay Area for a semester.