I valiantly sniff, sniff and sniff again at the vials in front of me. Luckily, no one’s life (least of all mine) depends on my accuracy at pinpointing the underlying scents and flavors that distinguish individual wines, but here at Bordeaux’s Wine School, my group’s instructor has clearly dealt with even more challenged students than those currently sitting before him—classes and workshops for avid oenophiles or social sippers are available year-round. In even numbered years, visitors to the area can take waterfront classes during the city’s well-known wine festival (Bordeaux.com/us/wineschool).
Just a short drive away, in the picturesque department of Dordogne, lie several grand buildings. Some, like Chateau de Bridoire and the legendary performer Josephine Baker’s Chateau des Milandes, are as well known as their onetime residents. Tonight, at Milandes, I’m flying solo as the queen of the castle, but not in the sprawling home in which Baker raised her “rainbow tribe.” This two-bedroom, two-story reproduction is an incredibly true-to-life tree house that uses sculpted all-natural materials inside and features a tree-topping patio outside. Along with two additional and equally charming mini-castles, the property accommodates up to 12 guests (chateauxdanslesarbres.fr).
Charm is not in short supply in this region. Tonight, there’s the lovely Manoir d’Hautegente in Coly. A sweeping driveway highlights the ivy-covered country home, which has become renowned for its stunning setting, beautiful rooms and hospitable staff. While hardly a secret—Meryl Streep stayed in my room, Roy, while filming a few years ago, and the current president showed up for a surprise and ultra-private getaway the night before winning the country’s last election—the romantic ambiance only deepens when the impossibly chic proprietress shares the story of her husband’s family, who have owned the manor for 370 years. During WWII, when France fell under German occupation, the family provided a refuge for Jewish families. Sadly, some neighbors tattled and the buildings were searched, then burned to the ground. These days, the house is a 17-room charmer, with a quiet loch running outside. The only reminder is the shell of one building that the family says they will not repair, so that the atrocities and sacrifices of the past are not forgotten (www.manoir-hautegente.com).
In Riberac in the Dronne Valley, we chase windmills—or, to be precise, explore one of the working windmills in the village of La Tour Blanche that uphold the area’s mill tradition and transform wheat to flour. We stop for what may be one of the best lunches of my life—a meal at Le Mas de Montet. Part of a beautiful chateau with lush grounds and an inviting pool, this getaway was a favorite of yet another president, Francois Mitterrand. At lunch in a private dining room, we start with a pumpkin soup that comes in carved pumpkins, and it gets only better from there. We stop just short of a standing ovation when the chef is introduced (www.lemasdemontet.fr).
I want this trip to keep going, like a wine-soaked, gourmet food-filled loop, but all too soon, it’s time to head home. Before I do, I reserve my space at the next wine festival. I’ll be back.
–Kym Allison Backer