Uncork big drives and bigger reds in this classic French village
Of all the places to indulge dual passions for wine and golf, few rival Margaux, the southernmost of the four great Médoc appellations. To be sure, the courses in and around this historic village in southwest France are more respectable than world-class, but when combined with afternoons and evenings spent savoring the region’s cherished reds, they make for a wonderful sojourn. If Margaux’s wine were to spring to life as a golfer, it would resemble Hogan: perfectly balanced, with a graceful finish. And the same type of soil that yields great vintages is also well suited for links-style golf. Architect Bill Coore (working without his partner, Ben Crenshaw) took full advantage of the heather and gorse that thrive in this terroir when designing the region’s best layout, the Châteaux course at Golf du Médoc.
What’s surprising to first-time visitors is how small and unassuming the famed Médoc villages are. They seem to exist in a time warp: before billboards, fast food and self-promotion, just well-tended vineyards and classic French country architecture. Anyone accustomed to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys will also be struck by how flat the area is and how noncommercial and generally modest it appears to be. Traditionally, these wineries sold their entire production through brokers, not bothering to encourage aficionados to visit. Those visitors who did come would sleep and eat in the city of Bordeaux. But that’s all changed. Today, the châteaux cultivate tourists, and with French authorities actively promoting golf in the Médoc—even offering a discounted pass to its four courses—there has never been a finer time to visit.
Playing The main stop for golfers in Margaux is Golf du Médoc, which is home to two eighteens. Coore recently returned to his Châteaux course to oversee a slight alteration of the final hole to accommodate a new hotel. This attention to detail and the elegant fit of Coore’s design with the distinctive landscape make the layout a pleasure to play. The 418-yard par-four sixth, for example, demands a hefty drive over water and a nimble approach to a green that, although guarded by bunkers on three sides, allows a run-up shot from the left. The Châteaux’s sister course, the Vignes, designed by Canadian Rod Whitman, is part links, part parkland and plenty sporty. Bring your fairway woods and hybrids: There are several lengthy par fives.
Another fine option is Golf International de Lacanau Océan, set in a pine forest thirty miles west of Bordeaux, close to the Atlantic (the air carries a salty whiff of the sea). Lacanau plays across undulating terrain, and its doglegs deftly test golfers’ course-management skills.
Within minutes of the village is Golf de Margaux, designed by a French architect named Oliver Dongradi and opened in January 2006. The course lies along the Gironde estuary, and water frequently encroaches, most spectacularly on the par-four fourteenth, where approach shots are played to a small peninsula green. Changeable breezes off the river add to the challenge. Although fully playable now, the course will benefit from another year or two of ripening.
Staying Bordering that young course is Relais de Margaux, an established resort that offers large, comfortable rooms as well as two upscale restaurants and a sleek spa. The smaller, quieter Golf du Médoc Hotel & Spa, which opened in May, has seventy-nine rooms, a full-service spa and a restaurant that overlooks the home hole on the Châteaux course.
Dining For first-rate bistro food on the main road in Margaux, head to Lion d’Or. The Brasserie du Lac at Relais de Margaux offers a larger menu with fine seafood dishes. It’s also a great place to enjoy a glass of wine after a round. Twenty minutes up the road in Pauillac, the Cazes family, which owns Château Lynch-Bages and has played a key role in promoting the Médoc, has restored the village of Bages and opened the lively brasserie Café Lavinal (and a traditional bakery, Au Baba d’Andréa). But the region’s finest restaurant—the bearer of two Michelin stars—is Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac. Thierry Marx (named chef of the year in 2006 by a French food magazine) specializes in Pauillac lamb and smoked Médocaine beef and creates inspired dishes such as a pairing of pressed smoked eel and foie gras served with a textural counterpoint of toasted whole-grain bread.
Wine Tasting Although Bordeaux has lent its name to the broader wine region, the great wines are actually produced in villages outside the city. For visits to the châteaux, reservations are required. The public is welcome, but don’t expect to sample a wide variety of vintages or find gift shops selling cheese and corkscrews. In fact, Château Margaux still won’t sell a single bottle directly to visitors—even its second or third labels.
Instead, try Château Palmer, known as Château de Gascq until purchased in 1814 by an English general named Charles Palmer. Although ranked as a third-growth in the landmark 1855 classification, Palmer’s 1961 vintage is legendary, and the estate has long been regarded as one of the top producers in Margaux.
Another excellent choice is Château d’Issan, which occupies a seventeenth-century estate. Its vineyards are ancient—they’re rumored to have produced the wine that was served at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of Europe’s richest and most powerful women, to the future King Henry II of England in 1152.
Lastly, pay a visit to Château Brane-Cantenac. The quality and reputation of its wines have improved dramatically since the estate was taken over in 1992 by Henri Lurton, whose family has owned it since 1922. Lurton believes the challenge of this terroir is to make an elegant, balanced wine year after year, regardless of variations in weather. And he’s clearly succeeding. The New York Times proclaimed that since Lurton has been at the helm, "the wine has gained in body and richness."
Buying If you want to purchase wines that you’ve tasted in the Médoc, the best place to do so in Margaux is La Cave d’Ulysse. The store has a comprehensive selection, including older vintages.
Getting There Air France runs one-hour flights from Paris to Bordeaux. Or take the TGV train, which makes the trip in three hours, and rent a car at the station once you arrive. From there it’s about a forty-minute drive to Margaux.
Golf du Médoc, Châteaux
Architect: Bill Coore, 1989. Yardage: 6,907. Par: 71. Greens Fees: $60–$85. Contact: 011-33/556-701-190, golf-du-medoc.com.
Golf du Médoc, Vignes
Architect: Rod Whitman, 1991. Yardage: 6,802. Par: 71. Greens Fees: $60–$85. Contact: 011-33/556-701-190, golf-du-medoc.com.
Golf International de Lacanau Océan
Architect: John Harris, 1980. Yardage: 6,519. Par: 72. Greens Fees: $50–$75. Contact: 011-33/556-039-298, golflacanau.com.
Golf de Margaux
Architect: Oliver Dongradi, 2006. Yardage: 6,614. Par: 71. Greens Fees: $50–$75. Contact: 011-33/557-883-830, relais-margaux.fr.
Golf du Médoc Hotel & Spa Rooms: from $275. Contact: 011-33/556-703-131, hotelgolfdumedoc.com.
Relais de Margaux Rooms: from $260. Contact: 011-33/557-883-830, relais-margaux.fr.
Brasserie du Lac, Margaux;
Café Lavinal, Pauillac;
011-33/556-592-424, cordeillan bages.com. $$$$
Lion d’Or, Margaux;
Château Brane-Cantenac, brane-cantenac.com
Château d’Issan, chateau-issan.com
Château Palmer, chateau-palmer.com
La Cave d’Ulysse, caveulysse.com