Pyla dune—the highest sand dune in Europe

The last three posts touched on how the landscape of Bordeaux affects wine characteristics. But there are landscape features that are just fun for their own sake. Billed as the highest dune in Europe, we had to visit Pyla Dune, a geologic feature along the Atlantic coast south of Arcachon, a popular seaside that is an easy 52-minute train ride from Bordeaux. Bike paths are prevalent, so we rented bikes to ride along the coast of Arcachon Bay to Pyla Dune, a pile of loose sand that continues to be pushed inland by the wind. On the map, loose sand is a light tan color; it appears as a beach along the sand spit north of the entrance to the bay, as sand bars near the entrance to the bay, and as a large rectangular block just south of the bay’s entrance (the Pyla Dune).

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Currently, the dune is migrating eastward an average of 3–5 meters/year. Because of changing positions of the bay’s entrance and sand bars, the dune is eroding on the western (seaward) side. This erosion has exposed 4 paleosols (ancient soils) that show a dune has been at this location for at least 3500 years. Soils have been dated by radiocarbon analysis of organic components and by human artifacts—one paleosol contains Bronze Age tools and another contains 16th century coins. (The web site—dune-pula.com—has more details about the site.) A pine forest was planted in the 19th century to stabilize the dune, but this forest is being slowly buried as the dune migrates east—this east side of the dune is shown on the photo below.

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The dune provides a popular site for people to visit and climb. Although the dune achieves a height of about 107 meters (350 feet), most people can manage to make the climb. From the top there is a fabulous view of the bay and Atlantic coast.

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The sand is mostly fine and made of quartz; there is also a small percentage of dark-colored heavy minerals like magnetite that make interesting patterns. This view is looking north from the dune along the east shore of Arcachon Bay to the forested town of Pyla-Sur-Mer.

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Pyla-Sur-Mer is a residential town located between the dune and Arcachon. Its seaside location, upscale homes, and pine forest reminded us a great deal of Monterey and Carmel in California. Hopefully, this town will not be buried by the dune. At current rates, the road and campground directly east of the dune will be buried in 40 years.

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Arcachon is famous for its fresh oysters, so we had to sample them in a Pyla-Sur-Mer restaurant, which also served us excellent moules frites (mussels and fries) and fish.

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This was an interesting outing from Bordeaux, to which we returned for a day exploring the city. Here is Jay with Lynn, our Ashland friend who, together with her husband Mark, are studying wines in Bordeaux for several years. (Mark was working in the harvest that day.)  We then got on our bikes and traveled to Toulouse, the journey’s end.

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Biking between two rivers—the Entre-Deux-Mers region

The Entre-Deux-Mers region is located between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers that feed into the Gironde estuary. The name, though, is “between two seas” or “between two tides” because the rivers have a tidal influence. The Gironde has a large tidal range and during the largest tides, a tidal bore (single wave) will move upstream in the rivers. One of our B&B hosts said her daughter rode it one time!

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Like the Saint Emilion region, this region is also characterized by mostly limestone bedrock with thin, clay-rich soils. An agricultural irony is that the poor soils are what make Bordeaux wines so good. When the vines have to compete for limited nutrients and water, the grapes achieve more concentrated and distinctive flavors. (By the way, it is not legal to irrigate the vineyards here.) If you find the Entre-Deux-Mers label on a French wine, you will know it is made with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes, sometimes with added Sauvignon Gris or Muscadelle. They are always white and range from dry to sweet. Red wines are also made here but they must be labeled as generic Bordeaux or (for the better ones) Bordeaux Superior. In contrast, in the Médoc region, only the red wines can have the Médoc label, and white wines must have the generic Bordeaux label. How nice to find a free tasting room along our path.

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But our focus in this region is on biking—through the UTracks (Canadian) company we did a 5-day self-guided bike tour from Bordeaux to Toulouse. They supply the bikes and the maps, and we get ourselves to the destination where our luggage and a B&B room are awaiting us. Our travel is mostly on “vélo voies verte”—bicycle green ways—with some scenic back roads thrown in for interest. The first day was a path on an old railroad bed that is named after a French man who won the Tour de France in 1939.

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Most of the journey was along the Canal de Garonne, which was built in the mid 1800s as part of a system that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea (see map above). The autumn colors and temperatures made for a scenic, pleasant journey. The scene below was typical, with the path on the canal’s left bank.

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There are many locks along the way that are still used by boats. There are nautical stops where people can store their cruising boats. Some of the lock houses have been converted into museums or restaurants. This restaurant, named Le Poule à Vélo (the chicken on a bike), felt particularly welcoming to bicyclists and served a lovely 3-course lunch.

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The landscape is dotted by quaint medieval-aged towns that could be explored because of their position adjacent to the canal or just a short distance away. The landscape is relatively flat, except where the rivers have cut down a little. In addition to grapes, there are many other agricultural products. We saw large orchards or apples and kiwis. The photo below is La Reole village.

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The terroir of Saint Emilion

The terroir of the Saint Emilion AOC (see roundish purple region on the Right Bank in previous post) differs from that of the Médoc (of course). The climate has less of a maritime influence, and the limestone bedrock is close to the surface, with only thin, mostly clay-rich soils. We visited just one Chateau—Troplong Modot. Notice that the rocks in this vineyard are angular because they are pieces of the underlying bedrock, whereas the rocks in the Médoc are very rounded because they are pieces of rocks from the Pyrenees that were transported a great distance by rivers.

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The clusters that remained on the vines at Chateau Troplong Modot were stunning bundles of fruit that appeared to burst with flavor. Also at this Chateau is a restaurant with one Michelin star—Les Belles Perdrix. The food was outstanding, and the  presentation exquisite. The chateau’s own wine provided a stellar pairing (like the Médoc this AOC is also primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but the Merlot grape tends to have the higher percentage). It’s hard to imagine what a three-star restaurant would be like!

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The region surrounds the village of Saint Emilion, which is named after a monk who in the 8th century lived in a cave here and allegedly performed many miracles (for which  he achieved sainthood). The town is typical of a medieval village—buildings are made of stone and perched on a hill with crumbling remnants of an ancient wall. It does have one unusual element. The bell tower appears to come out of the ground, but it is actually sitting on top of a cathedral. It’s just that the cathedral was carved out of the limestone bedrock rather than being built above ground where everyone could see it. It’s possible to visit this underground church—called the “Monolithic church” because it was carved into “one rock”. It is reminiscent of the underground churches that are found in Cappadocia, Turkey.

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The photo below was taken from the bell tower; it illustrates a distinctive aspect of the Saint Emilion terroir. In the Médoc, slopes are very gentle, whereas the region here is much more hilly, so grapes experience even more variation depending on whether they are on a slope facing north or south or east or west. But like the Médoc, the landscape here is also dominated by seemingly unending vineyards and chateaux.

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Terroir extraordinaire—a key to understanding the wines in Bordeaux (and elsewhere in France)

The ancient Greeks understood the effects of location on wine characteristics, but it was the French who really ran with the concept, coining the term “terroir” and making it an essential aspect of their appellation d’origine controlée (AOC), the controlled designation of origin that is granted to wine, and other agricultural products, based on the location where the product is grown. Take wine, for example. In the U.S., we tend to focus on the varietal, and every bottle will tell us the wine within was made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or other grape varietals. In France, however, the varietal is rarely mentioned. Instead, if the wine is from Burgandy, an informed drinker will know that whites are made from Chardonnay grapes and reds are made from Pinot Noir grapes.

In Bordeaux, almost all wines are a blend of grape types, with a focus on red varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the dominant grapes—other varietals added in smaller proportions include Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Below is a map of Bordeaux that shows the major AOCs. While every word is not clear, you can at least see the different colors that pertain to the different AOCs. While in Bordeaux, we have focused on the Médoc—the long purple region on the Left Bank (SW side) of the Gironne estuary—and Saint Emilion—the roundish purple region on the Right Bank (NE side). Two rivers—the Garonne and the Durdogne—flow from the southeast into the Gironde estuary, where they mix with salt water from the Atlantic. In a few days we’ll be bicycling for 5 days in the Entre Deux Mers region, which is the large green area on the map located between the two rivers.

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You probably know that terroir relates to geology! The rock and soil type in which the grapes are growing can impart qualities such as minerality and acidity. Climate and slope are also important aspects of terroir. Small differences in location—for example, north-facing slopes versus south-facing slopes—can result in variations in temperature and moisture that affect characteristics of the grapes and the wine produced. Consequently, the main AOCs are subdivided into sub-appellations based on these location differences. Of course, human ingenuity is also essential to the wine-making process!

We visited three chateaux in Médoc. It’s important to know that they aren’t called wineries here; in France, chateaux refer to the places (which indeed do usually include large house-type structures) where the grapes are grown and the wine is made and bottled. The wines are then labeled with the name of the chateau and the region. If produced in The Médoc region, although it will not say so on the label, we will know that most of the wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, with a large proportion of Merlot +/- Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The terroir of The Médoc is defined by the Quarternaire (Quaternary) soils that are very gravelly. The gravel was eroded from the Pyrennes during glacial periods (past 2 million years) and carried north by rivers. The gravel soils are thick and bedrock is not much of an influence. Check out all of the gravel in the soil where I am picking the grapes at Chateau Le Crock (St Estéphe subappelation).

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We are fortunate to be here during the harvest, and some of the grapes still hang in full, beautiful clusters on the vines. At Chateau Le Crock, we were able to accompany the workers into the field (although we only picked enough grapes for the photo) and to have lunch with the workers, including the wine maker and the vineyard manager.

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In the Médoc we also visited Chateau Lèoville Poyferré (St Julien subappelation) and Chateau Prieuré Lichine (Margaux subappelation). The Médoc is almost 100% about wine, and the countryside is covered with vineyards and exquisite chateaux. Here is a photo of Chateau Margaux, that produces one of the most famous, and most expensive, wines in the world.

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