First, we drank a glass of sweet fermented bernache, pink and bubbly, with our lunch appetizer of warmed chestnuts. Then a local Cotes de Bourg, to accompany the chicken, salad and pate. As we moved onto the cheese course, another Cotes de Bourg appeared, this one from the Bordeaux chateau on whose grounds we were picnicking.
A winetasting followed at the chateau itself: two roses and three reds.
We then saddled our horses to trot, canter and gallop for two hours through the vineyards of western France toward our next destination. Despite the liquid lunch, everyone stayed on.
So the days went on my weeklong riding-and-winetasting trip around the Bordeaux region. Not for the weak of back or delicate of liver, horse tourism proved to be an unexpectedly fresh way to sample the best of what France has to offer in scenery, exercise and refreshment.
We galloped across the hilltops of Sauternes, loaded our nervous horses onto a car ferry to cross the Gironde River, clattered across a cobblestone bridge to the Citadelle de Blaye and crossed over busy highways and truck-filled bridges. Our ability to ride -- and to eat and drink -- was stretched to the limit.
While the outfit that guided us, the Ferme Equestre “Les Abrons,” organizes rides all over France throughout the year, this is the only one designed especially to appeal to wine lovers. Ours took place during the harvest season; Bordeaux rides also are offered in the spring.
The group consisted of me, my childhood friend Sue Sheridan and a German couple. Our guide, Pierre Chemineau, has accompanied travelers across France for many years and has been involved with horses since his days as a jockey four decades ago. His assistant, Sarah Dubreuil, who drove the truck and trailer, did some guiding and prepared the lunches, made up the rest of the team.
Chemineau, eschewing such niceties as helmets and riding breeches, proved to be an expert on horses, wine and tourism. As we walked through vineyards, he would point out how each new kind of soil we passed affected the wine produced, or explain why the vines’ roots had to be covered with dirt after harvest (to protect from freezing).
He recited the history of France from the Gauls up to the Capetians, and he told us why Saint-Emilion is famous for its religious history, not just its grapes. (The town built an underground church in the 11th century to lure pilgrims from the nearby San Juan de Compostela trail, one of the earliest examples of marketing to tourists.)
Chemineau also explained why he was going on his regularly scheduled ride across the Perigord region the following week even though he had only one customer.
“To me, it’s like running a grocery store,” he said as we rode through the flat vineyards of the Pomerol region. “Even if all my sales are on Wednesday and Saturday, I have to be open all week long. That’s what a business is. Besides, I love going across the country on a horse.”
When one of the German riders was unable to go out one morning, Chemineau recruited a young man from a migrant-worker encampment we passed to mount the spare steed -- based only on the fellow’s assertion as we walked through that he loved horses.
“How did you know he could ride?” I asked Chemineau later.
“I didn’t,” he said. “But I didn’t want to keep leading that extra horse and I liked the look in that guy’s eye.” He proved to be an excellent rider.
And then there were the horses. We met them the first morning, after an introductory dinner in our starting town of Listrac-Medoc the night before that also included nine Finnish ladies who had just done the same circuit in reverse. From their ruddy complexions and enthusiastic wine consumption it appeared all had gone well.
My mount was Ankou, a dark-brown, 23-year-old Anglo-Arab mare who was a pro with plenty of zip. We set off and immediately were in the vineyards of Medoc, walking through field after field of red-turning leafy vines. Some fields had been harvested already, others still had luscious bunches of blue grapes clustered at the bottom.
Rain was falling, though not hard, and we were in full rain gear (Note to those who might want to do this ride, or any horse tourism: get all the equipment the website recommends, and know how to ride well before you arrive.).
We continued on through more vineyards and small roads and eventually came to the ferry across the Gironde River, near Lamarque (where the British had built a chateau to guard the region during the Hundred Years War.) There, Sarah had parked the van and trailer and laid out a picnic.
It was French-style: kir and peanuts for starters, then carrot soup (heated on a burner) and tomato, corn, carrot and cheese salad. Plus a jar of incredible pate. By then we were into the Bordeaux, of course. I was thinking I couldn’t eat or drink any more when she brought out the cheese course.
After lunch, what else? A visit to a local wine chateau, accompanied by tasting. As Sue said, “After all, it has been 20 minutes since we had any wine.” So Sarah drove us to the Chateau Maucaillou, where we got a tour and downed an overly heavy Medoc.
Other days followed the same pattern, though as the weather warmed and the sun came out there was often time for a nap on the soft grass of a winery, and a visit to its sales office. The cases of Pomerol I had ordered arrived later at my Paris apartment, and the wine was just as smooth without a cross- country gallop first.
Trips organized by Ferme Equestre “Les Abrons” in France range from 290 euros ($384) for two riding days and one night to 1,460 euros for eight days and seven nights, including food, lodging, horses and in the case of Bordeaux, the tasting sessions. Information: http://www.les-abrons.com.
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