Portes-Ouvertes in Saint-Émilion: A Thrifty Traveler’s Guide to Wine Tasting in Bordeaux

In the province of Bordeaux, about an hour bus ride outside of Bordeaux proper, is the quaint, provincial appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) of Saint-Émilion. Upon disembarking the bus here, your eyes will be delighted with the sight of hundreds upon hundreds of acres of vineyards, dozens of wine châteaux, and the gorgeous town of Saint-Émilion, the crown jewel of the area straight out of a fairytale.

Saint-Émilion is a medieval-era commune whose city and surrounding vineyards were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site only 23 years ago in 1999. Even if you’re not a fan of wine, the area has many attractions to draw tourists to its rolling hills, with ancient ruins, gorgeous cobblestone streets, scenic vistas, and Romanesque churches dotting the commune’s landscape.

Every year (typically held at the end of April/beginning of May), the châteaux de Saint-Émilion host their annual “portes-ouvertes”, or open door event! This year, the Portes-Ouvertes are being held for 2 days, from April 30 – May 1, 2022! During the portes-ouvertes, you can meet with the local wine growers; participate in wine tastings; take guided tours of the properties, Chateaux, and surrounding area of Saint-Émilion; and participate in photo expeditions, farmers markets, and wine workshops, all for free! The area is part of Bordeaux’s wine country, and features rich, complex wines made from grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

This was the courtyard for one of the chateaux, featuring sweeping views of their vineyard. To the left is the chateau’s tasting room, and to the right is the restaurant they have on the property.

The tour itinerary and content may very from chateau to chateau, but they all feature one very central theme: free wine for all! Some of the chateaux may provide light appetizers, while others may have full barbeque stations set up; some might give you a tour of the entire vineyard, while others may take you for a tour of their wine cellars; some may give you light pours of many different wines, while others may be heavier on the pours, with fewer wines to sample. Each participating chateau has the liberty to customize their portes-ouvertes experience, and so it is recommended to visit as many as possible – and to buy the wines that you like!

Be sure to arrive early in the day if you can to get the best experience possible – we arrived late in the day, so unfortunately several of the chateaux had already closed up shop for the day, and others were already packing up the complimentary food by the time we arrived.

Knowledge of at least remedial French is highly recommended here: it’s a complete toss-up whether or not the vineyard tour guides and other citizens of Saint-Émilion will be able to speak English with you. Even if they do, you will get much better service (and perhaps even more generous pours) if you make an effort to order and converse in French. A few basic phrases in French will get you a long way – I’ve included a few below!

  • Comment t’allez-vous? – How are you?
  • Je vais bien, merci – I’m doing well, thank you!
  • Je suis ici pour les portes-ouvertes! – I am here for the open house!
  • Je prends le _________, s’il vous plaît. – I will have the _________, please. (Use when ordering – fill in the blank with the item)
  • Où sont les portes-ouvertes? – Where is the open house?
  • Puis-je goûter le ______ (cabernet, noir, etc.)? – Can I taste the ________ (type of wine)?
Saint-Émilion’s charming cobblestone streets look as though they were plucked straight from Beauty and the Beast, and make for an absolutely magical stroll.

After a full weekend of participating in the open house events, don’t forget to spend some time in the actual town of Saint-Émilion: crowning the tallest hill in the area, your explorations may take your breath away, and not just because of the historic buildings, cobblestone streets, and adorable shops! But believe you me, the views that you get from the top of the hill are worth it. There are multiple wine shops in Saint-Émilion proper as well, along with many provincial and traditional restaurants housed in buildings that are several centuries old. There are plenty of unique gastronomical, historical, and cultural activities to partake in while in Saint-Émilion, so don’t just limit yourself to the wine (tempting though it may be!).

Beware, however: if you don’t have a car, you have to very carefully plot out your trip to Saint-Émilion! We had to take a train to this very small town, wait there for two hours, then take a small regional bus to the region, where we then had to walk about 30 minutes to reach the first château. It was completely worth it in my mind, but for time’s sake, you may want to arrange to rent a car!

If you’ve ever dreamed of going wine tasting in Bordeaux, there’s no better nor more economical way to do it than during the portes-ouvertes. Happy tasting!

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