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Travel Style

La Vie en Rouge

I’d like to believe that there’s some truth to the ‘French paradox’ theory. That’s why I’m soaking in a barrel of mineral water and red wine extracts at the Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa on the Château Smith Haut Lafitte wine estate in Bordeaux, France.

Grape harvesting

The term French paradox was coined in 1992 by Dr. Serge Renaud, a scientist at Bordeaux University, after years of research. The paradox? The French consume one of the world’s richest diets, including gobs of butter and cream, unpasteurized cheeses, and let’s not forget French pastries, yet they tend to be less obese, live longer and have lower rates of coronary heart disease than folks in other industrialized countries.

The key to this phenomenon, as postulated by Dr. Renaud, is their daily consumption of a glass or two of wine, preferably red, which contains powerful antioxidants that control blood pressure and reduce clots.

So, if those grapes work their magic internally, what about externally? Coincidentally, in 1993 at the Château Smith Haut Lafitte vineyards where Mathilde Cathiard-Thomas and her husband were taking part in the family grape harvest, they met Professor Vercauteren, the visiting head of the Bordeaux Faculty of Pharmacy. Seeing the heap of grape skins and seeds about to be discarded, Vercauteren remarked that they were wasting “a veritable treasure.” Grape skins and pips are rich in polyphenols that fight the free radicals responsible for wear and tear on the body and for aging skin. Mathilde was intrigued. When she discovered a natural mineral spring under some of the vines, she decided to mix the therapeutic water with the grape extracts. Et voilà, the world’s first Vinothérapie Spa and a line of Caudalie skin care products were born. (Caudalie isa term that describes the length of a wine’s aftertaste on the palate. The more caudalies the better.) Here at Les Sources de Caudalie visitors can enjoy total wine immersion: spa treatments that include a Crushed Cabernet Scrub and a Pulp Friction Sculpting Massage, award-winning wines from the estate and hospitality at one of France’s most charming country establishments.

It’s an ‘all in the family’ collaboration between Mathilde, who oversees the spa and product line, her sister Alice, who designed and runs the hotel, and parents Florence and Daniel Cathiard, former members of the French national ski team, who operate the organic winery.

Naturally there’s fine dining and a 15,000-bottle wine cellar. There’s even a bar called French Paradox in honour of the benefits of the grape.

Wine 101

Bottles of Bordeaux at rest

My friend Jiska and I actually began our wine immersion a few days earlier at the École du Vin in the city of Bordeaux. For only €25 each we spent the morning learning that Bordeaux is the largest wine-producing region in the world, with 57 appellations and 10,000 estates. No wonder a wine list here can be intimidating. I also gleaned that the gravelly soil on the left bank of the Garonne and Gironde rivers is ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the limestone and clay soil on the right bank is better for Merlot and Cabernet Franc. We washed down all this knowledge with a tasting of four regional vintages. Unless you’re a teetotaller, I recommend this beginner course before you start your exploration of the fruits of the vine. Besides, you’ll want to spend at least a day visiting Bordeaux, the vibrant capital of the region, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.Like a great wine, it too seems to improve with age.

In addition to the benefits of a couple of glasses of wine per day, researchers have also determined that French eating habits contribute to their slim figures and longevity. Instead of gulping down fast-food from a styrofoam box, the French tend to spend more time enjoying the pleasures of the table. However, they eat smaller portions of high-quality food and they don’t snack. They also walk a lot.

Pool at Les Sources de Caudalie Spa

Next to a fine meal and a good bottle of wine, nothing pleases me more than hiking 18 fairways. I discovered that in between all those vines, the Bordeaux area is dotted with a dozen golf courses. The Golf du Médoc Hôtel & Spa boasts two of the best. Their Châteaux course, host to the 1999 French Open and several other major tournaments, was designed in a Scottish style by architect Bill Coore. The other 18-hole Vignes course, by Canadian architect Rod Whitman, has more of a parkland feel. You know you’re in wine country because each hole is named after a château or grand cru from the Médoc region and the distance markers are in the form of wine bottles. Just a few kilometres away, the Relais de Margaux Meeting and Resort Hotel, Golf and Spa is tucked into the heart of the famous vineyards of Château Margaux. The 18-hole course runs along the scenic Gironde estuary, with fairways lined by mature oaks and elms and graceful swans gliding around the many ponds.

From Margaux we embarked upon the fabled D2 Médoc Wine Route, also known as the Châteaux Road. I felt as though I were driving through a prestigious winelist as I passed the estates of Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Pichon Longueville, to name a few.

In the Pauillac appellation, approximately a seven-iron from Château Lynch-Bages, owner Jean-Michel Cazes has built a village where his local winegrowers and craftsmen live and work. There’s a bazaar selling vintages from the region, a traditional bakery and Café Lavinal, a cozy eatery frequented by locals and tourists alike. It was here, in this unpretentious brasserie serving bistro-style dishes such as liver pâté and beef stew, that I enjoyed the best glass of wine in my life (okay, I confess: two glasses). It was a1998 Château Lynch-Bages. My pal Jiska took a sip and sighed. “It’s like the baby Jesus in velvet shorts.” Perhaps not exactly the terminology of a true wine connoisseur, but I got her drift. It was certainly divine.

Boy, I hope the French paradox is true.

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