On holidays before children, if we passed a vineyard or two, we'd stop to taste the wine and maybe buy a bottle. We loved going on holidays where wine tasting was the main aim. But with three young children, we thought that particular pleasure was over, at least for 16 years or so. We could drive with Thomas, aged seven, Inès, five, and Eloise, two, through the acres of vines and admire the chateaux from afar, but going in and tasting the wines couldn't really be an option, could it? Surely it would be no fun for anyone – not for the children, us, and especially not for the staff and other visitors.
But hearing about some changes within the Bordeaux region's booming "oenotourisme" made me reconsider.
Ten of the region's thousands of vineyards have, over the last two to three years, decided to actively encourage families to visit, laying on special activities for children, all available in English.
This was great news for we oenophiles, but we wondered if we would be condemned as irresponsible parents if we took up the vineyards' tempting offer. Wine might be quite civilised but it is still booze.
But Sophie Gaillard, head of oenotourisme at the Office de Tourisme in Bordeaux, said: "In the Bordeaux region, wine is such a part of our culture that children learn about it from a very young age, including the dangers of alcohol."
Half convinced, I arranged a short tour, to include two chateaux a day so the children wouldn't get too tired. Bordeaux is about two and a half hours from our home in Toulouse, so we booked two nights in a family‑run chambre d'hôte called La Ferrade, in Bègles, just outside the city. On Saturday morning we made the half-hour drive to Château d'Agassac (agassac.com) in Ludon-Medoc. With immaculate lawns and a forest backdrop, pointed turrets and a moat, Agassac is a proper fairytale castle. "Wow!" said the kids. We all had a go at the audio and video iPod tour and quiz, designed for children who are often left out at vineyards. Thomas happily roamed the lawn with headphones on, noting down the answers to questions about the history of the chateau and grape growing. Eloise was a bit little for that but loved the ducks in the moat.
The tour ended at the old pigeon tower, now a tasting room, where the grown-ups got to taste three of the chateau's wines. The children were chuffed to get certificates for their efforts and cool down with a glass of grape juice. Five-year-old Inès sniffed my glass – "it smells very strongly of wine" – and giggled at daddy's use of the spittoon, but they were restless and it was time for lunch so we made a quick exit.
Once fed, we headed off for another 30-minute drive to Château Saint Ahon (saintahon.com), a family-run chateau right in the middle of the town of Blanquefort. It's only little but it makes some very nice, affordable wines and, unusually, puts families at the centre of what it does with its new attraction, the Jardins de Mirabel trail, which costs €6.20 for adults (including tasting) and €3 for children aged 4-16.
Pauline Devaux, who runs the tourism side and helped devise the trail, sent us off with quiz sheets, and the information boards took us past the vines, horses, Mirabel the donkey and the shady picnic and play area. It was a pretty, pushchair-friendly stroll, and the littlest soon nodded off.
"We designed it for children, but adults really learn a lot from it too," said Devaux, back at the boutique. The older kids tasted local fruit juices, colour in pictures and checked their quiz answers, the littlest snoozed and we tasted three of the chateau's wines – including a fruity, full-bodied rosé named after Mirabel. The trip was a success. "I didn't enjoy it," said Thomas, "I loved it." Us too.
On Sunday, fuelled by pains aux chocolat, we drove to Château Soutard (chateau-soutard.com), an 18th‑century country house that overlooks Saint-Emilion on a hill surrounded by vines. It is peaceful, beautiful and looks like hell for parents with small children. What havoc could they wreak here? But Château Soutard says it aims to welcome all – connoisseurs, novices, wine lovers, friends and families.
A map with themed, self-guided tours, including one for children, costs €6. There's also a trip called Petits Cartographes, specifically designed for kids, costing €30 each for a minimum group of four and a maximum of eight children. It takes two hours, and a guide leads them around the vineyards and buildings, explaining – through stories – biodiversity, keeping the vines healthy and how to make wine.
Timing problems and an unexpected busload of tourists meant our kids couldn't do this one so, after an enjoyable but short walk with a guide, they joined us inside. "It looks like Willy Wonka's factory," marvelled Thomas. It did a bit – there were giant steel vats and snaking pipes, and even a great glass elevator. But there was nothing for them to do in the minimalist tasting cellar, so we took them upstairs before a behavioural meltdown ensued. The staff were professional and patient, the wines fantastic and the environment exceptionally lovely, but I think this is one to visit with older, calmer children.
Our final stop was the 14th-century Château Bardins (chateaubardins.fr.gd) in Cadaujac. Visitors can come year-round on a reservation-only basis, families are welcome to walk around the wooded grounds and there is a "petite menagerie" with rabbits and guinea pigs. Each June the chateau hosts a colourful medieval festival, and this happened to be the weekend we visited. There were craft stalls, face painting and a jousting tournament. It was not a typical day at Château Bardins but it was certainly child-friendly.
The trick, of course, is to get the balance right, and when it works it's wonderful. One chateau a day would have been more relaxing, but everyone had fun. And here at Château Bardins, during the festival, parents could taste the wine while the little ones got to marvel at the tall green elfin lady on stilts. Everyone was a winner.
• Sandra's accommodation was provided by La Ferrade (+33 5 5649 0116, laferrade.com), which has B&B doubles for €70, family rooms for €110. EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Bordeaux from Bristol, Liverpool, Gatwick and Luton, from around £90 return in July. A return train trip from London to Bordeaux costs from £140 (raileurope.com)
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