If you haven’t heard about the new Cité du Vin in Bordeaux yet, where have you been?
Opened in June this year on the banks of the Garonne River, it is as extravagant in budget (costing over €81 million) as it is in style, being christened the Guggenheim of wine.
Situated at the heart of the city of Bordeaux, you would be forgiven for expecting it to be this is a temple to Bordeaux wine, but no, it is an experience that covers the history and geography as well as the technical and cultural side of wine from all around the world, all rolled into a easy to use and interactive site. The wine shop carries over 700 different wines from 70 different countries and counting.
Split over 10 levels, it is crowned with a 35-metre-high belvedere with panoramic views of Bordeaux to be enjoyed whilst sipping wines from around the world and before dining in the 7th floor restaurant.
This investment is emblematic of the current forward looking and open style of Bordeaux. Yes, Bordeaux is a traditional area, grapes have been grown and wine made here since Roman times, but rooted in the past does not mean stuck in it.
There is a long history of innovation; introducing new aging techniques to produce the ‘New French Claret’ in the 17th century, solving challenges such as Mildew with the Bordeaux mixture in 1878 to the introduction of stainless steel in the 1960’s.
This spirit of innovation continues today; in the architecture where modern cellars sit next to 18th and 19th century chateaux but also inside the cellars. The methods may remain traditional but the latest technology makes the wine makers’ life easier or at least reduces some of the risk, both in the field and in the cellar. It’s not unusual to see drones flying over the vineyards surveying the vines for signs of disease, next to horses ploughing more delicate plots. Keeping the best of the old and using the new.
Bordeaux University (The Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin) is a centre of excellence for research in both viticulture and wine making research and development. The local network of oenology consultants throughout the region ensures this knowledge gets to even the smallest of producers.
And talking about small producers, another image of Bordeaux is that of large estates owned by corporations and luxury groups. Bordeaux is big, Latest figures released by the CIVB show the vineyard covering just under 112 00 ha (about 280 000 acres) but it is divided up amongst over 7 000 wine estates with an average size of under 16ha (less than 40 acres).
Bordeaux is not written in tablets of stone – there is a continual evolution. Take size again. Back in the 1960s there were over 40 000 winegrowers with an average size of 2+ ha. Many of these tiny part time producers have now gone, allowing more specialised producers to take up the slack, although 25% of Bordeaux is still made from smaller vineyards that deliver grapes to cooperatives rather than make the wine themselves. All part of the wonderful complexity of the region. The area under vines in Bordeaux vineyard has decreased too, when I arrived in the late eighties Bordeaux was 123 000 ha all in the interests in keeping only the best land for Bordeaux.
But it’s not just size that has changed. We associate Bordeaux with red wine, the famous Bordeaux blend, and quite rightly so: 88% of the production is currently red. It wasn’t always so; up until the 1970s white wines made up over half of the production – this only changing following devastating frost in 1956 after which many white grape vines were replaced by red – a long and painful period of adaptation for many producers.
The expression Bordeaux blend used in production all over the world is usually thought of as cabernet dominated. In recent years the percentage of Merlot has increased, global warming may be a concern but on most cooler, clay soils the temperate Bordeaux climate allows Merlot dominated blends to produce lovely, easy drinking wines that the consumer seems to be looking for. Bordeaux is happy to oblige.
Of course Bordeaux still makes and always will make powerful Cab driven wines for aging, but over 50% of the region’s production is in the Bordeaux (and Bordeaux Supérieur) appellation. These are the wines that have benefitted so much from the new research and development giving consistency at affordable prices whether red, white or rose – the average price of a bottle of wine from Bordeaux comes in at around 6€ so again dust off your preconceptions about pricey Bordeaux and check out the ‘everyday’ Bordeaux but also appellations such as Cotes and Fronsac and in the Medoc look out for the value wines such as Cru Bourgeois.
It’s easier than ever to find them, wine tourism is booming; cellar doors are wide open to visitors. The city of Bordeaux, personified by the Cité du Vin, is a buzzing hub for city breaks and Bordeaux has never been more open for business.
Come and see for yourself, the Cité du Vin is just the emblematic tip of the innovative Bordeaux iceberg.