Occasionally I’m asked if I get bored with what I do for a living, after all, I have been sharing Bordeaux for over 20 years through wine tours and teaching. Well no, with over 8000 Chateaux to choose from and a new vintage every year, monotony is not on the cards. Sometimes, something brings a completely new perspective on Bordeaux, even after all these years. The Wine and Design tour did just that. Viewing familiar properties through another person’s eyes is fascinating.
It’s not news that Bordeaux has spectacular wine cellars; I have mentioned some in previous blogs, (Mouton, Pedesclaux, Marquis d’Alesme, Cheval Blanc) but on this Wine and Design Tour, thanks to Interior designer Abigail Hall, design and architecture took centre stage, with the wine almost an added bonus. Be reassured it wasn’t a dry tour!
Abigail’s passion for design and architecture is not a surprise; it’s what she does for a living. Designing happiness is her strapline and judging by her sunny disposition, she must be pretty good at it.
The objective of the tour was to illustrate how, since the 17th century, architecture of both the city and chateaux has been used as a showcase for the wealth and the wines of the region. Bordeaux and its vineyards have been around since Roman times. Although only the Palais Gallien amphitheatre, from the third century, still remains in the city, la rue Sainte Catherine, supposedly the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe, follows the path of an old Roman road from North to South. There are still some Roman remains in the vines though, mostly in Saint Emilion.
Medieval architectural, built during the wave of prosperity following the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet and the resulting English thirst for ‘Claret’, is more abundant. The Cathédrale Saint-André, where Eleanor married her first husband Louis VII in 1137, and two medieval gates built under the English ‘occupation’ managed to escape the 17th century redevelopment of the city. In the Graves wine region there are some fabulous examples of medieval architecture. Graves is considered the cradle of fine wine making and many noble families had hunting lodges here in the Middle ages. Château Olivier is probably one of the most outstanding examples that is still a working vineyard.
Serious wealth arrived in the 17th century; Bordeaux was France’s largest port, and exhibited this prosperity for all to see by building the beautiful waterfront of Bordeaux. Bordeaux remains one of Europe’s largest 18th century architectural centres, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. At its heart, the beautiful place de la Bourse, built in 1755 by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, is reflected in Le Miroir d’Eau, the largest reflecting pool in the world, built in 2006. A marriage of old and new that we would see repeated in the chateaux and wineries.
Wine bought wealth but wealth also bought wine and ‘new money’ created architectural gems throughout the region used as showcases for the families, their wealth, their power and their wines.
Designing showcases is one thing but wine cellars must be also functional places of work. Wine making really remains very traditional in Bordeaux, these new cellars may be made of ultra modern glass and steel but the basic functions of selecting, preserving, fermenting and ageing remain largely the same. There is even a trend towards more traditional methods such as gravity feed, eschewing pumps.
As soils are more precisely sampled and understood, smaller and more precise plots within vineyards are leading to precision viticulture. Smaller plots mean more and smaller vats in cellars, allowing this more precise expression of ‘terroir’ to be carried from field to cellar, to barrel and to bottle.
The challenge is for these cellars to showcase the wine as they open up to visits and wine tourism but also to marry this design to functionality. To keep up to date with the latest technology, without losing their historical soul.
Chateau Beychevelle in Saint Julien, known as the Versailles of the Medoc, is a perfect example. It is built in the classic Chartreuse style of Bordeaux architecture: a single story building with an ‘enfilade’ of rooms that go from the front to the back of the building, with towers at each end. Rebuilt in 1757 along the banks of the Gironde estuary, its gardens run down to the water. When it was built, it was a representation of wealth and status of the Marquis de Brassier, over-looking the estuary which brought in the wealth and carried away the wines.
Under the current owners, Grands Millésimes de France, part of the Castel and Suntory groups, the beautiful Chateau has undergone considered restoration to the bedrooms and bathrooms to make them as deluxe as the chateau is grand. The central salons have a programme of restoration with some fully restored and others still presenting the restoration work done in the twentieth century. Guests can now dine and sleep in this 17th century decor. It is the perfect base for the ‘Wine and Design’ Tour.
Once you leave the Chateau you are immediately transported into the 21st century: the brand new cellars innovative in both design and technology. Allowing design, technical wine making and a low carbon footprint to come together in the glass and metal winery – a stunning juxtaposition of old and ultra modern.
Another striking Medoc example of the old and the new is Chateau Pedesclaux, a little further north in Pauillac. Here the two are much more intimately woven. Glass is the perfect medium for a showcase and at Pedesclaux it is the Château that is encased. Instead of building a classic extension the owners, Jacky and Françoise Lorenzetti, built a glass case around the chateau incorporating the dovecote into the new tasting room. The neighbouring cellar is also modern: stainless steel, temperature control and gravity-fed technology over four stories, discretely half-hidden into the side of the gravel outcrop the chateau sits upon.
Sometimes you can’t always work with the old, the Perrodo family were presented with such a challenge They are now well established in the Medoc, already owners of Chateau Labegorce, they purchased Château Marquis d’Alesme in 2006. Or at least the vines of this prestigious classified growth, next to chateau Margaux, the original chateau remains in the hands of the previous owners.
They had to start effectively from scratch to build a winery. And what a winery: functional but also beautiful, it is inspired by their dual Chinese and French heritage: a Zen cellar to make, age and share the wine from the estate.
They share their passion not just through the cellars and wine but also through the sensory gardens and small restaurant. Wine and design bring together two different cultures through a shared passion.
Closer to Bordeaux, in fact almost downtown, Chateau les Carmes Haut Brion is another, if very different, example of starting from scratch. The previous owner is still living in the original chateau so the new owner, Pichet, commissioned Philippe Stark to create a very original new cellar for this 33 ha vineyard (6 ha around the cellars and 27 ha near Martillac for Le C des Carmes). The cellar resembles a ship sailing on water with the wine making cellar on top and the barrel underneath and a terrace and tasting room above it all.
We were not only interested in the cellars, Abigail is an interior designer after all, so what happens in the chateau is as important, if not more important to her. After all these ‘homes’ are often used to welcome clients and prestigious guests to share the wines made from the surrounding vines. Abigail walked us through The Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Design in a neoclassical townhouse built in 1779. It is dedicated to the classic Bordeaux interior design of the period; Abigail identified for us, the key styles of the period that we would find again in the wines properties.
Chateau de Cerons is one such treasure; hidden away in Cerons, the smallest of the Bordeaux appellations, known for it’s elegant sweet white wines. Since 2012, Caroline and Xavier Peyromat are bringing this family property back to life. A listed historical monument, built in the early 17th century in the classic Bordeaux chartreuse style (mentioned above), it is a bijou of 18th century architecture.
The original interiors have remained intact over the years and we found the same plaster reliefs on the walls and fireplaces here that we saw in the museum in Bordeaux. But this is no museum.
The chateau is at the heart of a vineyard producing a range of red and dry white Graves as well as the sweet Cerons and is also the family home. A family that generously shared their unique piece of history, opening their doors to us we discovered the chateau, vines and cellars as well as having a picnic in the park accompanied with wines from the property of course.
So bored of touring Bordeaux? Never. There is always something new to see and something new to learn.