Wine tourism is big for the Bordeaux region. Now, spectactular architecture is drawing visitors who have not yet discovered the joys of the grape.
An excited quacking erupts from the reeds. On the manmade lake outside the wine cellar at Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion, three ducks are having a noisy race to see which of them can make it around this futuristic building first. The four-story oval building projects far into the water, its outer wall clad with bronze-colored aluminum panels. This building in Bordeaux bears a strong resemblance to a submarine, but it could also be the blade of a plow, cutting a furrow in the fertile soil of the Bordeaux region. Philippe Starck, the internationally acclaimed industrial designer and co-architect on this project, cleverly describes it as a “non-building” designed to blend into its surroundings. Indeed, there are moments when the clouds, the sun and the nearby vineyards are reflected so harmoniously in the glittering facade that the building – around 80 meters long and nearly 12 meters high – is rendered virtually invisible.
This shimmering giant is just one of many brilliant strokes of architectural genius to be found in the wine estates around Bordeaux. For the past decade, the ambitious architectural elite of France have been immortalizing themselves in the famous wine region; even some of their famous colleagues from abroad have followed suit. To the left and right of the Garonne, where the vineyards seem to go on forever and some of the world’s most illustrious and expensive red wines rest aging in barriques, a good dozen modern wine cellars today enliven the monotony of the monoculture landscape. As the region happily acknowledges, an undeclared yet heated contest to erect the most spectacular building is definitely in progress.
Instead of merely imparting facts, we amaze people
The city of Bordeaux is also in the running: In spring 2016, the wine museum Cité du Vin (wine city) was officially opened on the banks of the Garonne, in the former industrial district Bacalan. Even before the groundbreaking ceremony, the project’s initiator, Mayor Alain Juppé, vowed that the Cité du Vin would be his Guggenheim. His comparison to the museum in Bilbao, Spain, is a bold but fitting one. Since it first opened its doors, the “wine city” has become a new Bordeaux landmark. The Paris-based firm of architects XTU led by Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières took their inspiration from a typical wine-tasting gesture: As it curves in on itself, the building emulates the swirling of wine in a glass. The facade of glass and aluminum panels shimmer brown to gold, depending on the light. A tower roughly 35 meters tall crowns the structure. The eighth floor has a bar where visitors can enjoy a free glass of wine and a panoramic view of the city after the tour. Oak, glass and stainless steel dominate inside the building, where decorative elements are reminiscent of corks or fizz bubbles. The 3000- square-meter permanent exhibition provides information and includes a trail, interactive maps and games that focus on the natural, economic and cultural history of wine. Véronique Lemoine, 55, the scientific consultant responsible for the exhibition, emphasizes that the aim is “also to appeal to people who don’t know about wine.” But experts also get their money’s worth: “Instead of merely imparting facts, we amaze people. Here, you can find out how the Ancient Egyptians made wine and which particular wine was Churchill’s favorite,” says Lemoine.
Even the wine estates are keen to attract a broader public, including Château La Dominique in the famous wine town of Saint-Émilion, which has really opened up to wine tourism. A big draw for visitors is the building designed by star architect and Pritzker Award winner Jean Nouvel. His ultramodern wine cellar rises fiery red from the green vineyards all around. The Parisian architect used metal panels in six different shades of red for the facade. Overlapping like scales, they create a pleasing progression of colors, from reddish purple to amber. The curved wall mirrors the vineyards and the sky, blending the building discreetly into its surroundings despite its brilliant color. Marketing manager Camille Poupon, 38, has the statistics to prove its attraction: “We used to get 2000 visitors a year here, today it’s 12 000, and we expect to see as many as 16 000 in the coming years. We call it the Jean-Novel effect – his name even attracts people with no keen interest in wine.” By lunchtime, La Terrasse Rouge, the restaurant on the roof of La Dominique, is already heaving. From here, visitors have a good view of Saint-Émilion’s second highlight, the snow-white, elegantly rounded Cheval Blanc wine cellar just a few hundred meters away. It was built by Christian de Portzamparc, also a Pritzker Award winner.
For a long time, it was the noble Grand Cru and Grand Cru Classé vineyards that neglected to engage with the consumer, says Poupon. They didn’t need to because designations of origin, such as Saint-Émilion or Médoc, were enough. “On top of this, there’s the local practice of selling 70 percent of the wine produced by famous vineyards en primeur, in other words, at a very young stage, before the refining process. The vintners themselves didn’t meet their customers”, she explains, “but this has changed with the rise of wine tourism.” More and more consumers want to see how wine is made. They want to taste it, preferably in a pleasant ambience at the vineyard.
Many winegrowing families embody a 200-year-old wine tradition, says the marketing expert. Often a certain snobbery exists, and some estates will allow only experts into their cellars. “But there’s a new, more open generation coming up – the new vintners are culturally unburdened because they started out in other industries,” says Poupon. The owner of Château La Dominique, Clément Fayat, is one such newcomer. The founder of one of the biggest construction companies in France, he bought the estate in 1969. His son Jean-Claude took over from him in 2012 and two years later, opened the spectacular new building; since then, the visitors have been pouring in.
Château Faugères in Saint-Étienne-de-Lisse, just a few kilometers from La Dominique, has a similar story to tell. Silvio Denz from Basle, founder of one of the largest Swiss perfumery chains and owner of the Lalique crystal company, took over there in 2005. Denz commissioned a friend, the famous Lugano -based architect Mario Botta, to build his new wine cellar. Botta’s “wine cathedral” was inaugurated back in 2009 and is regarded as the region’s pioneer project. Behind its smooth walls of pale sandstone on top of a hill lies the cutting-edge winemaking technology of which David Bolzan, the vineyard’s manager, is especially proud: “The maceration process takes advantage of the natural slope of the hill.” The freshly picked grapes fall from above into the barrels beneath, where they burst open. This eliminates the need to crush them, and that means higher quality. The modern equipment also cools and cleans the water sustainably. Such investments are necessary, says Bolzan, 46, since the Bordeaux Grand Crus, the region’s top wines, have a reputation to maintain. These days, many small vineyards are capable of producing very good wines, too, so that pressure on “the big names” is growing, especially the Grand Cru estates, whose seals of quality are reviewed every ten years. Presentation is important: “Many factors, such as a special bottle or architecture, today shape a wine’s image,” says Bolzan.
The wine wholesaler Ballande et Meneret, which was forced to relocate its warehouse to make way for the new TGV high-speed train line between Paris and Bordeaux, is also well aware of the greater significance of such factors. With bottles worth a total of some 70 million euros stored there, it holds the largest stock of Grand Cru Classé wines in the world. Necessity proved to be the mother of an attraction, in that the company commissioned the architects at Baggio-Piéchaud in Bordeaux to design its new flat-roofed warehouse. Its architectural “punch line”: 300 red LED lamps that shine throughout the night along its 100-meter-long and 10-meter-high white outer wall, evoking a glimpse inside the building and onto the bottles stored there.
Where such precious wares line the shelves, public tours are out of the question. However, important clients will occasionally request permission to take a look inside. Warehouse manager Pascal Brouet, 48, recalls a group from Singapore: “They only wanted to stay for 15 minutes, but after one-and-a-half hours, they had bought wines to the value of 40 000 euros – on their laptops, straight from the warehouse.” He sums it up like this: “Architecture has become a major marketing tool.”
Tour the terroirs
Cité du Vin
Château les Carmes Haut-Brion
Château La Dominique