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Bordeaux may be an historical wine region, 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 here, from introducing new aging techniques to produce the ‘New French Claret’ in the 17th century, to solving challenges such as mildew with the Bordeaux mixture in 1878 or the introduction of stainless steel tanks in the 1960’s.
This spirit of innovation keeps the best of tradition alongside the latest technology and one of the ways visitors can experience this is in the brand new cellars built on or next to old classic chateaux. Here are some places where you can find some of the best of the architectural innovation.
Château Beauregard in Pomerol dates back to the 11th century and the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, which explains the use of the emblematic Knights Templar cross in the chateau and on the labels and capsules of the bottles. The first chateau was built here by the Beauregard family in the 16th century but was replaced in the 18th century by the present chateau - a classic Gironde chartreuse. From it's terrace you overlook a lily filled moat and the beautiful grounds filled with mature trees leading towards the vines. So beautiful is this place that the Guggenheim family copied it, building a replica at Port Washington naming it “Mille-Fleurs”.
In 2014, the Moulin and Cathiard families purchased Château Beauregard. Preserving the classic architecture they have totally refurbished the chateau which now includes five luxury bedrooms which look out over the grounds and the vineyard. The true innovation is to be found in the cellar, created adjacent to the existing barrel cellar. The spectacular concrete, pear shaped vats were ready to receive the organically grown grapes of the 2016 vintage.
Not far away in neighbouring Saint Emilion, Château Faugères is another example of the old meeting the new. Dating back to 1832, the property was purchased by Silvio Denz in 2005. He invested heavily in the property improving wine quality but also in the design. The architect Mario Botta created a monumental winery at the top of the plateau of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, wining a gold medal in the “Architecture and Landscapes” category Best Of Wine Tourism Awards in 2013. Visiting the vineyard you taste the wines of this and his neighbouring vineyards from the belvedere tower overlooking the breath-taking landscape. This investment in quality was rewarded in 2012 when Château Faugères became Grand Cru Classé in the latest Saint Emilion classification.
Design innovation is not limited to the cellar. Denz's passion for art and in particular René Lalique, lead to the creation of a unique bottle for the 2009 vintage of Château Peby Faugères. He took a Rene Lalique design from 1928 of a black bird amongst grapes. Fitting as Blackbird in French is 'Merle' the origin of the name of black Merlot grapes that dominate the wines of the property.
If breath-taking views are on your agenda you must visit Château Gruaud Larose in Saint Julien in the Medoc. The property is a member of the exclusive 1855 classification and dates back to the 18th century. It was created by Joseph Stanislas Gruaud in 1757 and left to Monsieur de Larose 1781 upon his death - hence its name ever since. There has always been a tower next to the Chateau. Rumour has it that from the top of this tower the owner would survey his land but also keep an eye on the workers in his vines.
The recently renovated cellars are a great place to understand fermentation as you can see both beautiful wooden vats and the traditional cement vats side by side. Alongside the new wine making facilities they created an ultra modern, glass fronted tasting lounge to welcome visitors, and echoing the old tower, now no longer accessible for safety reasons, a new tower even higher than the original. From here you can see the whole of their large vineyard and across Saint Julien to Pauillac with views of the Gironde Estuary and even, on a clear day, as far as the coast. The other big advantage is there is now a lift for the less sporty amongst you.
You will finish your visit with a tasting of course and can add in a selection of cheese or some chocolates to show the wine to its best advantage or even take a cooking class. Or venture back in time into the 18th century chateau to taste some older vintages - the old alongside the new; another Bordeaux signature.
Château Kirwan in Margaux has always been a pioneer in wine tourism opening up the doors of this classified growth in 1995, way before it became standard practice. Now they welcome some 15,000 visitors per year from all over the world for tastings, lunches, dinners, and an aperitif in the evening or even a stroll through the beautiful chateau gardens. In their continued innovation of the wine experience, you can participate in the life of the chateau by learning how to prune the vines in winter or perhaps take a perfume workshop to discover the olfactory signature of the wine. It is truly an open door policy.
The new cellar, that joins the old is a work of art created by Kinga and Anatoly Stolnikoff fronted by a giant vine sculpted from words inspired by the property and it's wines. The 37 monumental, tulip-shaped concrete vats can be viewed from the tasting room that also looks out over the rolling gravel outcrops of the vineyard, bringing the vines into the cellar.
Also in Margaux, Château La Tour de Bessan is another example of innovation in this historic appellation. The tower (tour) in the name dates from the 13th century tower. Sadly there is not much left of it now, just some ruins but the vines are in excellent shape. Marie-Laure Lurton owns the vineyard; she knows the vines well, having worked them when they belonged to her father before her. She has brought the vineyard up to the latest viticultural standards, replanting at a higher density with a higher pruning and working to sustainable Terras Vitis certification.
In 1999 she needed a new winery to match these investments and took the unusual step of taking over a disused telecommunications building from the 1930s. It certainly stands out amongst the classic architecture of the Medoc. Designed by Vincent Defos du Rau from Toulouse it signs the vineyard's desire for innovation and change. From here Maire-Laure runs what she calls 'back stage tours'. As well as guided visits and tastings, she organises blending workshops so you can really understand this signature of Bordeaux and how the different grape varieties grown on the different soils types of Margaux produce the wonderful complexity of these wines.
We can't finish this round up of new architectural gems without mentioning Chateau Les Carmes Haut Brion, closer to Bordeaux, in fact almost downtown. 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 35 ha vineyard. The cellar resembles a ship sailing on water with the wine making cellar on top and the barrels underneath and a terrace and tasting room above it all.
Using architecture and design is a way wine makers can communicate to visitors their respect for history and tradition while embracing innovation - it's a winning wine tourism combination.
By Wendy Narby