Bages and the winery
All you really need to know about the latest developments in Bordeaux is right here: La Winery de Philippe Raoux has its own MySpace page.
Well, okay, it only actually makes an appearance on someone else’s MySpace page, but do a bit of investigating, and there are several Bordeaux chateaux that have set up their own entry on the world’s most popular networking site (Chateau Lesparre, for example, has an impressive 75 friends linking to its page, one of whom is Bill Murray). It’s definitely a giant leap forward for an area that is routinely described as insular, old-fashioned and closed off.
Waking up to the consumer has become something of a theme for the Bordelais in recent years. Driven of course by sales pressure, winemakers have been concentrating less on terroir and more on exporting the image of romantic chateaux and gourmet food and wine matching. Some of it has been carefully orchestrated; the latest generic advertising campaign from Parisian agency MC Saatchi-GAD concentrates heavily on selling the image of fairy tale chateaux. They also received a rather large helping hand – at considerably less cost to the Bordeaux Wine Bureau – from James Bond in Casino Royale, who manages to drink Lillet (the original Bordeaux aperitif) and Chateau Angélus, the Saint Emilion grand cru classé; both full screen advertisements for the magic of Bordeaux.
But projecting an image is one thing; turning it into a reality another, and the last few months have finally seen the launch of two significant wine tourism projects that promise to draw a line under the old conversation that Bordeaux only knows how to make wine, not to sell it.
Both, perhaps surprisingly, are in the Médoc. We’re used to thinking of the Right Bank as being the home of innovation in this region; the garagiste winemakers first introduced the concepts of hang time and green harvesting around the vineyards of Saint Emilion, and the town itself is a UNESCO world heritage bona fide tourist trap. But the first truly international-style wine tourism projects have both opened on the musty old Left Bank.
Firstly, September 2006 saw the official launch of the village of Bages, described on its prominent roadside sign as ‘village des saveurs et du vin’. It hasn’t come a moment too soon – Bages is just five minutes outside of Pauillac, one of the most alluring names of the wine world, and one of its least alluring sights. On paper, it’s an extension of Chateau Lynch Bages, a chocolate box village with bakery, bistro and wine shop, all part of the Jean-Michel Cazes empire. It’s certainly true that any money spent in the area will end up on his balance sheet, but this was still much needed investment into a run down area.
The village of Bages had been Caze’s grandparents’ home, but the entire place had been derelict for over half a century. A few years ago, when Lynch Bages needed to expand its warehouse space, Caze’s architect suggested knocking down the empty houses behind the chateau to double the space for bottle storage. ‘It would have meant tearing down several empty homes behind the chateau in Bages,’ he explains. ‘I realised that I didn’t want to turn the village where my grandparents lived, where I grew up, into a warehouse space.’
The history of Bages is typical of many small hamlets in the Médoc, and one of the reasons why the area can be such a depressing place to drive through – a series of non-descript towns punctuated by the grand, sweeping facades of illustrious chateaux. ‘Historically, people owned a few rows of vines here and lived in the village, making modest quantities of wine. One by one, when their children didn’t want to follow them, they sold these off to the large chateaux owners, and the houses came along with the deal. I myself left at 18, believing there was no future for me in wine, but now that I have come back, and had some modest success, I want to help. As tourism grows in the Médoc, so villages can start to support themselves again.’
Thierry Marx, the Michelin-starred chef of Cazes’ Relais Chateaux hotel, is a baker’s son, and Cazes himself is a baker’s grandson, so naturally enough they started with a boulangerie, Au Baba d’Andréa, opened in 2004. It took another two years to open the Café Lavinal brasserie, the Bages Bazaar wine shop, and to renovate the local housing stock sufficiently to rent out or sell ten houses to locals who want to actually move back into the village. The central square has been cobbled, and a fountain gives it focus. Over the next few years, he hopes to open a museum, an art gallery, a tasting school, a series of workshops for local artisans, even a small cinema. On the opening night, Cazes spoke to the assembled guests from an upstairs balcony above the bakery, explaining, ‘This is an emotional sight for me; there hasn’t been a crowd of people in this square for over 100 years.’
La Winery, a €12 million wine tourism complex in Arsac-en-Médoc, goes even further, as it invites visitors to get to know not just Philippe Raoux’s own wines (he is proprietor of Chateau d’Arsac in Margaux, plus a number of other properties in the region), and not just Bordeaux wines, but a full range of international names from so-called competitor counties such as California, Spain and Australia.
Opened in mid-March 2007, La Winery immediately sets out its stall with vast towering aluminium and glass walls enclosing 10,000m2 space, designed by architect Patrick Hernandez. Outside, there’s 27 hectares of park and picnic land with water features and Thai-style gazebos, while inside there’s an amphitheatre, exhibition space, a gastronomic restaurant, tapas bar, tasting rooms and 1,000 square metres of retail space, containing over 40,000 bottles ranging in price from €3 to €2000. In addition to free tastings, there will be ticketed tastings including Bouchard Burgundy dating back to the 1940s, and verticals of Sassicaia and Vega Sicilia.
And Raoux isn’t above pandering to the tourist euro – visitors will get the chance to find out their ‘wine sign’ with a zodiac reading of the wine style that most suits their temperament. And just in case you were wondering, there’s a link with Jean Michel Cazes; the wine list is being run by Arnaud Plard, who earned his stripes as sommelier at Cazes’ Cordeillan Bages hotel.
La Winery has been routinely described as ‘Californian’ in style – but really it could be in South Africa, Australia, Argentina… any forward-thinking wine producing country, but until now unthinkable in Bordeaux. Raoux runs Marjolaine, one of France's oldest mail-order wine companies, which gives him a vested interest in promoting other regions, but he also has an almost evangelical desire to break the mould of Bordeaux. ‘This is very definitely a first for Bordeaux, and was inspired by the best wine centres that I have visited around the world.’
Are these two high profile launches going to encourage others in the area to follow suit? Well, as is usual with Bordeaux, there has been plenty of sniping and back-biting. Bages has been described as ‘Disneyland’, by a fellow UK wine writer as well as by some of the locals, and Le Winery was derided, even on decanter.com, as an ‘awful idea’, as if it somehow desecrated the whole image of Bordeaux to have something so blatantly commercial. Another voice on the same website described the initiative as, ‘a negative sign that (Bordeaux) no longer believes in (its) chances to be attractive to international buyers’.
Others have been more positive. Café Lavinal is booked solid every lunchtime, despite being almost one hour from downtown – mainly full of local vineyard owners entertaining their clients – and La Winery expects to get 100,000 visitors in its first year alone. There are numerous wine tourism projects springing up on both the Right and Left Bank, from picnicking in the vines to blending and labeling your own wines. One of Bordeaux’s most prolific and high profile chateau owners, Bernard Magrez (himself launching a large wine tourism initiative, with a wine shop at Pape Clement, together with exclusive chambre d’hotes and tailored wine tours planned at a number of his Bordeaux properties) sees any snide comments as pure jealousy. ‘Bordeaux has been sleeping, and this has been a wake up call for everyone.’
Bordeaux embraces the consumer
Five years ago, you’d have been more likely to find a closed sign in a Bordeaux chateau than a shop where you could purchase a bottle of wine – let alone a few souvenirs. But the last year has seen many chateau owners realise that there’s value in allowing visitors to buy wine after a tasting, and that maybe it isn’t a crime to allow them to leave with a postcard.
Chateau Prieure Lichine – This 4th cru has been a pioneer of wine tourism in the Médoc since the 1980s, one of the very first to put a ‘Visitors welcome’ sign up outside and actually mean it. Today there is a well-stocked boutique in an attractive round tower. 33460 Margaux. +33 5 57 88 36 28
Source de Caudalie at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte - Not only does the spa sell a range of cosmetics and treatments based around grape products, but the chateau itself has a shop that sells aprons and corkscrews, as well as wine. Chemin de Smith Haut Lafitte, Martillac +33 5 57 83 83 83. www.source-caudalie.com
Chateau Rauzan Gassies – Just like the family, this boutique is under-stated in the extreme. Five or six well chosen objects (from soft leather wine-carrying cases to art de vivre table settings) in pared-down, upscale surroundings. 33460 Margaux. +33 5 57 88 71 88.
Bernard Magrez boutique, Chateau Pape Clement - Its interior is like an old-style apothecary shop, with medicine cabinets alternating with black marble and huge chandeliers. This summer sees tapas-style tasting plates to accompany the wines, and cookery classes from names such as Alain Ducasse – and if you buy more than 12 bottles of any wine, it’s delivered to your door in a rolls royce. 216 Avenue de Dr. Nancel Pénard, 33600 Pessac. + 33 5 57 26 38 38
Millesima’s cellars – This shop isn’t in a chateau, but at Patrick Bernard’s négociant house in downtown Bordeaux. For lovers of grand cru classés, the glamorous boutique, set into a lower level of the property, is possibly the best browsing spot in Bordeaux. 87, quai de Paludate, +33 5 57 808 808 www.millesima.com.
Chateau Haut Bailly – The extensive renovations to this Pessac Leognan property have now been finished, and a boutique should be open by summer 2007. 33850 Léognan, + 33 5 56 64 75 11. www.chateau-haut-bailly.com
Chateau de Sours – Maybe not surprisingly for a chateau that was previously owned by Majestic Wine Warehouse’s Esme Johnson, but this has a very good wine shop that sells both their famous rosé, their newer sparkling rosé, and Australian wines owned by the same company. 33750 Saint-Quentin-de-Baron
+ 33 5 57 24 19 26 www.chateaudesours.com
Hameau de Bages - 33250 Pauillac
Café Lavinal : 33 (0) 5 57 75 00 09 (menus à environ 12 €)
Au Baba d'Andréa : 33 (0) 5 56 73 24 00
Bages Bazar : 33 (0) 5 56 73 24 00
La Winery www.lawinery.fr