Bordeaux’s Wine Growing Renaissance
Published: April 2009
By Alexandra Marshall
How does France’s oldest—and most iconic—wine-growing region go about reinventing itself?Alexandra Marshall meets the next generation of hoteliers, chefs, and winemakers behind this unexpected renaissance.
In one corner of the Médoc peninsula, wine tasting has evolved into something, dare I say it, New Age. There I sat on a sunny afternoon at mail-order merchant Philippe Raoux’s Winery, a massive, newly unveiled complex about 35 minutes north of the city of Bordeaux. I was blind-tasting six different bottles, pointing and clicking my impressions and pop-quiz replies onto a projected computer screen. (What is a cépage?Do I consider wine to be a critical component of a social gathering?) The goal: to discover my wine sign. Afterward, while ambling through airy nook after airy nook of the industrial-chic boutique with a mild buzz, I was handed a shiny orange dossier that contained my reading. I am an Explorer, with Explorer rising: I like everything (no argument there), and apparently I’m willing to try anything (right again!). Anyone who visits Winery can take the signe oenologique test for either $22 or $37, depending on the quality of wines being poured. Explorers (and Aesthetes, and Sensualists—there are six classifications in all) can then shop the boutique and more easily select bottles helpfully labeled with cartoon-faced glyphs corresponding to their signs.
After a generation in the business, Raoux developed this amusing system with enologist Frédéric Brochet to help customers define their taste and navigate the famously complicated Bordeaux system of appellations (designated regions), crus (winery classifications), and châteaux (individual producers with their own blends and styles), but also to introduce the French to wines from the rest of the world. Winery is a palace of tasteful diversions: there’s a gently priced gastronomic restaurant, a wine bar, a concert space, and bucolic picnic grounds. But Raoux’s ecumenical approach, with its focus on pleasure over expertise, is the real novelty. “This is the first time in France that we’ve asked people, ‘Okay, what do you like?’ he says in a warm whisper. “And then we go from there. We aim to de-dramatize the Bordeaux image.”
Raoux’s motivations are more than just educational; they’re financial. From 2001 to 2006, sales of the region’s wines dropped 20 percent, while an ongoing global glut (due to production topping consumption) has meant that prices have been steadily falling. Producers finally understand that they have to do something, so they’re inviting—and not merely tolerating—outsiders. “The Bordelais always thought it was good enough just to make great wine,” explains James Bonnardel, a dandyish young enologist and exporter. “But they need to open up.” And many are doing just that. Châteaux like Léoville Poyferré, La Lagune, and others in the Médoc are expanding their public spaces and courting wine enthusiasts in an effort to make the area a nice place to visit. Bonnardel has found a new calling in customizing luxury tours. If you want to gain access to that obscure château or travel by helicopter to sample unusual whites and oysters on a secluded riverside, he’s your man.
“I have always had the conviction that tourism needed to be developed to help us out,” says Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Pauillac’s Château Lynch-Bages and, with the opening of Château Cordeillan-Bages, one of Médoc’s first luxury hoteliers. He’s probably right, but it’s an uphill climb, as Bordeaux—the city and the 460 square miles of vineyard-strewn countryside that surrounds it—has never been known as the world’s most welcoming place. Despite the temperate climate and esteemed producers like Château Margaux, Château Lafite Rothschild, and Château Latour, this corner of France is considered by many to be private, overly obsessed with tradition, and cliquish. As a resident of Paris, whose citizens tend to look somewhat unfavorably on “competing” cities, I was inundated with anti-Bordeaux stereotypes—aristocratic signet rings, nationalist politics—and general disapproval before my trip. What I experienced was a region—including the Médoc peninsula to the northwest, St.-Émilion to the east, and the district of Graves to the southwest—full of bonhomie and pleasures at once ancient and extremely modern. I also discovered one of the country’s youngest cities, thanks to its large university; a dramatic urban cleanup; an influx of stylish hostelries; and a culinary revolution that has some Parisians verts with envy.
Like so many who come “pour le vang,” as Le St.-James’s Marseillais chef Michel Portos calls it, my trip started in the Médoc’s Pauillac, hallowed ground in the region. From there, I wandered up and down the peninsula’s Left Bank (not to be confused with Bordeaux city’s Left Bank) and on to the villages—and some of the celebrated wineries—of St.-Estèphe, St.-Julien, Margaux, and Arcins before a shorter wander across the Garonne River and through St.-Émilion on the Right Bank. Though the château scene is indeed a little stiff, once I got to Bordeaux city proper, I wondered if all my Parisian friends who had so disdained the town had even been here lately.
As part of a face-lift, Bordeaux has given its contemporary art museum, the CAPC, a massive overhaul and added a space-age tram, which will soon expand to serve Mérignac Airport. The city-sponsored École du Vin, meanwhile, opened a few years ago, offering wine-country weekend tours and on-site two-hour tasting courses at a posh-looking but bargain-priced wine bar. And once the Regent’s Jacques Garcia– designed hotel opens in the center of town next month, Bordeaux will have a large-scale deluxe property to compete with Jean Nouvel’s Le St.-James, across the river in the charming village of Bouliac. Also new to the scene is a cool little upstart bed-and-breakfast, La Maison Bord’eaux, which combines colorful contemporary interior design with family-style service and rooms for under $300. Add the TGV express train from Paris, which now brings travelers south in three hours—two by the year 2015—and there are more reasons than ever for those visiting the capital city to take a side trip south.
The traditional food of Bordeaux—duck confit, andouillette, foie gras—is still wonderful and, just as important, easy to pair with the local tipple. But some of the most exciting chefs in France have gravitated to the region, creating highly technical, deconstructed dishes: the sort of intellectually adventurous food that France on the whole should be good at, but never has been. Unlike in Paris or Lyon (the country’s true food capital), anyone going to a hot table in Bordeaux should expect to eat something infused with liquid nitrogen, like the reconstituted sunny-side-up egg with baby clams I had at Le St.-James, Michel Portos’s increasingly lauded kitchen. Or unusual combinations, like the scallops in beef jus with raspberry vinegar that Philippe Etchebest served me at St.-Émilion’s just-remodeled Hostellerie de Plaisance.
“Elsewhere they don’t have the same religious attitude about food as the Bordelais, and when I first started here ten years ago, no one liked what I did!” recalls Thierry Marx, the muscular Gault Millau 2006 Chef of the Year, who runs the kitchen at Cordeillan-Bages and is something of a team leader to France’s high-concept new guard. “Though we always concern ourselves with the marriage of food and wine, what I do doesn’t go with the established tradition.” It does require some work to understand how to pair Marx’s chocolate-coated lamb served with mango chutney, or apple sorbet dipped in liquid nitrogen and housed in an isomalt shell that floats on Italian meringue. “But people are coming around,” he says. Sommeliers with global experience help, as has Jean-Michel Cazes, who also opened—and sank a mint into developing—a cooking school for Marx in the tiny nearby hamlet of Village Bages, which are Cazes’s. Abetted by a delicious and lively gastro-bistro, Café Lavinal, and a spacious wine shop and boulangerie (especially close to Marx’s heart—his grandfather was a baker) are also attracting an adventurous clientele to this corner of the Médoc. But the place everyone kept telling me about was Restaurant La Cape. Even the townsfolk were atwitter about the somewhat bizarre eatery in suburban Cenon. With a menu as abstract as those at the tables mentioned above, the ambience is unlike that of your usual Michelin-starred establishment—no fine linens or Riedel stemware here. The setting feels like a suburban house in the San Fernando Valley decorated by a sponge-paint-happy art therapist. The plastic chairs and low-budget lawn umbrellas on the patio can be misleading, but the expertly turned out, eclectic dishes (pigeon tacos, foie gras with seaweed, frog tempura with watercress) are a steal if you stick to the fixed menu.
La Cape is a little off the main road, but getting off the main road is part of the experience in this corner of the world. And like the food, hotels are becoming sleeker, with a new wave of contemporary high-style châteaux and chambres d’hôtes. As choice real estate in France becomes increasingly more difficult for the French to afford, enterprising English and Dutch families are moving in, gussying up, and renting places out.
Château de Sours, just southwest of Pomerol, is now in the hands of Martin Krajewski, an English businessman who has added several large and immaculate guest rooms, regional cooking classes, and a freestanding art gallery filled with John Hoyland and Terry Frost canvases. Krajewski continues to produce the estate’s fine rosés, but he’s begun developing reds with three young Bordelais enologists who can boast, unusually, of professional experience in South Africa, Morocco, Chile, and the United States.
Just to the east of the Bordeaux region proper (about 90 minutes by car from the city), Château les Merles is making a name for itself thanks to the interior decoration of Joris van Grinsven, whose family runs the hotel’s day-to-day operations. Here you’ll sit on Louis XV seats upholstered in lime velvet or Ghost chairs by Philippe Starck and dine on a menu of seasonal ingredients from the Dordogne.
Then there’s Château Rigaud, about 20 minutes outside St.-Émilion, which is owned by a young couple, Anna Barwick and her husband, Andrew, who also run a financial marketing business in London. With claret-colored walls, Ren bath products, and a screening room with faux-fur-lined couches, Rigaud caters to people exactly like its owners—professional Brits. So does Château de la Bourlie, a 14th-century castle about a two-hour drive from Bordeaux. “Five years ago, when we first opened our house to renters, we mostly received bankers and English MP types,” notes Cyril de Commarque, who, along with his family, has just unveiled five spacious, high Modernist rooms to go with the more traditionally luxe offerings in the main house. “Now we’re getting people my age, in their mid-thirties, who work in the arts and advertising, and are cash-rich and more bohemian.”
When the weather is fine, as it often is in southwestern France, the city of Bordeaux is jammed with young families splashing around its quays. Residents spill out onto the vast Place des Quinconces in the city’s center, and the only care anyone seems to have is whether they’ve applied enough sunscreen. The Jardin Publíque, Bordeaux’s flower-packed answer to New York’s Central Park, is ringed by moats filled with tame geese and swans, and people are allowed to sit on its expansive stretches of lawn, unlike at the majority of the grand parks in France, where loungers must keep off the grass.
The Place St.-Pierre, in the southern part of the old metropolis, has the kind of earthiness found in Paris’s “transitional” neighborhoods, like Parmentier or Pigalle, but with double the charm. “Yes, we have the old bourgeoisie and royalists here, but I find the regular people in Bordeaux to be lovely and open,” said Anne Dienée, a worldly 24-year-old who recently returned home from Manchester and was seated one table over from me at the unpretentiously stylish seafood grill Le Petit Commerce. The inexpensive fresh-fish-only menu here, and the traditional dishes at nearby La Tupina (think duck-fat kettle frites and impeccable côte de boeuf ), suit this part of town well. The hipster folk duo in skinny jeans that filled the room at Le Petit Commerce with the strains of “Rolling on ze Reever” and other mangled Creedence Clearwater Revival hits does too.
Earlier that afternoon, just down the street at the Église St.-Pierre, one of the smaller Gothic gems in town, an annual neighborhood street fair was going on. Under a vast shade tree on the cobblestoned square, a line of 10-year-old boys of French and North African descent gathered for an impromptu cancan while a goofy brass band played Donna Summer covers. Grandmothers bought treats at the bake sale for their granddaughters in face paint, and at one of the outdoor cafés that line the square, a couple of students dove into a warm-weather make-out session. A few blocks away, on the Place Camille Jullian, another troupe of leisurely bohemians clustered around the patio of the Cinéma Utopia to sunbathe.
A resolutely art-house multiplex, the Utopia has three theaters with elaborately hand-painted interiors, surprisingly good seats and sound, and a tableful of fliers advertising kinetic-sound yoga classes and seminars on how to live in a tree. So much for an obsession with tradition.
Historically, the capital of the Gironde département has always had good bones, as scattered ruins from the Roman days (when it was called Burdigala) attest. Just west of the old Chartrons neighborhood, the arches of the misleadingly named Palais Gallien (it’s not a palace at all, but a Roman amphitheater from the second century A.D.) perfectly frame an ancient winding street, all cobblestones and copper streetlamps. Despite the ruins, the city’s real character was established in the Age of Enlightenment, when money poured in due to the slave trade. (Bordeaux has persisted as a destination for many North African and sub-Saharan immigrants.) In the 18th century, the city reached a new height of prosperity as civic construction and housing for the rich exploded. Its avant-garde, wide-open spaces inspired Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s overhaul of Paris, during the era of Napoléon III a century later. (Haussmann was the prefect of Bordeaux for many years before relocating north.) Thus the architecture and overall feel of the two cities echo each other closely, with grand esplanades, numerous town squares, intricately carved stonework, not much greenery, and a skyline devoid of skyscrapers but dramatically broken by Gothic spires. Unlike Paris, however, the porous, pale-yellow sandstone used for most of Bordeaux’s buildings was badly neglected, and over the centuries it drank up all the soot and pollution from the port, the river, and, later, the increasingly clogged roads. By the 20th century, France’s sixth-largest city had become depressing, dark, and dingy.
Improvements began in 1995, when former prime minister Alain Juppé became Bordeaux’s mayor and passed tough laws requiring residents and businesses to help assume the cost of cleanup. Now the central city is almost blindingly clean. There are still many areas, notably in the North African districts to the south, where the sandblaster has yet to arrive, but the most regal buildings, like the Bourse and the Musée National des Douanes, profit mightily from the light reflecting off the wide Garonne River. Anyone who finds the view of Paris’s Right Bank impressive will be speechless when he or she walks the cleaned-up quays of Bordeaux’s Left, which is even more grand—not bad for a town that’s just under half the size of its cousin to the north.
Though much of the talk in Bordeaux concerns what’s new and fresh, die-hard traditions can make for some of the most extraordinary experiences, and those who come to Bordeaux would be tragically underserved if they totally avoided the old-school ways. For instance, the deceptively casual Le Lion d’Or in Arcins, just down the road from St.-Julien, is a scruffy restaurant that’s easy to miss, but something of a clubhouse for the Médoc elite. It provides on-site lockers for château owners to store their own bottles, so diners can simply crack open their family’s case and swap with friendly rivals two tables over. Looking around the main room, it’s hard not to notice that everyone’s labels are facing out to enable a clearer game of my-wine’s-better-than-yours. Given the private stashes, Le Lion d’Or doesn’t offer much by the glass, so I arrived with a bottle of 2000 Château La Lagune from an esteemed Haut-Médoc estate that has just restored its guesthouse to Napoleonic splendor. Within a few minutes of walking in the door, I received a volley of good-natured catcalls from a table of wine-society types in town from Strasbourg for the En Primeur tastings, an event where châteaux tap their casks for a preview of what they’ll release later that year.
“Hé, La Lagune! Ça va?C’est de quel millésime?” (“Hey, La Lagune! How’s it going?What vintage?”), they shouted with full mouths as I gave them a better look. One course later, I was sitting at their table, swilling some of their 2003 Château Kirwan as a neighboring table passed yet another bottle over for my approval.
One Lion d’Or regular who’s a stoic symbol of Bordeaux’s past is the notoriously shy Jean-Pierre Fillastre, proprietor of St.-Julien’s tiny, independent Domaine du Jaugaret. Fillastre has increasingly become an anomaly in the region: his practices are so steeped in tradition he’s almost avant-garde. Promotion-phobic and sitting on about three acres of old vines, he has aimed to keep his methodology as close as possible to that of the time his family first started making wine in 1654. With no wife or children, the calloused and windburned Fillastre is a one-man operation, calling on friends to help out during the harvest season, but otherwise working in complete seclusion inside two sheds with dirt floors, damp with natural humidity, their walls alive with mold spores. His winepress is manual, his tanks are wooden, his vines beyond organic. Many other vintners use toxic liquid sulfite to clean their barrels, but Fillastre uses a simple homemade cast-iron wand that lets him wave a sulfur tablet inside his receptacles, smoking them clean. Allowing the taste of the fruit and the soil to emerge unobstructed are his goals; and our vertical tasting of the 2004, 2005, and 2006 vintages (all quaffed from a fingerprint-stained jelly glass) revealed that, though it will age gracefully for another 15 years, his 2006 was almost ready to drink. “Nature makes the wine,” he told me. “My only job is not to mess it up.” Most of Fillastre’s contemporaries would kill to have such a simple mandate, but those who travel to Bordeaux can be glad they don’t. His shed is a nice place for a nip, but you wouldn’t want to sleep there.
Alexandra Marshall is a T+L contributing editor. She is based in Paris.
When to Go
Much of wine country shuts down for the winter, so the best time to visit is from March to October.
Flights from Paris connect to Mérignac Airport, or take the TGV express train to Bordeaux. Be advised: allow for heavy traffic when driving in the city.
Where to Stay
An 18th-century Relais & Châteaux property, home to chef Thierry Marx’s now-legendary restaurant. Route des Châteaux, Pauillac; 33-5/56-59-24-24; cordeillanbages.com; doubles from $294.
Château les Merles
A traditional country house with many updates and a nine-hole golf course. Tuilières, Mouleydier; 33-5/53-63-13-42; lesmerles.com; doubles from $230.
great value A chic, medieval property with 10 acres of landscaped grounds. Mouliets et Villemartin; 33-5/57-40-78-59; chateaurigaud.co.uk; doubles from $222.
Hostellerie de Plaisance
This recently updated four-star hotel in St.-Émilion features celebrated chef Philippe Etchebest. Place du Clocher; St.-Émilion; 33-5/57-55-07-55; hostellerie-plaisance.com; doubles from $399.
La Maison Bord’eaux
Modern but homey, this tasteful B&B is a long overdue addition to a city short of up-to-date lodgings. 113 Rue du Dr. Albert Barraud, Bordeaux; 33-5/56-44-00-45; lamaisonbord-eaux.com; doubles from $266, including breakfast.
Booking a room without also booking a table at Michel Portos’s in-house eatery is a crime. 3 Place Camille Hostein, Bouliac; 33-5/57-97-06-00; saintjames-bouliac.com; doubles from $251.
This 150-room hotel’s “Fashion Avenue” offers Van Cleef & Arpels, Chopard, YSL, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, and more. 2 Place de la Comédie; 800/545-4000; regenthotels.com; doubles from $346.
Where to Eat and Drink
Le Bar à Vins
An airy wine bar with reasonable by-the-glass prices. 3 Cours du XXX Juillet, Bordeaux; 33-5/56-00-43-47.
A terrific bistro beloved by locals. Place Desquet (Village Bages), Pauillac; 33-5/57-75-00-09; dinner for two $44.
Le Lion d’Or
Route des Châteaux, Arcins; 33-5/56-58-96-79; dinner for two $117.
Le Petit Commerce
22 Rue du Parlement St.-Pierre, Bordeaux; 33-5/56-79-76-58; dinner for two $82.
Restaurant La Cape
9 Allée de la Morlette, Cenon; 33-5/57-80-24-25; dinner for two $117.
In colder months, ask for a seat in the front room to be close to the fire. 6 Rue Porte de la Monnaie, Bordeaux; 33-5/56-91-56-37; dinner for two $162.
What to Do
CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain
Set in a former warehouse, the museum shows a rotating collection of art from the 1960’s to the present. 7 Rue Ferrère, Bordeaux; 33-5/56-00-81-50.
Musée National des Douanes
A museum of French customs throughout history. Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux; 33-5/56-48-82-85.
Direct France; 33-8/72-25-17-89.
What to Read
Vipers’ Tangle, by François Mauriac
The seminal work by the great novelist, poet, Nobel laureate, and native Bordelais.
Here, some of the region’s most visitor-friendly wineries
Colloquially referred to as Pichon-Baron (as opposed to the equally distinguished Pichon-Lalande across the street), this traditional-meets-modern chateau is ranked as a second-growth—just a notch below the area’s five top properties. The classically styled wines are among Bordeaux’s most consistent, and about half the price of a Mouton or Margaux. And if you can get your hands on a 1989, you’ll taste one of Bordeaux’s finest bottlings of the past quarter-century. (33-5/56-73-17-17; www.pichonlongueville.com)
This property is so visitor-friendly that the owners have opened a hotel next door that features a one-Michelin-star restaurant and a Caudalie spa with innovative wine-themed therapies. After extensive renovation to the winery, Smith-Haut-Lafite’s reds have emerged as the best in Pessac-Leognan after fabled Haut-Brion, and its aromatic whites are among the tastiest in all Bordeaux.(33-5/57-83-11-22; www.smith-haut-lafitte.com)
Cos d’Estournel, St.-Estephe
This chateau is the quirkiest-looking in the region because of its unique, vaguely Asian design, all spires and turrets and flying buttresses. (The winery's symbol is an elephant.) And over the past decade or so, no Bordeaux property has produced better wines year after year: wines with firmness and grip typical of the Old World but a ripeness (and high Merlot content) that makes them pleasurable to drink even when young. The St.-Estephe appellation is all the way at the top of the Medoc, but it’s well worth the drive. (33-5/56-73-15-50; www.cosestournel.com)
Chateau Giscours, Margaux
Perhaps no chateau’s wines have improved more in the past decade; like all the best producers of the Margaux appellation, these have a bit of Burgundian elegance softening the majesty of Cabernet Sauvignon. The gorgeous manor house is set on one of Bordeaux’s largest estates, but remains under renovation because of an ownership dispute. Also try to stop in at nearby Chateau du Tertre, a lesser property owned by the same Dutch businessman that has a stunning art collection. (33-5/57-97-09-09; www.chateau-giscours.fr)
Chateau Palmer, Margaux
An underachiever in the recent past, it has been revitalized under new management and is making its best wines since the 1960s. (The fabled 1966 is still prized by collectors.) The 2003 Palmer is one of a minority of Bordeaux wines from that historically hot summer that manages to show freshness and charm. Inside the campus-style facility is new equipment but antique furnishings that evoke France from another era. Ask to see wall scribbles from the Nazi occupation on the top floor of the main house. (33-5/57-88-72-72; www.chateau-palmer.com)