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.