The region's winemakers have spearheaded the reinvigoration of their land and city.

By Jess McHugh
November 03, 2016
Credit: Domaine Clarence Dillon

Winemakers and wine professionals in Bordeaux routinely begin the history of this year’s harvest with an anecdote from a few hundred years ago. Speaking of this season’s grapes, they gesture toward the past while planning for their future vintages.

Prince Robert of Luxembourg, president and CEO of Domaine Clarence Dillon that includes the renowned Chateau Haut-Brion, began with the 1st century when telling the story of his vineyard. Romans planted the first grapes at Haut-Brion nearly two millennia ago and the vineyard began to take its present shape as early as the 16th century, according to Robert.

History lives through the grapes that are harvested each fall in this French region, as the vintners begin working on wines that won’t be ready for at least a few years.

“If you put the focus on the terroir and you really want that to be expressed in the wine, that gives it so much more depth. And that’s what excites me about great French wines in general,” Prince Robert told Travel + Leisure.

This respect for tradition and affinity for the terroir—the earth where the grapes are grown—has led to the resurgence of certain ancient methods of winemaking over the past several decades. Horse-drawn ploughs are no longer an uncommon sight in the region, and winemakers have returned to some lesser-used practices of their centuries-old families for sources of inspiration.

Credit: Domaine Clarence Dillon

At the same time, the people of Bordeaux–and the winemakers in particular–are quick to make use of new innovations in the capital city and throughout the surrounding region to ensure that their wines, and the culture that produced them, continue to win over an ever-expanding market.

“It is indeed this fruit of tradition and fruit of history that allows us to choose the best grape,” Cécile Ha, a spokeswoman at the Bordeaux Wine Bureau told T+L in October, as the harvest was well underway.

“People buy it because there is a certain identity, a certain taste, a certain style,” she said, adding, “We want to protect this style, these aromas.”

Prince Robert stands at the crux of both new and old on his expansive Domaine Clarence Dillon, leading one of the oldest luxury brands in the world. The vineyard’s storied history is filled with landmark moments, including the creation of a 17th century London tavern that hosted Isaac Newton and a bottle that was served on the table of Charles II in 1660.

Ruling their sprawling vineyard from their sixteenth century chateau on the property, his own family has operated the world-renowned brand since 1935. His great-grandfather Clarence Dillon was a Texan businessman, and subsequent generations have followed in the American’s trailblazing spirit.

The vineyard was one of the first to use steel vats in the 1960s, and it went on to become an early advocate for the use of computers in the 1980s, creating its first website in the 1990s.

Prince Robert has incorporated new innovations into their techniques only when they were purposeful, he says, with his outlook always remaining long-term and not likely to be swayed by passing trends.

“A family business obviously is different to a publicly traded company,” he said. “You’re not looking quarter to quarter, you’re looking for a long-term plan, and that’s what makes us, I think, successful as a family business: to have that kind of reflection.”

Miroir d'eau
Credit: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

There is this need to remain competitive in a world where the name “Bordeaux,” while still carrying a grand weight among wine aficionados, is not enough to guarantee the success of even a world-class brand. With French and Italian wine giants now competing with newcomers from China, South Africa and even Michigan, tradition and an old name are not enough to keep a winery afloat.

Bordeaux has rejuvenated its cityscape to draw both new and returning visitors, looking to drive renewed interest to the region’s wineries and other attractions.

Sleeping Beauty is the often-used nickname of Bordeaux, also known as the Pearl of the Aquitaine, and the fairytale princess resurfaced in the narrative locals told of their region. For decades the city was known as a soot-covered port, a weigh station on the way to country homes, chateaux and vineyards outside of the city limits.

Its industrial facade has been scrubbed clean in the past two decades, in great part thanks to the efforts of former mayor and Prime Minister Alain Juppé. Entrepreneurs have opened boutique hotels and a range of appetizing new restaurants, from the “bistronomie” (upscale café food) to celebrity restaurants such as Chef Gordon Ramsay’s La Pressoir d’Argent.

As eco-tourism has boomed and travelers seek experiences over objects, Bordeaux offers up some of the most artisanal opportunities.

Chevalier with horse
Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Léandre-Chevalier and ©riki

One such place is the three-kilometer Domaine Léandre-Chevalier, a small family-owned vineyard situated across the Garonne river and little under an hour’s drive from Haut-Brion.

If winemakers in Bordeaux run the gamut from devout traditionalists to pioneering innovators, Dominique Léandre-Chevalier certainly leans toward the former category—though he is a tastemaker in his own right.

A descendent of a 19th century family vineyard, he is credited with spurring a revolution of historic grape-growing techniques—most notably, the use of horse-drawn ploughs.

Léandre-Chevalier—whose name means “horse-man”—ploughs the fields for his vineyard of the same name using “percheron” horses. These enormous animals can be seen peeking over the vines on any given work day, and the reason for doing so is far more than aesthetic.

Even large horses are gentler on the soil than tractors, and the restrictions of working with animals mean that there are no shortcuts in the planting and harvesting seasons. Using horses also reduces the overall carbon footprint of the vineyard, as the tractors used for ploughing can release dangerous chemicals into the air.

Chevalier with horse-drawn plough
Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Léandre-Chevalier and ©riki

“I am more a gardener than a winemaker,” Leandre-Chevalier told T+L. He focuses first and primarily on growing the best grape before even thinking about the wine it will produce, he says.

Léandre-Chevalier aims to grow the grapes and make the wine as his predecessors would have done over a century ago. Patience is his primary virtue, and he insists that the slow and deliberate care he puts into each bottle can be tasted in the wine.

“We can also compare it to the meeting of two people. We will never know each other, arrive to a point where we understand each other rapidly. A wine of character is like that: you need to have patience, spend time with this wine to better understand it and better analyze it."

While the Domaine Léandre-Chevalier is not open to the public, special accommodations can sometimes be made for interested parties, and visitors to the Bordeaux region can buy his wine at many local stores.

It is this blend of new and old that continues to draw visitors to the region. Travelers looking for slower, more meaningful experiences can find it in Bordeaux, and returning visitors will discover a place that is continuing to reveal new facets.

“This new generation, they really have a know-how that’s native to Bordeaux because there is a Bordelais tradition,” Ha of the Bordeaux Wine Bureau said. “There is a respect for history, and at the same time they are capable of bringing in new innovations.”

Cité du Vin
Credit: Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images

Cobblestone squares and medieval churches nestle alongside more modern additions to the city’s landscape, such as the miroir d’eau, a 37,000 square-foot reflecting pool that draws visitors to Bordeaux at all times of the year.

The Cité du Vin, affectionately referred to as “the wine theme park,” opened in June and features high-tech exhibits framed to teach visitors about wine from around the world.

“Bordeaux has been totally rejuvenated, renovated—it’s had a total facelift since I was a child,” Prince Robert told T+L.

“It’s as though a veil has been lifted and Sleeping Beauty is awoken, and I think it’s the most beautiful city outside of Paris in France.”