Bordeaux winemakers investing in well-designed cellars for better sales
Students of architecture might traditionally consider a pilgrimage to Florence, Dubai, Miami or Tokyo to study the best examples of their craft. Very few would think about visiting a vineyard - but if they did, it would almost certainly be Rioja, the site of an architectural boom in the 1990s and into the 2000s with names such as Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid adding modernist touches among the Spanish vines.
The first stirrings that a similar revolution might be happening in Bordeaux began about 10 years ago, most obviously with the big-name, high-profile chateaux across the Médoc and Saint Emilion. If there's an owner of a 1855 classified estate that hasn't called in the architects over the past decade, I'd like to meet them.
There is a direct connection between the recent investment in the cellars and the high prices vintners sought for the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Chateaux found themselves with full coffers and reinvested that money into the wine. It's a large part of the reason release prices for Bordeaux classified wines remain stubbornly high. The chateaux are fully aware that new cellar space bought with part of the additional money has brought greater consistency and levels of excellence to their wines, and they want that to translate to a "new normal" when it comes to pricing.
There hasn't been a building frenzy like this in Bordeaux since the 19th century, when the Médoc was seeing the construction of vast majestic chateaux designed to display the wealth and power of a new wave of owners who were arriving with cash from Paris, London and further afield. This was the era when some of the region's most iconic buildings went up, from the Renaissance spires of Chateau Pichon-Longueville to the Corinthian columns of Chateau Margaux. (It was just as much a tourist attraction when architect Louis Combes created it in 1815 as it is today.)
The difference is that while the focus in the 19th century was largely on the chateau buildings themselves, this time it is mainly the cellars that are receiving the lavish attention. There are exceptions: Chateau Pédesclaux in Pauillac just unveiled a startling addition by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte in the form of two glass cubes that extend outwards from either side of the original 19th century limestone building, a kind of viticultural version of I.M. Pei's Louvre pyramid in Paris. Chateau Angelus (architect Jean-Pierre Errath) and Chateau Pavie (architect Alberto Pinto), both in Saint Emilion, have also entirely reworked their main buildings, spending between 20 million euros (HK$174.3 million) and 30 million euros apiece. The cellars, however, are where most of the action is today.
"The emphasis used to be on what was inside the bottle, but today an overall image of excellence is key," says Jean-Michel Cazes of Lynch-Bages. "Wine lovers want to visit their favourite estates, and journalists write about not only the taste but the processes behind making the wine. Inevitably, it has become important for wineries themselves to make an aesthetic impact."
The roll call of architects delivering these cellars has been increasingly impressive. Recent installations have come from Jean Nouvel (Chateau de La Dominique), Christian de Portzamparc (Cheval Blanc), and Herzog and de Meuron (Petrus) - all former winners of the prestigious Pritzker architectural prize. High-profile interior architects such as Philippe Starck (Chateau Carmes Haut-Brion) and Jacques Garcia (Chateau Rauzan Ségla) have also taken their turn.
But one name is topping them all, particularly after the official inauguration celebrations last week pretty much blew everyone who visited them away - Norman Foster at Chateau Margaux. Foster is well known in Hong Kong for his designs of HSBC headquarters and the airport at Chek Lap Kok.
Things are on a smaller scale at Margaux. The neoclassical chateau is one of the wine world's most iconic constructions, and since zero external alterations had been made after its initial construction in 1815, Foster was not presented with an easy task. His response has been to make discreet additions in harmony with the existing building while responding to the exigencies of a first growth estate.
"The generator of the process is the wine itself," Foster said at the inauguration of the cellars. "In 1815, Louis Combes had a vision of the grand architecture of Margaux, and of a village dedicated to the production of fine wine. The logical thing for the new cellars would have been to create another major statement, but on reflection, the centrepiece is this chateau, and it seemed the most important thing to do was to keep it as the protagonist, and to keep true to the spirit of these noble architectural buildings.
"Only on closer inspection do you discover the new buildings. The new Chateau Margaux cellars touch the ground lightly, but in the end, they are about the spirit and technology of today."
What this means is that the hi-tech research and development centre sits within new cellars that have been carefully constructed around the old. The most modern additions are hidden underground, such as the beautiful vinothèque wine library, which is able to store 200,000 bottles (the oldest dating from 1848) in a sleek room 80 metres long by eight metres wide and eight metres high, all kept at 15 degrees Celsius with 75 per cent humidity.
The tourists and wine lovers who arrive daily have not been forgotten, and a large room that was used as a refectory for harvest lunches has been converted into a visitor centre and wine museum. The exhibitions will change, but the first one is dedicated to two centuries of architecture at Chateau Margaux. Combes' original plans are displayed, as are the latest ones from Foster, with explanations of how and why the different elements have been put together.
The wave of new cellars is far from over. Just a few minutes' walk from Margaux, the Chinese-French heritage of the Perrodo family at Chateau Marquis d'Alesme is on display at beautiful new cellars adorned with a giant golden dragon's tail above the vats.
Up the road at Chateau Beychevelle in Saint-Julien, a glass-walled winery will soon make its winemaking facilities visible from the D2 Route des Chateaux, which runs through the Médoc. This time the commissioned architect is Arnaud Boulain, and the idea is to take the chef's table concept of watching a chef prepare your food and apply it to wine. The invitation is clear: 21st century Bordeaux wants us to pull up a chair and join the conversation.