Bordeaux is beginning to project a more modern identity to woo visitors, one that recognises the importance of consumers, says Jane Anson. Two ambitious projects in the Médoc are leading the way…

Bordeaux is beginning to project a more modern identity to woo visitors, one that recognises the importance of consumers, says Jane Anson. Two ambitious projects in the Médoc are leading the way…

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 several Bordeaux châteaux have set up their own entry on the world’s most popular networking website (Château Lesparre, has an impressive 75 friends linking to its page, one of whom is Bill Murray). It’s 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 by sales pressure, winemakers have been concentrating less on terroir and more on exporting the image of romantic châteaux and gourmet food and wine matching. Some has been carefully orchestrated; the latest generic advertising campaign from Parisian agency MC Saatchi-GAD concentrates heavily on selling the image of fairytale châteaux. They also received a large helping hand from James Bond in Casino Royale, who drinks Lillet (the original Bordeaux apéritif) and Château Angélus, the St-Emilion premier 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 the home of innovation in this region; the garagiste winemakers first introduced the concepts of hang time and green harvesting around the vineyards of St-Emilion, and the town itself is a UNESCO world heritage 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 Pauillac, one of the most alluring names of the wine world but one of its least alluring sights. On paper, it’s an extension of Château 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 Cazes’ grandparents’ home, but the entire place had been derelict for over half a century. A few years ago, when Lynch-Bages had to expand its warehouse space, Cazes’ architect suggested knocking down the empty houses behind the château to double the space for bottle storage. ‘It would have meant tearing down several houses behind the château in Bages,’ he explains. ‘I realised 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 nondescript towns punctuated by the grand, sweeping facades of illustrious châteaux. ‘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 château 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 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 & Châteaux hotel at Cordeillan-Bages, is a baker’s son, and Cazes himself is a baker’s grandson, so naturally they started with a boulangerie, Au Baba d’Andréa, which 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 10 houses to locals who want to move back into the village. The central square has been cobbled, and a fountain gives it focus. Over the next few years, Cazes 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 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.’

Towering glory

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 owns Château d’Arsac in Margaux, plus a number of other properties in the region), or Bordeaux wines, but a full range of international names.

Opened in mid-March, La Winery has towering aluminium and glass walls enclosing a 10,000m2 space, designed by architect Patrick Hernandez. Outside are 27 hectares of park and picnic land with water features and Thai-style gazebos, while inside there’s an amphitheatre, exhibition space, gastronomic restaurant, tapas bar, tasting rooms and 1,000m2 of retail space, containing over 40,000 bottles from €3 to €2,000. There will also be ticketed tastings including Bouchard Burgundy dating back to the 1940s, and verticals of Sassicaia and Vega Sicilia.

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. There’s even a link with Jean-Michel Cazes; the wine list is being run by Arnaud Plard, who earned his stripes as sommelier at Cordeillan-Bages.

La Winery has been routinely described as ‘Californian’ in style – really it could come from any forward-thinking wine-producing country – but until now it has been 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 definitely a first for Bordeaux, and was inspired by the best wine centres I’ve visited around the world.’

Will these two high-profile launches encourage others to follow suit? As usual with Bordeaux, there has been sniping and back-biting. Bages has been described as ‘Disneyland’ by a fellow UK wine writer as well as by some locals, and La Winery was derided, in reader response to a decanter.com story, as an ‘awful idea’, as if it somehow desecrated the image of Bordeaux to have something so blatantly commercial.

Others have been more positive. Café Lavinal is booked solid every lunchtime, despite being almost an hour from Bordeaux city centre – mainly local vineyard owners entertaining clients – and La Winery expects 100,000 visitors in its first year alone. Numerous wine tourism projects are springing up on both Right and Left Banks, from picnicking in the vines to blending and labelling your own wines. One of Bordeaux’s most high-profile château owners, Bernard Magrez (himself launching a wine shop at Pape-Clément, together with chambres d’hôte 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.’

Been there, done it, got the corkscrew

Five years ago, you’d have been more likely to find a ‘closed’ sign in a Bordeaux château than a shop where you could purchase a bottle of wine – let alone souvenirs. But the last year has seen many château owners realise the 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. Here are some of the best châteaux shops:

Château Prieuré Lichine – This fourth growth has pioneered wine tourism in the Médoc since the 1980s, one of the first to put up a ‘Visitors welcome’ sign and actually mean it. Today there is a well-stocked boutique in an attractive round tower. 33460 Cantenac. +33 5 57 88 36 28

Les Sources de Caudalie at Château Smith Haut-Lafitte – Not only does the spa sell a range of cosmetics and treatments based around grape products, but the château 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.sources-caudalie.com

Château Rauzan Gassies – Just like the family, this boutique is understated 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 37 49

Bernard Magrez boutique, Château Pape-Clément – Its interior is like an old-style apothecary, with medicine cabinets alternating with black marble and 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 (Bordeaux) door in a Rolls Royce. 216 Avenue du Docteur Nancel Pénard, 33600 Pessac. +33 5 57 26 38 38. www.pape-clement.com

Millesima’s cellars – This shop isn’t in a château, but at Patrick Bernard’s négociant house in downtown Bordeaux. For lovers of grands crus 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 80 88 08 www.millesima.com

Château Haut-Bailly – The extensive renovations to this Pessac Léognan property have now been finished, and a boutique should be open by the summer. 33850 Léognan, +33 5 56 64 75 11. www.chateau-haut-bailly.com

Château de Sours – Maybe not surprisingly for a château previously owned by Majestic Wine Warehouse’s Esme Johnson, this has a very good wine shop that sells both the famous rosé, the 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

ADDRESS BOOK:

Hameau de Bages,

33250 Pauillac

Café Lavinal: +33 5 57 75 00 09

Au Baba d’Andréa:

+33 5 56 59 82 74

Bages Bazar: +33 5 56 73 24 00 www.bordeaux-saveurs.com 

La Winery, 33460 Arsac:

+33 5 56 39 04 90

www.lawinery.fr

Written by Jane Anson