For one weekend each spring, Bordeaux’s top châteaux open up their doors to the public for drinking and dining. By JANE ANSON
The quays that line either side of the river front in central Bordeaux used to be, until just a few years ago, a distinctly no-go area. In the late 18th century, they were busy with merchants loading barrels on and off boats, ferrying wine up the Garonne to the mouth of the Atlantic.
But 200 years later, by the mid-1970s, they had become a wasteland of once-elegant stone buildings blackened with soot. The few shops that remained open were overshadowed by cavernous empty concrete hangars, enlivened only by graffiti.
A period of intense work was kickstarted by mayor Alain Juppé, who reportedly strong-armed all building owners along the Garonne in the city centre to pay for their own renovations, keeping the city budget for trams, and creating parks and play areas in the new open spaces directly beside the river.
Today, the Bordeaux quays rival those along the Charles River in Boston, or
the Willamette River in Portland, for an urban space that has been reclaimed by joggers, cyclists and families.
It is fitting, then, that the hangars on Quay Bacalan in the Chartrons district are the setting for the annual public tasting of classified wines, Le Week-end des Grands Amateurs, which is run every May. A balcony on the first floor, that sits off the large room where the
tasting is held, overlooks the path along the river, and the new skate park. Look closely, and the narrow iron tracks that once eased the transport of barrels off and on boats are still visible.
The rest of the cluster of old warehouses has been turned into shops and restaurants, but Hangar 14 is given over to exhibition space, and it is here that more than 100 of Bordeaux’s mostfamous names from the Médoc, St- Emilion, Sauternes and Pessac-Léognan offer public tastings of their wine, plus château visits, dinners and even a round of golf, in a format that is usually only open to journalists and wine professionals.
This annual tasting weekend is now in its fourth year, and the number of visitors has grown from just a few hundred to more than 1,400 in 2008. The theory of having a public tasting
of rarefied wines – which can reach upwards of hundreds of pounds per bottle to buy – has long been accepted in the world’s key markets at events such as the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter (see p24).
But such events are organised by third parties, never by the châteaux themselves. In Bordeaux, the idea of holding a general tasting of classified growths didn’t seem to have
crossed anyone’s mind – châteaux were still limiting their contact with the public to the ones who bravely made appointments, or at events such as the Médoc Marathon and the Bordeaux Wine Festival.
The trips that the Union des Grand Crus (UGC) took regularly to cities such as London, Paris and Tokyo were restricted to professional buyers and journalists. ‘Bordeaux’s biggest difficulty in international markets was perhaps its image of being unapproachable and closed off’ says Eric Monneret of Pomerol’s Château La Pointe, one of the five châteaux that hosted dinners for members of the public during the 2008weekend (see panel). ‘This event has opened up the doors of some of the region’s most prestigious châteaux, and
the feedback from our customers has been wonderful.’
Strength in numbers
It was Patrick Maroteaux, owner of Château Branaire-Ducru in St-Julien and then president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, who had the idea. He realised that, in an ever-more competitive market, it could do Bordeaux no harm to be closer to the consumer.
The choice of launch year – 2006 – was a good one, with the public’s interestin Bordeaux renewed after the 2005 vintage. The actual bottles were not available for tasting until the following year, which brought plenty of visitors back, but the event really took off last
year, with 1,402 visitors, a rise of 55% on 2007. And those who came made the most of it: nearly 2,100 bottles of wine were opened during the tasting, 249 diners were served in five
châteaux, 200 people went to the Sunday brunches and there were more than 900 visits to châteaux around the region.
On the Saturday, it is all about tasting. The atmosphere is festive, but everyone takes things very seriously, making notes and chatting to the owners and winemakers about the wines. In 2008, languages around the room were a mix of British and American English, French, Chinese, a variety of Indian dialects and Russian. There were even guests of a Japanese cruise ship. It was a beautifully sunny weekend, and the balcony overlooking the river was getting plenty of use.
Wine enthusiasts Peter Grimster and his two sons, Alan and James, were sitting in the sun, glass in hand. ‘We first read about it in a newspaper, and this is now our second year,’ said Peter. ‘We don’t get to see each other very much back in England, but we all like a glass of wine, and this has given us a good excuse to get away.’
‘I have come to Bordeaux from Hong Kong specifically for this weekend,’ said Rose Siu. ‘The Bordelais have put on a good show. We’re here for five days, and came straight to the tasting.’ The idea of getting a window on the world of Bordeaux is heightened by the châteaux dinners on Saturday night.
Even more than the wines, the châteaux themselves are usually off-limits to visitors, certainly for these kind of chic dinner parties where guests are greeted on manicured lawns and 10 types of foie gras compete for attention. At La Pointe, châteaux owners from Pomerol, Sauternes and the Médoc shared tables with the visitors, and older vintages were opened.Plans for 2009 are aimed at widening the appeal even further.
Organisers are planning to offer themed wine tours and a golf competition between owners and visitors on the Sunday, and each château will show two vintages (2006, and an older
one between 1998 and 2005). The biggest addition is an evening aimed specifically at students and visitors under 30, where a (less expensive) dinner will be held in a château run by a young wine owner. This is not a bad idea: the demographics of Bordeaux drinkers in France show that those under 30 form only 9% of the total market, and only 24% of Bordeaux drinkers are aged between 31 and 49, so events such as these make sense in terms of reaching out to a new clientele.
‘A weekend like this helps Bordeaux wine be seen as part of a wider lifestyle, where people can come here in person, enjoy the newly renovated city centre and get out into the vineyards to visit wine properties in a relaxed and welcoming environment.’ says Sylvie Cazes, president of the UGC. ‘It gives Bordeaux a chance to go directly to the consumers, and for us to meet the people who are really drinking our wines.’
Perhaps there is still room for improvement. A few things could be added to the tasting itself to break up the room – some books on Bordeaux, or the opportunity to buy wine, for example. It might also be useful to give visitors an idea of where they can buy back home, as this kind of horizontal tasting is an excellent way to work out which estates or appellations you really do like.
But, in another way, this seeming lack of commercialism it what makes the
weekend so refreshing. As one visitor said: ‘You feel under no pressure to buy, just to chat about the wines to the people who made them. I’d never have expected that from Bordeaux.’
Written by Jane Anson