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Time to party at the château

The Bordelais know how to shake off the stuffy image and throw a good château party, but it is all in the name of promotion, as STEPHEN BROOK finds out

Fête des Vendanges

It’s a blisteringly hot autumn day in the Graves and the Sauvignon grapes at Château La Louvière grow more golden by the hour. It’s a perfect day too for the Fête des Vendanges about to be held in the château grounds. Guests start arriving at five, and by seven there are some 1,500 of them milling around. Some are tasting wines from dozens of top Pessac-Léognan growers, whose stands are placed alongside the chais that flank the noble 18th-century mansion; others mingle on the lawns, where a jazz band is merrily tooting away.The Fête des Vendanges is one of two great feasts organised primarily by the Commanderie du Bontemps, a mock-medieval promotional association uniting the leading proprietors of the Médoc, Graves and Sauternes. The other is the Fête de la Fleur, which is held in June at the conclusion of the trade fair Vinexpo. These are the great communal celebrations in Bordeaux, uniting guests from all over the world with all the great and good from the châteaux and négociant houses of Bordeaux itself.No Fête is complete without its intronisations, a fancy dress ceremony at which personalities from the world of wine and the world beyond are sworn in as commandeurs d’honneur after taking an oath to be nice about Bordeaux and its wines. Each new commandeur in turn is summoned on to the château steps, where the grand master, Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages, extols the virtue of each candidate before enrolling him (or her) into the elite squad. It’s all done with considerable humour, and nobody takes the ceremony too seriously, although it is regarded as a great honour to be inducted.

The list of new recruits is revealing, as it suggests who the Bordelais think is worth courting. On this occasion there are 35, including the catering manager of the Assemblée Nationale, bankers, presidents of wine companies and Syndicats from regions outside Bordeaux, major wine retailers, négociants and brokers, châteaux administrators, Jean-Paul Guerlain of the eponymous perfume house, a Russian wine enthusiast, executives from Air France and insurance companies, sommeliers, two American investors in Bordeaux wine companies, a Belgian cartoonist and a British wine writer. After the ceremony there are pageants and speeches, and then the hungry guests make their way to the large marquees around the huge pond behind the floodlit château. The 1,500 guests are served from five makeshift kitchens, and the service is astonishingly well coordinated. Not only do the 150 sommeliers serve magnums of La Louvière simultaneously, but they even ensure that the red wine is sufficiently chilled to survive the hot evening. Nor do the organisers themselves stint when it comes to choosing the wines: the final red is 1985 Haut-Brion, which is served in copious quantities. After the dinner a 30-minute firework display fills the sky with wriggling tracers of light and bursts of radiant colour. Then the guests trickle back to the main courtyard to sip Sauternes and dance to a salsa band until the wee hours.

When some weeks later I saw André Lurton, the proprietor of the château, he was disgruntled, having convinced himself that the magnificent evening had been a failure. As the host, he had found himself in the happy position of escorting the guest of honour, the American diva Barbara Hendricks, and was thus unable to coordinate the various events and pageants as closely as he wished. I was able to tell him that I saw no unhappy faces at the Fête. Probably the only long face after the event would have been his own, when he was presented with the bill for the fireworks and other expenses that are usually borne by the host château. Mounting such celebrations, as well as other jollifications in the Far East and elsewhere, is immensely expensive, but the Bordelais believe it is eminently worthwhile. As the prices demanded for the top wines rise inexorably, so Bordeaux is taking on the image of a fashion accessory. No dot.com zillionaire’s cellar can do without its cases of first growths, and the swanky restaurants of Singapore and Tokyo list vintages of Pétrus by the dozen. Bordeaux, uniquely, appeals to the old-fashioned wine fancier and the newly rich alike. It has lustre, brand appeal, scarcely distinguishable in its coded message from a Chanel suit or Manolo Blahnik shoes. Krug, another upmarket brand, never advertises, but instead throws parties, so that Remi Krug can be pictured in the press with a supermodel or a princess on his arm and a glass of his Champagne in his hand. Bordeaux does exactly the same. Sometimes it does so in public, at the Fêtes and during the parades and ceremonies of the Commanderie’s rival, the Jurade de Saint-Emilion (which, after decades of oversight, finally admitted women to its ranks in 2000).

The entertainment and hospitality

Sometimes the entertainment is private, as happened two weeks later when Corinne Mentzelopoulos of Château Margaux threw a dinner for 120 négociants and their wives to thank them for selling her wine – a rather lordly gesture, since Château Margaux isn’t exactly difficult to dispose of. At the event, 1961 Margaux and 1975 Yquem were among those served. Bordeaux is renowned for its hospitality. The general public has never been made welcome at the noble châteaux of the Médoc, but for the visiting wine trade and wine press there are no limits to the generosity of proprietors. Guest rooms are thrown open, and invitations to lunch or dinner pile up. This hospitality is warm and genuine. Nonetheless the promotional energies of the region and its proprietors are carefully focused. By associating the wines of Bordeaux with luxury and gracious living, an indelible image is created for those wines. The great reds of Burgundy may be much rarer and even more expensive than fine Bordeaux, but they are not, with very few exceptions, icons of conspicuous consumption, nor are they ‘collectibles’ in the same way as Bordeaux.However, it would be misleading to suggest that these promotional efforts are directed solely at the wealthy and influential. The creation of the Médoc Marathon, held every September, was an inspired idea, since it throws open dozens of estates to thousands of participants and onlookers that gather for the Left Bank sporting event. Some of them are serious athletes, but most of them are out for a good time or are promoting a local organisation or group. Thus butter producers from Normandy might turn up in cowgirl costumes while hauling a butter churn through the vineyards. Drag acts are popular, and the vineyards are filled with tutus and nuns’ habits. In 2000 I even spotted one serious young runner with a volume of Robert Parker’s wine guide under his arm, a moving tribute.

The genius of the event is that it allows each participating château to offer hospitality in the form of snacks, thimbles of wine, or decks of oysters. In this way, the grandest estates can present themselves as fun-loving but, of course, the chai doors remain firmly shut. Anyone expecting a vertical tasting of Lafite will be seriously disappointed. But the marathon shows the Bordelais in their most relaxed and least stuffy mood.

The marathon also offers the châteaux opportunities for more private entertaining. In 2000 I lunched at Pontet-Canet, where the other guests, although kitted out in running gear and château T-shirts, gave no indication that they had left the grounds all day. In the evening the extended Sichel family invited 80 guests to Château Angludet for oysters and Champagne, steak and magnums of claret. This was Bordeaux at its best, with family members, guests, and estate workers all eating the same food at the same tables.For the pampered importer and wine journalist, a visit to Bordeaux is like being offered temporary membership to a very exclusive club that few ever gain entry to. Whether this largesse benefits the consumer in the long term is another matter

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