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Jane Anson: The wine maps making waves in Bordeaux

Our columnist and Bordeaux specialist meets Pierre Le Hong, who is making a name for himself in the region by producing detailed, digital maps of prized vineyards.

My guess is that you’ve seen the maps. Most of them start out with a bird’s eye view high above Europe, closing in first on France, then on Bordeaux, then on whichever appellation is in the spotlight.

Land contours, rivers and roads become visible the closer you get to the ground, animated in 3D, with various châteaux buildings and names highlighted, before finally swooping in on a single estate, from Montrose to Brane-Cantenac to Grand-Puy-Ducasse.

The different vineyard plots are detailed, usually with their soil type and grape plantings in different colours and shown from a variety of angles that make clear that the Médoc isn’t nearly so flat as is usually believed.

Every so often a bird flies overhead, or a boat trails lazily down the Garonne, little flicks of the graphic artist’s hand that give a sense of a land that is more than just vines.

See below for an example of a Pierre Le Hong map on Youtube

The maps are clear, pared down and extremely useful for getting technical information across in a graceful form, even if the gradual sweep of macro to micro gets a little repetitive when you’ve seen it for the tenth time.

And this being Bordeaux, they are proliferating rapidly as châteaux realise that if their neighbours have one on their website, well they’d better have one too.

All of which makes their creator, Pierre Le Hong, a man very much in demand.

Even so, he looks freshly pressed and unhurried when he arrives at my house.

I know he has driven up from Tarbes that morning for back to back meetings around the Médoc, and is off to southern Graves after we finish, but he is full of energy, with a broad smile, closely clipped hair, orange-rimmed glasses pushed to the top of his head, matching coral peach trousers than manage to look Parisian chic rather than wine trade cliché, light blue shirt rolled up to the elbow with barely a crease in sight. Maybe he keeps a pile of them in his car.

Second generation Vietnamese, Le Hong is pulling Bordeaux into the 21st century, one animated map at a time.

The rest of the world got there long ago, of course.

From weather reports to diagrams of plane crashes to explanations of World Cup line ups, almost every major media outlet now employs graphic designers who are able to pull together the dizzying amount of information that we receive and turn it into bite sized, digestible digital infographics.

Graphic designers have become data scientists, and control of data is the new oil (okay, I didn’t say that – it came from Andreas Weigend, head of the Social Data Lab at Stanford and former chief scientist at Amazon).

‘It struck me when I started coming to Bordeaux regularly in the late 1990s,’ says Le Hong over an espresso, one sugar, ‘how badly the châteaux were conveying what made them special’.

He adds, ‘I remember how on visits they would say, “our vines are planted on gravel outcrops” and I would be thinking “where, I can’t see them?”

‘Or they would say “vines need extremely poor soils to grow” and I’m thinking “what does that mean? How can anything grow without water?”

‘Or they would talk about limestone in St-Emilion but all from within a tasting room, not a limestone block in sight. The thought that kept coming back was, “how can they run these world famous châteaux but be so bad at communicating?”’.

At the time, from 1998-2001, Le Hong was working in a Parisian press agency, specialising in infographics.

‘I began to understand how everything can be explained more clearly through images, and how a hierarchy of information is needed to cut through the huge amounts of data we are facing every day.’

Working in Paris also gave him a dislike of commuting in a crowded city.

When a job came up with a book publisher in Bordeaux, he moved to Tarbes in the foothills of the Pyrénées, taking a job as graphic designer on guidebooks, most usually hill walking guides to his surrounding mountains.

’I had always loved old maps, ever since I was a boy. My father was away from home a lot. He was a sailor and would be away for months at a time.

‘We would follow his routes from maps at home, and I am conscious looking back that I was always interested in the visual identity of things. I preferred magazines and atlases to classic books.

‘The first book that really blew me away graphically was Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine, with its maps of vineyards and side-view graphics that showed land contours and different layers of soil composition. I remember thinking “wow, it can be done’’.’

He adds, ‘My first attempt at doing something similar myself was in 2003, when I approaching Jean-François Quenin, who I knew from Paris, to see if I could map his vineyard at Château de Pressac.

‘I then took the results to Vinexpo, a mixture of arrogance and uncertainty, hoping to interest other estates. There was lots of patting me on my shoulder in response, before being ushered away. Basically a catastrophe. But I always figure if you’ve got nothing to lose, what’s the worst that can happen…?’

Eventually, in 2006, he made the decision that if he wasn’t going to be hired, he would do the work for himself.

What that meant was putting the maps together into a book – so not expecting the châteaux to pay for the privilege, but simply to give him the information on their soils and vineyards, and for him to turn the raw data into graphics.

After two books, one on the Médoc and another on St-Emilion, today there is a lot less polite shoulder patting and a lot more requests to become a client.

After a redundancy in 2014 he launched his own agency rendering maps digitally in 3D rather than on the page.

Today Infographie Pierre Le Hong has clients across Bordeaux as well as in Provence, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Montalcino, Montepulciano and Burgundy.

‘Although, things are very different over in Burgundy’, he says.

‘For many winemakers there it is almost insulting to suggest they might want a terroir map. The attitude is that the monks discovered everything one thousand years ago, and they know it by heart.

‘But the truth is no one can avoid the fact that we are facing a democratisation of information that is both extremely healthy and extremely challenging for brand owners,’ he says.

‘We all have access to information from all kind of sources, which makes it imperative for the châteaux to take greater care to offer credible communication, to offer wine lovers something they can use.’

I agree with him, although personally I would like to see the maps go further, because the information is very clearly only as good as provided by the châteaux, and it can render them little more than beautiful brochures.

But there are hints, notably with Château Montrose, of what can be achieved, and what information can be transmitted – not only soil types but flavour characteristics that come from them, and how they are used to blend a wine in a specific vintage.

It will take more châteaux willing to open up this kind of data to start a real conversation with the next generation of wine lovers.

Read more Jane Anson columns on Decanter.com

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