The architecture of Bordeaux city and the surrounding châteaux have been symbols of the wealth and the wines of the region since the 17th century. As the wine economy boomed in the 18th and 19th centuries, châteaux were built as showcases for the family owners. Drive along the Route des Châteaux (D2 road) in the Médoc and you’ll see different architectural gems, all built facing the road. Often only one room deep, they are all about façade.
Historically, owners would never invite guests into their wineries. But in recent years châteaux have started opening up to visitors, and today cellars are key to the visitor experience, helping to communicate the story of a wine and its journey from vine to bottle. Design-led cellars have sprung up on Left and Right Banks, but impressing those who visit is just one consideration.
A deeper understanding of terroir in the region has seen a general move towards dividing vineyards into smaller plots. This precise expression of ‘terroir’ requires each plot to be vinified separately, meaning that cellars increasingly need to accommodate a larger number of smaller fermentation vats. And this is before you even take into account experimentation with different winemaking methods – as well as the traditional oak barrels, you may now see vats of all shapes and sizes rubbing shoulders with amphorae, concrete eggs and globes. Come across a lift? You may find it’s for tanks rather than people, a modern take on the traditional gravity feed.
With sustainable certification and carbon footprints increasingly a business focus, the environmental impact of cellars is another aspect of the design challenge. Happily, there are châteaux leading the way, inspiring others in the region with cellars that brilliantly bring together wine and welcome, marrying design, functionality, sustainability and the wow factor. Here are five of the best, to visit and to inspire – advance booking is required for most tours.
Back to the future
Gravity cellars were first introduced to Bordeaux in the mid-1800s. The harvest was winched to an upper floor where it was sorted, destemmed and crushed before falling into tanks. At Château Lynch-Bages the 19th-century, two-storey vat room is a witness to past innovation. Designed by Pierre Skawinski in the 1860s, it also had slatted flooring circulating the air to protect workers from carbon dioxide poisoning. Wooden hoppers ran along metal rails to deliver hand-destemmed grapes into the vats below. These vats were elevated to allow the wine to run off but also so embers could be placed underneath if they needed warming to kickstart fermentation. Wet sacking and buckets of water thrown at them was the standard cooling system. You’ll see similar systems preserved and used at Château Pontet-Canet and Château Giscours (the first Skawinski cellar).
The old Lynch-Bages cellar, unused since 1976, is right next to its brand new one, inaugurated in 2022. A 2006 satellite analysis of the vineyard sub-divided the existing plots, too many to vinify separately in the 1970s cellar, so in 2009 the team started planning for a new building, designed by architect Chien Chung (Didi) Pei and executed by Bordelais Arnaud Boulain. In 2017, they demolished the existing building, excavating 10 metres down to create a new gravity-flow cellar. The impressive glass and stone building has 80 insulated stainless steel vats and barrel cellars that can house two vintages at a time. Six glass lift shafts in the centre bring natural daylight down to the barrel cellar, as well as tanks of wine.
By car, head to Pauillac town. The château is just off the D2 along the Rue de Bages. Open Monday- Saturday 9am-12.30pm/2pm-6pm. Cellar tours are €25 per person for 90 minutes.
Known as the Versailles of the Médoc, Château Beychevelle in St-Julien is a classic chartreuse: a single-storey, country-house style of Bordeaux architecture with an enfilade of rooms that traverse from the front to the back of the building, and towers at each end.
Originally built to represent the wealth and status of the Marquis de Brassier, it was rebuilt in 1757. The gardens run down to the Gironde estuary, which carried away the wines and brought back the wealth. Current owners Grands Millésimes de France, part of the Castel and Suntory groups, have completely renovated the château, and guests can dine and sleep there in 17th-century luxury.
In a stunning juxtaposition of old and ultra-modern the cellars, designed by Arnaud Boulain, transport visitors into the 21st century. Stainless steel vats support technical winemaking and a low carbon footprint in the glass and metal winery. There’s artistic licence with the metal design along glass walls representing the rolling gravel outcrops of St-Julien. With the whole building inspired by sailing boats on the Gironde, the ceiling of the underground barrel cellar represents the waves of the estuary (as well as providing insulation against the sound and temperature) and is punctuated by Japanese- inspired paper sculptures, representing the sails of the iconic Viking Drakkar warship on the grand vin label.
By car, the château is on the D2 between Cussac-Fort- Médoc and St-Julien-Beychevelle. Open Monday- Saturday 9am-12.30pm/2pm-5.30pm. Tours start from €25 per person for 75 minutes.
Sometimes there’s nothing old to work with. The Perrodo family were owners of nearby Château Labégorce when, in 2006, they purchased Château Marquis d’Alesme, or at least the vineyards of the property, a close neighbour of Château Margaux. The original château building remains in the hands of previous owners, the Ritz-Zuger family, so Nathalie Perrodo worked with local architect Fabien Pédelaborde to build her own winery from scratch.
The functional and beautiful Zen cellar is inspired by her dual Chinese and French heritage. The design includes elegant references to the Chinese Tao symbols of the four elements and imperial architecture. A sleeping dragon protects the wines in the vats. Welcoming guests was key to the concept and it starts as you walk through the gateway to be met with a stunning vista down towards the vines. Access to the cellar is through the Garden of Contemplation and past the 18th-century folly, transferred stone by stone from Château Labégorce. Once inside, guests walk through sliding moon doors between the barrel cellars and onto the rooftop terrace with views over the appellation.
By car, on the D2 in Margaux-Cantenac. Open Monday-Friday 10am-7pm. Entrance to the château gardens, tasting room and La Table de Nathalie is free, and private guided tours are €60 for 11⁄2-2 hours.
So close to Bordeaux you can get most of the way by tram, Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion is a very different example of starting from scratch. Some 10ha of this vineyard lie in the heart of the suburbs, a green oasis protected by trees and parkland. The name and the vineyard date back to the 1500s, when the owner of Haut-Brion donated land to the Carmelite religious order. When Patrice Pichet purchased the property in 2010, the previous owner stayed on in the original 18th-century château,
so a new cellar was needed. Designer Philippe Starck and architect Luc Arsène-Henry were commissioned to create a stand-out, ultra-modern cellar for this 10ha vineyard. Inaugurated in 2017, it resembles a metal ship sailing on the waters of the Peugue river now diverted around it. Visitors cross a wooden bridge to the vat cellar where oak, stainless steel and concrete tanks line up above the semi-submerged barrel cellar (all in the interests of gravity). A tasting room rises above it all like the first-class suite of an ocean liner. Tasting on the roof terrace, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re on the prow of a ship sailing back towards the vines of neighbouring Haut-Brion.
By car, the château is southwest of central Bordeaux, on the rue des Carmes. By tram, take line A along Avenue François Mitterrand, get off at the François Mitterrand stop, from where it’s a short walk to the estate. Open Monday-Saturday 9.30am-12.30pm/2pm-6pm. Private visits start at €50 per person for 90 minutes.
Communing with nature
Environment and aesthetics go hand in hand at Château Haut-Bailly in Pessac-Léognan. It took five years to create this stunning structure, designed by architect Daniel Romeo, which is perfectly integrated into its surroundings. It helps that an ecologist, Chris Wilmers, professor at the Environmental Studies Department, Santa Cruz University, became president in 2018.
From grapes to bottling, the wine is protected under an asymmetric 38m diameter roof, even more impressive when you know there’s a garden growing overhead. As well as providing a beautiful setting, the roof garden brings natural insulation, to help moderate temperature, keep it carbon neutral and increase biodiversity. It is sown with plants that offer a mix of seeds and berries to support fauna. This semi-submerged cellar is surprisingly discreet, its domed structure an echo of the gravel outcrops in the vineyard.
Skylights allow natural light to enter the space which descends 10m-20m underground. The barrel cellar in the basement is stunning, with technical equipment cleverly hidden away behind wooden walls. Here the lift is for visitors, who emerge blinking into the garden.
The building has an HQE (high quality environment) certification. Managing director Véronique Sanders wanted the new cellar to be positive for the total environment, for nature on the outside and for those who work on the inside. Aesthetically pleasing for both staff and visitors, there is space for winemakers to work with ease and lots of new technical ‘toys’. The whole effect is one of elegance and discretion, just like the wine.
By car, the château is just east of Léognan, on Rue de la Liberté. Open Monday-Friday 9am-4.30pm. Tours start from €50 for a 60-minute ‘classic visit’.