To wine lovers everywhere, the grand vintages of the Bordeaux region of France have long been regarded as the true pinnacle of excellence. The wines of Pauillac, St-Emilion, Médoc, Margaux, and others have graced the tables of the high and mighty throughout the civilized world over the past several centuries, and are increasingly being fervently sought out and bought up by connoisseurs in the Far East, one of the few instances of cultural imperialism going in the other direction. The methods and philosophies used in their production have by and large remained true to the old traditions; modern technology however has undeniably played an ever-more important rôle in recent years. To add even more lustre to this glorious culture of the grape, if that were possible, the past few decades has seen some of Europe’s most highly-acclaimed and imaginative architects taking time off from their ground-breaking and spectacular major urban projects to contribute their innovative designs to the cellars and vat rooms of some of the region’s top châteaux, perhaps as a sort of “jeu d’esprit”, and most certainly with a sense of homage to the magnificent heritage of the vine these producers represent. Truly an embarrassment of riches.
Château Lafite Rothschild was the first in this procession, when in 1986 it enlisted noted Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill to design their new aging cellars. The author of ambitious projects all over the world, from Houston to Kazakhstan, and including the “Antigone” quarter in Montpellier (read our article on Montpellier), Sr Bofill conceived an impressive avant-garde octagonal cellar set within a 50m square, under cultivated vineyards. The roof of the crypt-like chamber, which needs to support the 2-metre thick terrain of the vineyards above, is supported by columns; they and other features of the construction present fanciful variations on the octagonal theme. The 4000sqm cellar holds 2200 barrels of the finest Pauillac, and is connected to other cellars and production areas of the site by underground tunnels. It is harmoniously lit by a skylight in the centre of the roof, and a gallery runs around the perimeter for viewing. www.ricardobofill.com
Just down the road, near St-Estèphe on the Gironde and virtually next door to Mouton Rothschild, are the vineyards of the Médoc Grand Cru, the Château Cos d’Estournel. One of the more exotic addresses in the area, the château was built in the first half of the 19th century by Louis Gaspard, a world traveller who was known as the “Maharajah of St-Estèphe” from the Oriental features he imparted to his estate: the carved precious-wood main doorway of the golden sandstone chai, or cellars, was brought over from a palace in Zanzibar; carved stone elephants stand guard, and the building is topped by the pagoda-like towers that give their name to the estate’s second vintage (from younger vines, less than 20 years old): Les Pagodes de Cos. In 2008, the estate’s owners commissioned noted architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who had also designed the striking Quai de Hennessey in Cognac, to undertake the renovation and interior design of the cellars as well as the main building. As with many of his major projects, the result is a stunning experience in glass and polished chrome. A sea of pristine, new barrels of merrain oak, subtly lit from below, is traversed by a glass bridge leading off into the distance; glass columns are interspersed among the rows. Noteworthy here as well is the unique system of four elevator vats (two on each side), for gravity- rather than pump-fed vat-to-vat drainage. This is meant to improve the tannin profile, and no doubt it does just that.
Château Faugères, four miles east of St-Emilion, arose around a former 18th century Carthusian monastery, its château a picturesque “chartreuse”-style building. Perched atop a hilltop among its vineyards and overlooking the UNESCO heritage site countryside is a quite unique building which houses the new production centre featuring some truly state-of-the-art viticultural technology. It was designed and built in 2009 by Swiss architect Mario Botta, architect of acclaimed buildings throughout the world including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1994), and who was also deeply involved in the restoration of La Scala. Mr Botta has been known as the “Master of Light and Gravity” and has specialized over the years in religious buildings. For him, “a church is the place, par excellence, of architecture”, a place where our world encounters the sacred, where whoever enters is embraced by the design, and which makes man a participant in the meeting of the mundane and the divine. His Le Corbusier-influenced edifice at Faugères stands as a cathedral to wine, a beacon amidst its diocese of vines.
Finally, at Château Cheval Blanc, which produces a St-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé A (one of only two châteaux that have received this highest honour, and a 1961 bottle of which came to a sticky end in a hamburger joint at the hands of Paul Giamatti in the droll 2004 Alexander Payne film Sideways), the renowned French architect Christian de Portzamparc, first French winner of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1994, has constructed a new vat house, a “cellar on the hill” overlooking the vineyards with views down to the village. M de Portzamparc is the designer of the glorious Cité de la Musique in La Villette, Paris, just one of several major concert hall/theatre complexes he has built around the world, and his creation at Cheval Blanc gives the appearance that it could be set to music. Topped by a 6000sqm landscaped roof garden, its undulating sails of off-white moulded concrete float serenely and in perfectly harmonious balance over the vineyards, allowing the eye to embrace the gentle contours of the landscape. The vat room at Château Cheval Blanc is unfortunately not open to visitors, but can be seen from the road passing by the estate.
Château Lafite © Rothschild
Château Cos d'Estournel
© Sébastien Cottereau
© Philippe Caumes
Château Cheval Blanc
© Gérard Uféras Quadri