Scenes from Bordeaux

Exploring tradition and innovation in Bordeaux’s world-renowned vineyards

By Allie Wist

Published on July 14, 2015

Wineries in Bordeaux, like in the rest of France, are imbued with a rich and elaborate history, woven together with politics, heritage, culture, and of course, terroir. The region is dominated by tradition: the vines here were first planted by ancient Romans, and many date back 2000 years. But “tradition” for winemakers in Bordeaux has always been subject to change; their traditions are not static. They look to a past of constant adaptation and evolution as part of their history. Some winemakers are turning to new innovations in organic farming and more sustainable farming methods as a way to preserve the terroir and the heritage of the region. Others are evolving their wines with highly customized and advanced viticulture equipment. Some of the best Châteaus in the world have both horse-drawn plows and state-of-the-art fermentation vats. I took a visit to eight châteaus in Bordeaux with Oliver Dixon, an international sommelier for Emirates airline, as my guide, to find out how the region balances tradition and innovation.

Chateau Malartic-Lagravière, France (Winery, Vineyard)
Small, unripe grapes growing on the vines in Bordeaux

Several wineries in Bordeaux are using more sustainable methods, including the use of little or no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Dixon identifies it as a growing trend—revolution, even—across the region. According to Jean-Jacques Bonnie, winemaker at Château Malartic-Lagravière, this makes the grapes smaller, producing a higher ratio of skin to berry, and makes for hardier vines. Organic methods increase soil quality and allow the microorganism to flourish, which improves vine health and the grapes’ ultimate flavor. The 2010 Château Malartic-Lagravière is an excellent showcase of such flavor, with a balance of full-bodied currants and woodsy, smoky barbecue notes. $38,

Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte (Winery) in Bordeaux, France
Winemaker Daniel Cathiard in the Vineyards at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte boasts red wines which are ranked among the Grands Crus Classé. Although the vineyard dates to the 14th century, they have just finished extensive and modern renovations of the winemaking facilities and cellar. These winemakers are particularly scrupulous about the barrels in which they age their wine; they use only old-growth oak from French forests, and produce most of their barrels on the premises, carefully aging and toasting the wood, which gives their red its characteristic smoke and spice. Daniel Cathiard, who co-owns the winery with his wife, took us through the vineyards to his home, which is situated just an eighth of a mile from the château itself. Daniel and his wife live in the vineyard’s original château, built in 1765.

Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte (Winery) in Bordeaux, France
Florence Cathiard at her home

Florence Cathiard, Daniel’s wife and co-owner of the winery, emphasizes the importance of using sustainable farming methods in their vineyards, echoing a growing sentiment across the region. They reconcile highly modernized, technology-driven vinification methods with biodynamic agricultural practices. Their methods include the introduction of mites that prey on vine-eating varieties, fertilization of the vines with organic compost (made from vine shoots left over from pruning), and the use of horses to plow the delicate white vines. You can see the beautiful vineyards, as well as the cellars, vat room, and cooperage, on a tour, which includes a tasting of the first and second wines of the Château.

Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc

Dinner at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte started with the 2010 Château blanc on the patio of the Cathiards’ home. As Dixon explains, when the Carthiards took over the winery in the 1950s, the white wine it produced was not very high quality. However, it is now recognized as one of the best white wines of the region. “It has a lovely floral nose that opens up to fleshy apricots and peaches,” he says. “The palate is textural, rich and round, partially due to the rare addition of 5% Sauvignon Gris, a grape whose popularity is increasing the Bordeaux whites.” Overall, they have a nice, calm minerality to them, and are wonderful with food. The 2010 white is available now for about $100 a bottle, and is ready to drink from now through 2035. 2010 Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, $115,

The Wine Bar at Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte
The Wine Bar at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte

The château’s adjoining 5-star hotel features a two-Michelin star restaurant and a stunning wine bar, where visitors and guests can taste wines alongside foie gras, traditional canned food, wine confits, and Iberian ham. The hotel also provides vinotherapie—spa treatments that utilize vine and grape extracts.

Chateau Larrive Haut-Brion (Winery) in Bordeaux, France
Chateau Larrive Haut-Brion

During a 2014 barrel tasting at Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, Émilie Gervoson (owner) and Bruno Lemoine (manager) explain the great changes the winery has gone through in the past 20 years—they have replanted sixty hectares of vines and installed the latest vinification equipment, including custom concrete eggs in which the white wine will ferment and be aged on lees. Most winemakers agree this process enhances the textural depth in the wine. Above, Émilie drinks the 2010 vintage, a reasonably priced Bordeaux with a lovely balance of ripe fruits and rich cherries with herbal aromatics. Larrivet Haut-Brion 2010, Pessac-Léognan, $34,

Chateau Malartic-Lagravière (Winery) in Bordeaux, France
Château Malartic-Lagravière

The vat room at Château Malartic-Lagravière contains 20 stainless steel vats and 10 wooden ones, all smaller in size, allowing the Château to house only grapes from specific micro-terroirs in each vat. This allows for individual vinification of each micro-terroir, which will then be blended together to make the vintage. Visitors can take tours of the vineyard and winemaking facilities by appointment.

Chateau Cos d Estournel in Bordeaux, France (Winery, Vineyard)
Vineyard at Château Cos d Estournel

These vines, situated on sloping hills unusual for Bordeaux, make up part of the vineyard at Château Cos d’Estournel. This hill is actually a rock deposit, which forces the vines to dig deep and apparently produces a more concentrated flavor in the grapes, due to a slower delivery of water. “Our most important natural resource is the soil,” says owner Taymeric de Gironde, “the soil is always bigger than we are.” Gironde says that the growing interest in organics has caused him to adopt methods that protect the soil. “Organic forced us to think differently. Are we doing it for taste? No, but that’s not the point. We do this for respect for the environment.”

Château Cos d’Estournel, Winery and Vineyard in Bordeaux France
The Cellar at Château Cos d’Estournel

Château Cos d’Estournel is worth a visit for its exotic decor alone, which earned Louis Gaspard d’Estournel, the owner of the winery until 1852, the nickname ‘the Maharajah of Saint-Estèphe’. The grounds include giant palm trees, Hindu statues, pagoda rooftops, and carved wooden doors from Zanzibar. You can see the unique architecture by taking a château tour, which they offer by appointment.

Chateau Cos d'Estournel (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Wine Aging at Château Cos d'Estournel

The cellar at Cos d’Estournel features an expansive, dramatically lit walkway over the wine aging in oak barrels. The cellar was built in 2008 by the château in collaboration with French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. It aims to employ an ultra-modern design in the service of ultra-traditional technique. All of the fermenting juice is stored in isothermic vats and transferred to barrels using only gravity, allowing each individual batch to be pure and unblemished.

Chateau Lynch-Bages (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Château Lynch-Bages

Château Lynch-Bages, unlike many of the fully modern chateaus I visited in Bordeaux, houses a historical wine-making facility, showing off how winemakers in the 1850’s utilized the then-new technology of railways to design a gravity system for getting the grapes into fermentation tanks. You can see the winemaking facilities, cellar, and bottling facilities on a tour, which includes a tasting of their highly acclaimed Grand Cru Classe wine.

Chateau Lynch-Bages (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Bottling room at Château Lynch-Bages

Château Lynch-Bages actually houses their entire bottling facility on site, so that they can ensure traceability and quality in all of their wines. They are protective of their wines’ quality with reason. “This is a particularly great vintage for Lynch-Bages, just starting now to come into its own,” Dixon says of the 2005 vintage. “It’s softened a lot, it’s much more mellow. It’s a classic Pauillac, with blackcurrant as the primary fruit, with cedarwood and sandalwood coming through. What I like are the high notes of some mintiness. Then there’s the graphite, [there’s] some minerality in it as well.” 2005 Château Lynch-Bages, $90,

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Top floor of vat room at Château Mouton-Rothschild

Château Mouton-Rothschild stood out as one of the most profoundly “modern” wineries I visited, both in the physical space and in spirit. The enormous winemaking facility featured this upper deck which overlooked the fermentation tanks. The wines felt equally as edgy: “It has citrus, almost tropical notes, with an oaking that envelops and softens the wine,” Dixon says of the white 2010 Aile d’Argent. $76,

Chateau Margaux (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Vine growing at Château Margaux

Château Margaux, in the Medoc, is a Premier Grand Cru Classe. It’s soil is chalky and full of fossils and shells, giving the wines a powerful earthen flavor and strong, structured tannins. “Great terroir has the amazing capacity to adapt [to bad vintages],” says Dixon. “When conditions aren’t favorable, only the great terroir makes a great wine.” One bottle to purchase that will embody the terroir will be their 2014 vintage, which has notes of stone and cedar, in addition to the characteristic lush, dark fruits. 2014 Château Margaux, $160,

Chateau Margaux (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Vat room at Château Margaux

“We are not enclosed in our traditions,” Managing Director at Château Margaux Paul Pontallier says, “our ‘tradition’ has always been to evolve. That’s why we have experimental wine cellars. That’s why we have been remarkably able to adapt to changing times.” State-of-the art fermentation tanks, pictured above, are one of the ways winemakers at Margaux improve their technique, and evolve their wines’ each vintage.

Chateau Haut-Brion (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Technical Director for Château Haut-Brion

Château Haut-Brion showcased how innovation can parallel the desire to preserve a winery’s heritage. “We are really aiming to combine tradition with technology,” says third-generation Technical Director Jean-Philippe Delmas. “We try to pay attention to ecological systems around the vineyard. For the past 20 years, we have stopped using insecticides and herbicides, and are aiming to be more biodynamic in spirit.” The last step for them is to find a non-chemical way to deal with fungus. Bordeaux wineries have a particularly hard time dealing with fungus, due to moisture from the Atlantic ocean. One of the only certified “organic” ways to deal with fungus is copper, but most winemakers say that the amount of copper they would have to use is actually more damaging than the fungicide, since copper will deplete the soil over time. The château is working the other first growth vineyards and a Swiss university to pioneer new ways to deal with fungus. “We have received a heritage from my father, from my grandfather,” says Delmas, when I asked why he chose to invest so heavily in the research, “and now we have to protect it, and leave something clean for the next generation.”

Chateau Haut-Brion (Winery and Vineyard) in Bordeaux, France
Cooper at Château Haut-Brion

“Barrels have a major role to play in the flavour of wines,” Dixon says. “The origin of the oak, the degree of toasting, seasoning methods, and preparation of the staves all play a role. Controlling these aspects allows a winemaker to have better control on the influence of oak in the wine.” At Château Haut-Brion, winemakers say that in order to ensure they get the exact toasting the desire for their barrels, they employ a cooper on site to make French oak barrels for their aging process. You can request a visit to the château, including a look into the cooperage, on their website.

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