Châteaux Tours, Out Amongst the Vines
Options when visiting Bordeaux châteaux used to be limited. Now the choice is not just where to go, but who to go with and how to get there!
OF THE 10 MILLION OR SO WINE TOURISTS WHO VISITED FRENCH VINEYARDS IN 2016, 18% CAME TO BORDEAUX, making it the number one destination for this audience. Perceptions that the region is closed and unwelcoming are obsolete. Châteaux have reacted to the growth in this industry by opening their doors and adapting the offer beyond a standard tour and tasting, in an effort to appeal more to gastronomes, families and those with interests complimentary to wine.
The number of foreigners overall is also on the rise, representing over 40% of tourists seeking to visit wineries and stay amongst the vines. Given their propensity to spend more than the average visitor, there has been a notable development in châteaux investing in ancillary services, as a means of attracting and retaining these clients for longer periods. In particular, the sweet wine region of Sauternes will benefit from a number of these ventures during 2018, with the establishment of restaurants and a luxury hotel at classified growth estates.
Art and Architecture
Other classified growth estates prefer to keep their works of art indoors. The Museum of Wine in Art at Château Mouton
Rothschild houses rare items of glassware, porcelain, silverware and tapestries, all with a connection to wine. The château is also recognized as having an extensive collection of modern artwork, due to the tradition of inviting artists to design labels. Original paintings by Miró, Chagall, Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Koons and Hockney can be viewed as part of the “Art & Wine” visit which lasts over 2 hours and also includes the wine artifacts. At Château Palmer, photography is the preferred art medium. Exhibitions by French and international photographers are displayed in the specially designed tasting room and can be viewed at the end of a two and a half hour tour. Up to 3 exhibitions are scheduled each year, with work by Bernard Plossu, Ernest Pignon-ernest and Raymond Depardon planned for 2018. At nearby Château d’arsac, the connection with art is the overriding theme for visits, which permanently features work by the likes of Bernard Pagès and Bernar Venet. For owner Philippe Raoux, the arrival of each new sculpture equates to an extension of the château’s architecture. At other estates, the wineries themselves are the works of art. Ambitious designs, often by ‘starchitects’ like Philippe Starck who was responsible for the metal, glass and concrete blade at Château les Carmes Haut-brion, are becoming a more frequent sight on the vineyard landscape. Sometimes original architecture can be retained, as with the example of the reinvention of Château Pédesclaux by Jean-michel Wilmotte by the addition of symmetrical glass extensions to the original modest stone house. Modern designs can be influenced too by older architectural styles, as was the case with Mario Botta and Château Faugères, which was inspired by an 18th-century chartreuse.
Spotlight on Sauternes
Also owned by Silvio Denz - Château Lafaurie-peyraguey - is at the centre of some exciting developments in Sauternes, which are set to attract more visitors to this part of the wine region. On the 400th anniversary of the château, the doors will open in May 2018 to a luxury Relais & Châteaux hotel, with 13 individually decorated rooms designed by Lalique. Given the common owner, the partnership with the crystal producer is an ideal match and its influence will be felt on the décor, from door handles and chandeliers to specially commissioned carafes for the bar. No surprise then that it will also feature in the name; Hotel & Restaurant Lalique, the dining room of which will overlook the surrounding vineyards. Headed by Jérôme Schilling, a former head chef at Villa René Lalique in Alsace, the ambition is to match previous achievements and to attain a 2 Michelin star rating in the first year.
According to David Bolzan, the director of the classified growth estate, the aim of the hotel is to “welcome, amaze and surprise guests,” and to provide a
fitting location where sweet wines can be celebrated. His enthusiasm for the project is matched only by his affection for the appellation overall, manifested in his spearheading of a campaign which could see Sauternes awarded Unesco World Heritage status, which if successful, would attract more visitors to the area.
As part of the hotel development, Lafaurie-peyraguey will be open for visits 7 days a week, joining family-run estates such as Château de Fargues which is also open weekends. By appointment, visitors can tour the ruins of the 14th-century fortress, accompanied by a member of the Lur Saluces family, before watching a video about the history of this important Sauternes dynasty. Another chateau which was owned by the family for over 300 years – Yquem – is also open for visits 7 days a week (by appointment only) but it is free to wander the gardens and visit the boutique without prior arrangement.
In February 2018, next door Château Guiraud became the first Bordeaux 1st growth estate to open an onsite restaurant. The former 18th-century protestant chapel was the ideal location for a
partnership with Nicolas Lascombes, a restaurateur who favors the use of local and organic produce, which is in fitting with the agricultural practices of the property. Unsurprisingly, sweet wines are well represented on a list boasting more than 500 references, with a complimentary glass of Petit Guiraud served on arrival in the restaurant, which boasts wood, stone and leather interiors, comfortable designer chairs and a large central table. Visits at the château itself can be with or without appointment, 7 days a week and during the summer months, opening times will be extended to cater for those who may wish to stop by before dinner at La Chapelle.
Travelling en famille
The opportunity to visit châteaux often presents itself to tourists during family holidays and as such, they are accompanied on wine tours by their children. Keeping little people interested in barrel cellars and wine tasting is no mean feat but fortunately many Bordeaux wine producers live up to their château name. One such estate which really catches the imagination is the fairytale-like Château d’agassac, with its slated turrets, moat and nearby forest. The history of the castle, which can be dated back to the 13th-century, is featured in the “Adventure Trail” game, where children are tasked with freeing an imprisoned princess, whilst adults can learn more about the wines, via tablet devices.
Adding animals to the wine tour offering can also raise interest levels. Back in the 19th-century, the Bouteiller family of Château Lanessan took advantage of their location on an 8 hectare park to invest in stables, which today house a horse museum. Belle époque period carriages and saddlery equipment are some of the main attractions, while tours of the estate in a horse-drawn carriage can also be arranged. The animals encountered during the 2 hour walk along the Land’art path at Château Smith Haut Lafitte are often unexpected but a joy to discover. This aspect of the trail has a large appeal to children, who take pleasure in climbing into the loft of the replica pigeonnier from the Middle Ages or trying to locate the wooded stork’s nest hidden in a beach tree. Wildlife, such as badgers and farm animals like llamas can also be spotted and visitors are actively encouraged to taste the fruit and smell the herbs of the scent garden. Using one’s nose will also be central to a new family activity at Château La Dominique during 2018. The “Little Wine Experts” tour will allow a younger audience to discover the aromas most closely associated with wine and finish with a tasting of grape juice and the awarding of a diploma. Although it is not possible for them to try the wine at the top, children are still motivated to climb the 200 year old cedar tree at Château de Rayne Vigneau, to the perched tasting area overlooking the Ciron valley. The château is also one of the few estates to start offering an escape game in 2018, which are often popular with young and old kids alike! At Château de la Rivière, the game has the added attraction of being located in the underground maze of limestone cellars.
Way to go!
Once it has been decided where to visit, the attention often turns to how to get there. Spittoons are a common sight in châteaux tasting rooms but most are underused. So how are visitors choosing to travel? Of course there are many companies providing car and chauffeur
services, but some are diversifying into other vehicles and not all are road-based. Although it may seem out of place amongst the vineyards, touring château by London taxi is no longer an uncommon sight, thanks to Wine Cab and their three, specially adapted cars, with back seat, wine-tasting facilities. Another unusual vehicle, the Tuk Tuk, can be spotted rattling along the cobbled streets of Saint-emilion and around the nearby châteaux. 100% electric, it’s the canny option for visitors who are staying locally as taxis can be in short supply. Guaranteed to make heads turn is the option to arrive at a château Hastride a handmade Harley Davidson. As an example of the journey being as important as the destination, their tours are marketed more around the number of kilometers covered rather than wines tasted. If these wannabe HOGS are disappointed at having to spit rather than swallow, it is not reflected in Tourochâteaux’s disclaimer which refuses all responsibility for their clients subsequently buying their own bikes! Extravagant as it may sound, other clients are prepared to go a step further, to avoid traffic and make an entrance. During a helicopter ride with Jet Systems, it is possible to enjoy views of the main vineyard areas plus the Gironde estuary, while still having time to stop off for tours and tastings at châteaux. Although the ascent and decent may be slower, a hot air balloon ride over Saint-emilion and the surrounding vineyards is no less spectacular.
La chapelle de Guiraud.
Wine Cab in Médoc.
Hot air balloon in the vineyards.
Harley Davidsons in Saint-emilion.
Château Lafaurie-peyraguey in Sauternes.