With its pristinely-preserved medieval villages, stunning centuries-old chateaux, and some of France’s highest-rated (and highest-priced) red wines, Bordeaux has always exuded an air of untainted sophistication. But as consumer tastes shift and wine tourism becomes an increasingly crowded and competitive space, the region is beginning to break free of its age-old mold. Downtown Bordeaux is diversifying at a rapid clip, building everything from shopping promenades and new wave restaurants to 2016’s La Cité du Vin, a sleekly designed and highly interactive museum that takes visitors on a tech-driven journey through the world of wine.
The chateaux, despite their coiffed reputations, aren’t far behind. Unafraid to stand out from the crowd, wineries like Château du Taillan, Château Coutet, and Château Pape-Clément are shedding presumption by experimenting with new and unorthodox ideas around tourism, the environment, and technology. They may take markedly different approaches, but together, this rising crop of winemakers is each doing their part to keep Bordeaux wine firmly on the map.
Château du Taillan’s Bright Idea
Last year, fifth generation Château du Taillan proprietor Armelle Falcy Cruse had an idea. Cruse and her four sisters had been running their family’s 30-hectare operation in Médoc for some time, attracting visitors with award-winning wines like the La Dame Blanche Sauvignon Blanc, named after the estate’s resident ghost. The wines drew crowds, but Cruse knew that with a little elbow grease and help from her artistically-inclined daughter Margot, she could create an even richer experience.
“Most of the time, people who come to the winery are not alone. Some of them want to know everything about the wine, but the other ones sometimes get bored,” she explained. This realization birthed Cruse’s “Concept Store,” a cozy boutique attached to the estate’s bottle shop. The space is teeming with merchandise inspired by her family’s grand castle and storied past. “With the concept store, we tell a new story: the history of the chateaux; the legend of the Dame Blanche, our white wine; and the third one is the mascot—my team decided that the mascot would be the dog,” she continued with a laugh. “My daughter drew these three images and we had it printed on different goodies. And you know what sells the best? The dog. Can you believe it?”
Cruse’s innovation has been a hit. The shop prominently features Margot’s work, including her jewelry line Argelouse as well as posters, tote bags, mugs, and other collectibles sporting her drawings. In contrast to its 18th-century setting, Château du Taillan has been stocking modern, unconventional items like bag-in-box wine and wine-in-tube or “W.I.T.,” glass-sized pours sold in chemistry class-esque test tubes, for some time, so this break from tradition felt natural. “Some of the other chateaux, aside from the bottles, they might sell corkscrews or drop-stops, things like that,” said Cruse. “What we have is quite new because the products have nothing to do with the wine. As of now, I've sold the same number of bottles as last year, but I’ve doubled the amount of money from the shop just with goodies.”
“Bordeaux doesn't receive only wine tourism but pure tourists, too, who want to have a walk, to see nice places, and to bring back different things,” she added. “I think it's a real answer to a demand.”
Château Coutet, Where Old Is New
Over in Saint Emilion, certified organic Château Coutet is investing in the future by looking far into the past. Sprawled over 14 hectares and oozing with rustic charm, the lush hillside property still functions much like it did in 1601: no chemicals, no artificial fertilizers, and very little mechanical involvement. And while 14th generation winemaker and current Commercial Director Adrien David Beaulieu has witnessed many neighboring wineries benefit from more industrialized, less eco-friendly methods, he’s opted to make a name for himself by doubling down on the timeworn practices that have sustained his family’s business for centuries.
“Our planet is dying,” explained David Beaulieu. “As a vine-grower, I don't want to participate in this disaster. My ancestors never used weed killers, insecticides, or chemicals. Coutet is one of the last French estates with soil as it was before industrialization and we can prove it using wine analyses. I have to keep it clean.”
For David Beaulieu, keeping things clean is just the tip of the iceberg. He holds a degree in quaternary geology and is passionate about all the antiquated curios he encounters, from restoring his home’s medieval-era walls to developing historically-inspired wines. Over the last few years, Château Coutet launched Cuvée Emeri, a special release housed in a hand-blown, meticulous recreation of a circa-1750 glass-corked bottle discovered in the family’s cellar, and Cuvée Demoiselle, a line of vintages David Beaulieu describes as “special wines we make without gas and almost without electricity, harvesting with only horses and our hands in the vineyard, no tractor.”
David Beaulieu sees his family’s commitment to these time-honored practices as a selling point, particularly as consumers become more environmentally-attuned. “Thirty years ago we were the strangest in the neighborhood. People didn’t want our wine, they thought we were weird,” he explained while walking through the vineyard one rainy day last April. “Now with my generation, organic is in fashion. So it’s good for me.”
Château Pape-Clément’s Mad Scientist
Technology is the name of the game for Bernard Magrez Vineyards Research and Development Manager Dr. Arnaud Delaherche. During his tenure, the microbiologist and enology specialist has worked on a slew of cutting-edge innovations throughout Magrez’ network of esteemed area estates including Pessac’s Château Pape-Clément, classified as Grand Crus Classe for red wines. When you’re talking about land that’s been growing grapes for seven centuries, successfully introducing new-fangled ideas like electric tractors and drones is no small feat.
“First, we work with robotics,” began Delaherche. “At Pape-Clément, we use an electric tractor. It has ten hours of autonomy and weighs two tons. There’s no noise pollution, we don't use gas, and the quality of the work is much better for us. We were the first to have this kind of tractor in Bordeaux when we bought it three years ago, and now we have two.”
The futuristic T4E tractor looks like a transformer, with a bulbous cab and spidery, neon green legs straddling parallel rows of vines. Retractable hydraulics and interchangeable tools allow it to tackle multiple tasks on the fly. Mowing, trimming, treating, and grinding—you name it, this machine gets it done.
Another eco-savvy Delaherche project? Disease-spotting drones.
“We have three drones now at Pape-Clément and we use them to get the cartography of the vineyard,” he explained. “The drone makes a map showing different quantities of mildew all over the vineyard. After, we can take the card from the drone, put it inside the tractor and we can regulate the treatment based on the quantity of the disease. The main goal is use less product.”
The image of a tiny flying robot hovering above a stately Neo-Gothic castle might seem strange at first. Just as you might not expect to pick up a pair of artisan earrings alongside your test tube of Certified Cru Bourgeois or roam a forest-like vineyard before sipping Bordeaux wine from a hand-blown bottle fitted with a glass heart-shaped cork. But judging from their continued success, these ambitious winemakers and their often offbeat, experimental efforts to promote and preserve the region they love will surely be felt for generations to come.