In the heart of Provence, the wine estate of Château La Coste offers a walking tour with a difference: the opportunity to discover 20 works by contemporary artists, set among the 130 hectares of vines in a unique “open-air museum.”
One of the most striking is "Drop," a 2009 stainless steel sculpture by American artist Tom Shannon, which sits in a clover meadow in the shadow of a linden tree.
“It’s wonderful,” enthuses Hervé Cochet, 64, originally from Aix but now living in Germany, who’s visiting the estate with his wife. “I’m usually rather more of an ‘old stones’ person but here, the marriage of nature with art is stunning, truly incredible.”
Behind the imposing entrance to the estate, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, a giant spider (“Crouching Spider 6695”) by Franco-American artist Louise Bourgeois delicately hovers over a clear pond, taking visitors by surprise. This work, dating from 2003, is one of the few by Bourgeois to be held in private hands. “Louise Bourgeois was won over by the idea of her spider floating,” is the explanation from the château.
The visitor then comes across Ando’s art center (2011), a building in the shape of an immense figure "7" with large glass windows overlooking a pool, in which stands Alexander Calder’s mobile “Small Crinkly” (1976).
Since 2004, the estate has been the property of Patrick McKillen, an Irish property developer, art lover, and erudite collector. The original house dates from 1682 and the château produces 650,000 bottles a year of organic Coteaux-d’Aix.
McKillen's idea? Invite an artist to choose – from anywhere on the estate – the place that inspires him or her the most; then work on site to create a unique artwork.
As a result, the sculptures – mostly monumental in scale and integrated into their surroundings – are spread along a walk of three kilometers, lasting around two hours. The route meanders through rows of vines, plantings of olive trees and the vineyard’s buildings, where 40 employees work.
For Matthieu Cosse, the château's winemaker since 2006, exhibiting art and producing healthy, high-quality wines are two aspects of an overall project which presents wine as a cultural phenomenon.
Open all year round, this open-air museum was launched discreetly (at its owner’s behest) in the summer of 2011. It is located in Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, north of Aix-en-Provence.
In the hills you’ll see "Oak Room" (2009), by British artist Andy Goldsworthy, a specialist in “land art”; overlooking the vines is "Aix" (2008), by American Richard Serra; sheltered in a grove is "Calix Meus Inebrians" (2009), by Irish avant-garde artist Guggi; and in the woods, "Foxes" (2008), by REM singer Michael Stipe.
According to château staff, even children love the experience of viewing the sculptures, as visitors are invited to touch and “interact” with the works. “In winter, with the snow, it’s particularly beautiful,” a spokesman says.
This priceless private collection is accompanied by six architectural works, all just as fascinating. They include Jean Nouvel’s ultra-modern wine stores, built in 2008; a music pavilion designed by Gehry Partners, also from 2008; and two houses, now restored, by Lorrain Jean Prouvé.
“Just on this estate, we’ve assembled work by five Pritzker Prize winners – the highest distinction in architecture,” a château spokesman says.
Several other projects are on their way: works from Renzo Piano, Oscar Niemeyer and Ai Weiwei, including a wine bar and a school of oenology.
In Bordeaux, too, wine is being linked with contemporary art. The industry’s big names have quickly understood that having a reputation as a patron of the arts is a great image-building asset for their brands. Unlike in Provence, the exhibitions here are often run only during the summer.
Since 1992, the estate of Château d’Arsac in Médoc has become a haven for monumental sculptures. There are 20 iconic works, making up the largest collection of contemporary art in this remarkable region – home to the great wines of Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe.
Château d’Arsac's “Sculpture Garden” – bringing together works by Bernard Pagès, Claude Viallat, Bernar Venet, Jean-Michel Folon, Jean-Pierre Raynaud, Niki de Saint Phalle and Mark di Suvero – is included in the Art and Wine Tour run by Bordeaux’s Office de Tourisme since 2005. Beginning in Bordeaux, the tour runs every Friday from May to October and also takes in the temporary exhibitions held at Château Lynch-Bages.
In addition, for several decades now Jean-Jacques Lesgourgues, a significant collector and supporter of contemporary art, has hosted artists’ residencies on his six properties in Bas Armagnac, Madiran and Bordeaux.
“Apart from simply beautifying the premises (vineyards, gardens, cellars, wineries), the monumental sculptures are shown to full effect in relation to nature – an effect they would probably lose if exhibited in museums,” says Lesgourgues.
At Château Smith Haut Lafitte, one of Welshman Barry Flanagan's famous hare sculptures – an animal often associated with Bacchus – has pride of place among the vines. The château says the hare "has become a friendly symbol that watches over our old cabernet franc vines." Allegedly, real hares turn up to play around the statue when there's a full moon.
This Graves estate has 11 large sculptures, including works by Italian Mimmo Paladino, Korean Chul Hyun Ahn, and the Chinese artist Wang Du. American pop artist Jim Dine totally reworked his Venus de Bordeaux sculpture after 9/11. Now "covered with a patina and virtually lacerated in places, she rises defiantly from the chaos of man's cruelty."
Since 2010, Château La France has been home to a massive work 12 meters high and weighing six tonnes: a cockerel in stainless steel, created by sculptor Georges Saulterre, which reflects the sun, the sky and the weather’s changing moods.
Last but not least, Château Mouton-Rothschild is home to the Musée de l'Art et du Vin (Museum of Art in Wine), which has a stunning collection of art works and decorative objects on the theme of wine and winemaking. The museum is temporarily closed while the estate undergoes major work and renovations.