It's boom time for many of Bordeaux's top estates, with profits rising thanks to growing exports. As a result, many châteaux are signing up leading architectural names to design new wine cellars housing state-of-the-art equipment.
“There were numerous projects that had to be postponed because of the 2008 crisis," explains Xavier Coumau, president of the regional union of courtiers (wine brokers). "But the great 2009 and 2010 vintages have allowed these properties to reinvest and evolve technologically."
“Demand is exploding today,” reveals architect Bernard Mazieres, who has been involved in the construction of several new wine cellars, including Yquem, Pétrus, Latour and Mouton Rothschild. “The owners need more space to work, and want to implement their greater understanding of their grapes – which is leading them to do ferments in smaller tanks.”
Vinifying by parcel means using a different tank for every plot of land that has been identified as unique by new technological advances including satellite mapping. The technology allows the vineyard to be divided into plots that are similar or different in character according to factors such as soil type, vine age and vigor.
This new approach “enables us to manage harvest dates in a much more precise way. For example, the window of maturity for merlot is just four days,” says Jean-Michel Laporte, director of Château La Conseillante in Pomerol, where 18 new tanks were installed for the 2012 harvest.
In 2011, work was also completed on the groundbreaking new cellar at Cheval Blanc. The 14-million-euro ($18.7-million) building designed by renowned architect Christian de Portzamparc is both modern and daring.
A lesser-known St-Émilion estate, La Dominique, has commissioned a high-profile French architect, Jean Nouvel, to design a dramatic new winery facility in a bid to raise the château's profile. Inspired by British sculptor Anish Kapoor, the winery will be covered in red reflective metal plates, creating a mirror-effect.
Winery director Yannick Evenou hopes this groundbreaking building will compensate for a “lack of renown. We really need it to promote our winery.”
A panoramic rooftop terrace is also planned, providing views toward Cheval Blanc next door, as well Château Figeac, La Conseillante and L'Evangile.
“We want to show La Dominique is surrounded by world-famous properties,” explains Evenou. “Our illustrious neighbour Cheval Blanc made recourse to a well-known architect. Our idea was to use a top name like Jean Nouvel who wanted to make a work of art in the vines."
More recently, Château les Carmes Haut-Brion in the Graves appellation announced it had commissioned Philippe Starck to design a new winery in time for the 2015 harvest.
Pomerol producer Pétrus was also in need of a new winery, but its aim was to build a cellar that “blended in with the land and was discreet,” says the architect who designed it, Bernard Mazieres.
The consultant architect on the Pétrus project, Jean-Pierre Erath, adds: “Everything is functional. There is nothing for decoration, it's a work space that has been made beautiful.
“The architectural characters of the new cellar are like their wine,” says Erath. “At Pétrus, it's about being modern at the same time as continuing a legacy. With the buildings by Jean Nouvel or Philippe Starck it is a complete break with the past.”
Clearly, there are differences in opinion about the region's new wineries. But whatever one's point of view, Bordeaux will never look the same again.