A vine romance

For wine lovers, Bordeaux is synonymous with tradition. But some Bordelaises have their eyes on the future

In the world of wine, Bordeaux is nobility. When Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry Plantaganet in 1152, the region became the main British foothold for a three-century Aquitanian adventure. It was to the English, and their taste for Bordeaux clarets, that the area owed its first economic boom. The second upswing, which financed the building of the elegant city centre, came with the 18th-century colonial trade. Today, from gently undulating limestone hills, sand and gravel, come more than 500 million bottles of red, white and rose wine every year.

An aura of old money, call it 18th-century elegance, permeates downtown Bordeaux. The excellent Musee d'Aquitaine (free admission on Wednesdays) gives a great insight into the city and its history. The wine trade section is certainly worth a visit, before you set out on a vineyard tour.

But, beforehand, visit the Saint-Michel market. Here you'll discover an abundance of local products: Gironde caviare, basin oysters, tender baby eels, lampreys, ceps, wood pigeons, foie gras, fruit and nuts, tender Bazas beef and Pauillac lamb. Don't miss the macaroons from Saint Emilion, and stock up with cannalee cakes.

Before rushing off to Mouton Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Lafite or Latour, take in the colours and perfume of the tiny islands that surround the Gironde estuary. Close by the opulence of the chateaux of the grands crus, the Gironde rolls on as it has done for 20 centuries. From the comfort of a motor launch, see the fishermen's paradise at the Cordouan lighthouse. Afterwards eat at tiny waterside restaurants known as guirguettes.

Stay at gites such as Chateau Vieux Braneyre, where Philip and Jean-Christophe Guges will welcome you into their home (only five guest-rooms). Prefer something more comfortable? Just outside Saint Emilion, in the heart of the vineyards, Friedrich Gross has transformed the turreted medieval Chateau Grand Barrail into a luxury hotel. And, yes, of course there's a helicopter landing-pad.

Want to buy wine but don't know where to begin? It's a great advantage to buy direct from the chateaux (often you can expect to pay half the price you would in shops); taste before you do so, and get some extra advice. The language barrier is no problem at Chateau de Sours, owned by an ex-Harrovian and his wife. The 17th-century mansion of Esme and Sara Johnstone has 27 hectares of vines and is definitely the only vineyard in the world with its own cricket pitch. "We've tried to teach the locals, but they're not much good," laughs Mr Johnstone.

Meanwhile, for the first time in more than 100 years, a new vineyard has been created in Bordeaux. In the Graves region, bordering the ruins of Chateau Razens, the winemaker Jean-Jacques Lesgourges has constructed Haut Selve, a totally new kind of chateau. "In building Bordeaux's first and last vineyard of this century I wanted to create something outstanding," he says. M Lesgourgesproduces excellent armagnac at Domaines de Laubade and is proprietor of Chateau Cadillac. During the summer he turns over his chateau to art students.

For his 30m-franc project, M Lesgourges commissioned the Bordeaux-born architect Sylvain Dubuisson to design his state-of-the-art chateau/ winery. Built from prefabricated panels of polished cement, in 100 different configurations, the low-slung horizontal structure seems to disappear into the vines. The open zinc roof is in complete contrast to the closed feeling of the building. Lofty bronze statues guard the entrance. As you arrive at the domaine, imposing wrought-iron gates by the sculptor Vincent Barre open automatically. A dramatic panorama of 68 hectares of vines, punctuated by striking pieces of modern art, stretches as far as the eye can see. Disgruntled locals protested that it was little more than a wine factory.

"But they're missing the whole point," sighs M Lesgourges. "Dubuisson came up with a concept that I found poetic, historic and scientific. Why build yet another traditional chateau in Bordeaux? I want Haut Selve to mark the millennium, to be a reference for the end of the 20th century."

To placate the neighbours, M Lesgourges recently held an open day. "Yes, they did warm to the idea, especially after they tasted the wine," he reports. "But we still had the impression that they would be happier drinking something from a more conventional vineyard."

One of the visitors that day was Jean-Marie Amat, owner of the nearby, Michelin-starred Restaurant Saint-James. No stranger to controversy, M Amat constructed the wacky Hotel Saint-James, which adjoins his riverside restaurant. Eighteen slick suites contain unconventional surprises. A gleaming Harley-Davidson motorbike in one, a rooftop-suite Jacuzzi in another. M Amat, who is passionate about modern design, collaborated with the architect Jean Nouvel, the Institute du Monde Arabe and Fondation Cartier, Paris. "Like me, Lesgourges must have confidence in the future. How else can we progress?" asks M Amat. "Lesgourges has done something fantastic; his wines, although young, are very drinkable. Technically, we must wait for six or seven years to see whether they are really great."

M Lesgourges is cool. "I have no competition," he shrugs. "Our wine has no image to live up to, yet."

How to get there: Eurostar (0345 303030); trains from London Waterloo to Gare du Nord start at pounds 69 return. There are connections onwards to Bordeaux for pounds 109 for a return ticket from London.

Book a vineyard visit: Chateau Haut Selve, Bordeaux (00 33 5 56 20 29 25); Chateau Smith Haut Lafite, 33650 Marrillac (00 33 5 57 83 11 22); Chateau de Sours, 33750 Saint-Quentin-de-Baron (00 33 5 57 24 19 26); Chateau Cos d'Estournel, 33180 Saint Estephe 00 33 5 56 73 15 50

Where to stay: Jean Marie Amat's Saint-James Restaurant-Hotel, 3 place Camille Hostein, 33270 Bouliac (00 33 5 57 97 06 00); Chateau Grand Barrail, 33330 Saint-Emilion (call Small Luxury Hotels, freephone 0800 964470); Chateau Vieux Braneyre Gite 00 33 5 56 59 58 04

Where to eat: Gravelier, 114 cours de Verdon (00 33 5 56 48 17 15)

More information: French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123). Bordeaux Office de Tourisme 00 33 5 56 00 66 00

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