Celebrity architects take on blue-chip French wines

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The Independent Online

A metamorphosis is underway across France's legendary Bordeaux vineyards. The land that turns out grand cru wine is hardly the usual setting for giant construction cranes. Yet top world architects, from Christian de Portzampac to Jean Nouvel, are redesigning some of the world's most hallowed cellars in the region.

At Chateau Cheval Blanc, Pritzker prize-winner de Portzampac has installed a pair of tall cranes to add seashell-like sculptures and "green" roofing and walling to the estate's previously unexceptional 19th-century buildings.

Inside, new and more spacious cellars, gravity rather than pumps will move the grapes and fermented juice, leading to silkier tannins and a smoother wine.

This highly competitive world has brought advances in oenology that require new cellars, and brand-building and wine tourism have never been more important - forces that have attracted a remarkable number of internationally renowned architects to turn their talents to grapes.

Less than 100 metres (yards) away at Chateau La Dominique, workers are poised to break ground on a project by Nouvel - another winner of the Pritzker, architecture's Nobel prize - of a cellar design with a roof-top terrace for 400 guests incorporating photovoltaic panels.

It will put owner Clement Fayat among the leaders in a regional trend towards green energy.

"Mr. Fayat noticed his estate was being surpassed by others," said Yannick Evenou, vice president of the vineyards owned by Fayat. "I told him we can get back to the top, but we need to make major investments at every level."

Like other new cellars, the gravity-flow installations will include vats of varying sizes, which can make the difference between a good wine and a great wine. Vineyard plots have different yields, grape varieties and ripening times. With a vat sized to match each plot, the grapes are fermented in homogenous lots, allowing for precision in the final blend.

"We are a bit late, we should have done this 40 years ago but better late than never," said Fayat, a onetime mason who now owns the largest privately-held company in France. He turned to Nouvel to create something that would set him apart from his neighbours.

Nouvel, currently creating a stir in England with his provocative red Serpentine Pavilion in London's Kensington Gardens, has taken the space used for the art of making wine and turned it into a work of art itself.

"The vat room will have outer walls of glass with wood slats to diffuse the sunlight," said Evenou of what will be a unique cellar. "This is the signature of Jean Nouvel."

It will also become the image of La Dominique's brand. Chateaux in Bordeaux are first and foremost brands. Unlike the fairytale-like chateaux of the Loire, here the term means a wine estate, with or without manor or castle.

Most "chateau" wine estates predate the castles built on them, said Philippe Roudie, author, professor and lecturer on the history of Bordeaux's wine trade.

"Architecture applied to the wine trade is quite recent," said Roudie. Most of the famous castles in the Medoc were built in the 19th century by wealthy landlords who wanted a beautiful secondary home on their wine estates. And like today, new innovations - such as bottling at the estate - required new installations.

"Historically, the chateaux of Bordeaux were experiments in architecture and technology," Roudie added. "They were considered very modern at the time."

Two other new cellars, already completed, are also pushing the envelope of modernity.

When Chateau Cos d'Estournel unveiled its new cellars, rumoured to have cost 35 million euros and designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the genius behind the Hiroshima Gates for Peace memorial and a myriad of museum and urban spaces, the collective jaw of the wine world dropped.

Wilmotte's ultra-modern cellars with an army of 72 vats of varying sizes and a vat elevator for taking gravity-led winemaking one extravagant step further than anyone else, cements Cos' image of rigour, precision and competitiveness.

But Cos also has an image of opulence and exoticism, and for that they called on celebrity interior designer Jacques Garcia to give his over-the-top touch to reception rooms. According to the critics, and the prices, the wines have never been better - silky tannins, rich aromas and elegant structure.

Also attracting wine tourists and winning accolades for top-quality is Chateau Faugeres, not quite in the same league as Cos, but creating a strong reputation for itself just the same.

Chateau Faugeres had no long illustrious history when Swiss businessman Silvio Denz bought it, nor did it have a cellar. Eight million euros later, Faugeres has a cellar and an identity.

The space is all business with a winemaker's wish-list of the latest techniques: travel by gravity, refrigerated rooms for cooling grapes before they are sorted optically by machine, climate controlled rooms with special barrel racks that allow for fermenting directly in the barrel - a costly, cutting-edge technique.

The 2009 vintage won rave reviews.

Outside, a minimalist stone "wine cathedral" designed by Mario Botta, celebrated for his use of light and space in designs like the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and the Kyobo Tower in Seoul, rises from the hillside in the quiet valley.

"My source of inspiration was the careful observation of the landscape," said Botta, of the neatly arranged vineyard rows.

"There is something charming and surprising every time that human wits and work can give a balance to the wild state of nature."

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