Could there be anything more French than a fine Bordeaux wine? A Graves Rouge for example, made from cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes grown on vines planted on a south-facing slope on the left bank of the Garonne river. As it turns out, there could. Although the wine made at Chateau du Seuil is typical of the region, with its complex fruit flavours and nicely integrated oak and tannins, its makers are not.
In 2001, Nicola Allison moved with her husband, Sean, to the tiny village of Cérons, 22 miles from Bordeaux to take over the running of the elegant, 19th-century chateau and its vineyards from her Welsh parents.
"You don't go into the industry if you want to make money," Nicola tells me as her dog, Benji, energetically chases his ball around the chateau's neatly trimmed lawns. "It's a lifestyle choice, but one that you work hard to maintain."
Although the Allisons are the only Brits in their village, they are far from being the only British immigrants in Bordeaux. Gavin and Angela Quinney have been making wine at Chateau Bauduc in Créon in the Entre-deux-Mers since 1999 and now supply the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein. Anna and Andrew Barwick rent out the luxury Chateau Rigaud close to St Emilion and Welshman Alan Jones produces caviar d'Aquitaine at his hatchery near St-Fort-sur-Gironde, and there are dozens more examples.
This British invasion of Bordeaux and its strong connection to the region's food and drink have historic beginnings. After the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Bordeaux came under English rule between 1152 and 1453. It was then that the British first developed their taste for "claret" (from the French clairet, originally used to refer to a dark rosé wine rather then the rich reds we are familiar with today).
Although the Allisons are helping to maintain the region's traditions by being one of only eight producers of Cérons sweet white wine, they are also keen to innovate. "In the past, Bordeaux had felt that it didn't need wine tourism but that's changing," says Nicola as she shows me around the chateau's bijou winery. "We get a lot of English-speaking visitors for our tastings and winery tours because there's no language barrier."
Chateau du Seuil contributes 130,000 bottles a year to the region's massive annual wine production of 700 million bottles. With 300 acres of vineyards and hundreds of producers, Bordeaux is one of largest and most complex wine growing regions on earth.
In an attempt to get my head around it all, I headed for the L'Ecole du Vin, a handsome wedge of a building overlooking the elegant Place de la Comédie in the centre of the city of Bordeaux. Our tutor for the afternoon's introductory lecture on matching Bordeaux wine with food is dapper Englishman Alexander Hall, who moved to the area in 2004 and has since set up the Bespoke Bordeaux wine tour company.
During a fascinating couple of hours, I fill my notebook with facts and figures about soil types, grape varieties and wine styles. I learn about the diversity of the region (like Heinz, Bordeaux has 57 varieties or appellations that relate to specific geographical locations) and different elements of the wine itself such as acidity, sweetness and tannins.
So at the end of the session, when I finally get to taste some wine, I really taste it. I swirl my glass of Chateau la Freynelle 2005 and sniff the bouquet. I can almost smell the clay and limestone soil of the Entre-deux-Mers in the fresh, bright aromas of lemon and, oddly enough, grapes. I take a sip and the taste is dry, acidic and refreshing. I'm getting citrus fruits, grapefruit, and quite possibly more than a little pretentious, but it's all great fun.
We get to exercise our new-found wine expertise when, later that evening, Hall leads a food and wine matching session and dinner at the nearby Quai des Saveurs cooking school. While chef Georges Gotrand prepares dinner and flirts shamelessly with all the women in our group, we get down to the serious business of trying to decide which of the five wines being poured will go best with an unusual but delicious starter of smoked herring, cabbage and foie gras in a chicken and herring broth.
I fancy the sweet Sauternes, but the lack of consensus about which is the "right" wine that continues throughout the five-course meal just proves what a subjective and enjoyably contentious thing food and wine matching is.
There's time for a nightcap, and what better after all that rich food and fine wine than a proper pint in a good old British boozer. While it seems every pub in the UK now comes with a mandatory "gastro" prefix, business partners Ben Erskine and Ed Willey are keeping the tradition of the local alive. Set on the atmospheric Rue Borie, the Golden Apple is somewhat ironically located in the Chartrons quarter, historically the centre of the city's wine trade.
A match is on and there's the expected group of shouty businessmen standing at the bar, but Ben tells me that most of his customers are drawn from within a half-mile circumference of the pub, attracted by Newcastle Brown Ale on tap, fish and chips on the chalkboard menu and the obligatory dartboard.
"When I first moved here 13 years ago, Bordeaux was sooty, dirty and smelly," Ben tells me. "Now that the town's been cleaned up, the tourists have started to come."
As we wander back to our hotel along the bank of the Garonne, the city seems newly minted. The Place de la Bourse, a magnificent example of 18th-century French architecture, looks stunning lit against the night sky. On the nearby Place de la Comédie, the Grand Hotel has recently been restored to its full glory and now rivals the Grand Théâtre it stands opposite for sheer jaw-dropping opulence.
With everything the city and region has to offer, it's easy to understand why Bordeaux is such a magnet for the Brits. I head for bed and dream of one day joining them.
A canny and successful German wine grower was recently driven to despair by an English friend of his.
This friend had done well in the City, and wanted to invest in a vineyard in basic, simple Beaujolais AOC, where you can hardly give the wine away.
He would not listen to reason. This successful financier had gone doolally at the prospect of making his own wine – on which he had no chance of breaking even.
What is it about vineyards? They’re such quiet, unassuming places. Yet they induce otherwise sensible people to lose their wits. It can’t be the economics, which one (successful) English vigneron in St Emilion describes as combining “the demands of an oil refinery with the cash flow of a sweet shop”.
For anybody seduced by the dream, it has to come down to a question of priorities. Do you want lifestyle, or do you want a profitable business? If what you want is a pretty house and a hobby vineyard, then fine: Europe is full of such places. And not just Europe: every doctor in Australia, it seems, has their own vineyard. But if you want it to pay its way, that’s another matter.
Alexander Hall (email@example.com), who advises would-be buyers of vineyards in Bordeaux, says that is the most common problem: people want the lifestyle, but they would like the business to be able to wash its face as well.
The trouble is, there is too much wine in the world. Wine at the lower end – without the benefit of a recognisable brand or a prestigious AOC – often sells for less than the cost of making it. It may be delicious, but nobody needs it. Vignerons all over France are fighting bankruptcy.
The reason the owner of the vineyard you’ve spotted wants out may be that his wine does not make money. If you think you can do better, you need to look closely at what it entails.
If you’re thinking of buying in the Bordeaux region, then you won’t get much change out of €2m ($3m, £1.6m). Vineyard land in AOC Bordeaux costs about €20,000 a hectare; in smarter St Emilion, it’s about €200,000/ha. Elsewhere in France land may be cheaper.
Then, says Alexander Hall, you’ll need a new tractor (€25,000); temperature control for your vats (€50,000); even a new cellar (€450,000). The annual cost of working your vineyards will be €5,000-€6,000/ha.
By the time you get your wine in the bottle, it will have cost you at least €4-€5 a bottle to make. A buyer will say, “Yes, we normally pay around €2.40 for this sort of thing.”
However, if the first thing to say to any would-be investor is “don’t”, the second thing is “buy in a good appellation” where the wine has a ready market.
Adam Dakin of Vignobles Investissements reckons that if you buy sensibly you can expect a return of about 5 per cent, providing you put all your efforts into selling the wine.
Vignobles Investissements (www.vignobles-investissement.com) is a land agency specialising in Languedoc-Roussillon and the Rhône; it is part of the Vinea Transaction network (www.vineatransaction.com), that links agencies in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.
They are very keen on due diligence and can put you in touch with specialist accountants, investigate the health of the vines and think of the things you wouldn’t.
Many people, says Mr Dakin, do not do much homework before embarking on buying a vineyard: all the more reason for the reality check that specialist companies can provide.
In the end, it is possible to buy the dream and make it pay, although seldom lavishly. Most of the company’s early clients (it was founded in 1991) are still in place, says Mr Dakin; and while he deals with a lot of corporate clients, most British clients are individuals.
It is also possible to invest in English vineyards, although today’s big investors tend to have successful careers elsewhere and do not rely on English wine for their income. Given that Chapel Down Vineyard has just announced its first profit in 30 years, that may be just as well.
Peter Dart of Stanlake Park Vineyard is high up at ad agency WPP and sees his wine as a hobby which “isn’t losing me money”; but how to turn that into a viable business is more difficult.
Hotelier Richard Balfour-Lynn would probably agree: he is a partner in Malmaison Hotels, which no doubt provides a useful outlet for his Balfour Brut sparkler.
Sparkling wine is the way forward in England, but means longer ageing and thus higher costs. Anybody considering buying a vineyard in England or Wales should contact consultant Stephen Skelton MW (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There are other ways of investing in vineyards. It may be that simply owning a few vines is what you want: in which case there are companies that will sell you a plot of vines that they will tend. Each year you will receive a few cases of wine.
You might want to ask yourself if you would buy the wine at that price from your usual merchant.
If, however, it’s a reputable company that sells its wines successfully, it may be worth looking at.
Faiveley, a leading grower in Burgundy, recently invited investment to fund purchases in the Côte de Beaune, and more than one member of the British wine trade is the proud owner of top-quality vines – “for the fun of it”, says one, “not for the return”. Buying into vineyards as lifestyle is the easy bit – and sometimes the least expensive.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008
BORDEAUX, FRANCE — Bordeaux recently woke up from a long, dreamy sleep and was forced to take a hard look in the mirror. What it saw wasn't pretty.
For centuries this port and trading city had enjoyed the lucre from wines that sold with the easy nonchalance of a Gallic shrug. Its legendary red and white blends were unsurpassed, so why advertise, why cater to tourists?
Bordeaux's overconfident perch was snatched away when it wasn't looking.
Domestic wine sales and exports have taken a plunge. In 1960 the average adult consumption in France was 100 litres a year. Forty years later that number was nearly cut in half. Longer working hours meant fewer wine-soaked lunches. Publicity concerning health issues curbed drinking, as did stiffer drunk-driving laws. Meanwhile, faithful customers around the globe had been seduced by a torrent of quality New World wines from Australia, South Africa and the Americas.
According to Alexander Hall, an instructor at L'Ecole du Vin in Bordeaux, "In the next couple of years Spain will overtake France as the biggest wine producer in the world."
But Bordeaux isn't going down without a fight. In 1999, the region's leaders rolled up their sleeves and began an ambitious reinvention project to attract visitors and remind wine lovers about their fabled terroir and chateaux.
The remake is immediately apparent in the city of Bordeaux, which is less than three hours southwest of Paris by high-speed TGV train. Cars are banned from certain inner-city arteries, making it friendly for pedestrians and cyclists, and the new tramway system is an easy way to get around when one's feet get sore.
During a walking tour, I learned that the city's 18th-century stone buildings had only recently been returned to their original lustrous white after a good scrubbing. Magical old squares are now floodlit and lined with stylish bistros.
Gardens and landscaped promenades have transformed the formerly seedy Garonne riverfront. A four-star hotel, The Grand, a Radisson SAS property that faces Bordeaux's neoclassical Grand Théâtre, makes its debut this year.
The centrepiece of the region's transformation, however, is La Winery, 22 kilometres from Bordeaux in Arsac-en-Médoc, which threw open its doors in March. This multi-million-dollar shrine to wine looks like a glass and aluminum spaceship planted in a field. La Winery is the brainchild of wine merchant, winemaker and modern-art lover Philippe Raoux. It's the first of its kind in France. Raoux envisions La Winery as a way to make wine drinking more of a user-friendly experience.
La Winery boasts vast retail space and a panorama of about 2,000 wines from Bordeaux, as well as selected labels from around the world. There are unsnobby tasting classes and a chic, sun-filled wine bar and restaurant with a seasonal, contemporary menu.
More experienced wine-loving pilgrims, and those who have seen Sideways, take for granted that they can pull up to any winery in the world for a tasting. Not so in Bordeaux, at least until recently. Allowing the public into chateaux without an appointment is a new concept here.
"It's not that they don't like the public," said Jean-Michel Cazes of his fellow winemakers. "They just didn't understand why anyone would want to visit."
Cazes, the proprietor of Château Lynch-Bages, nestled in the Médoc vineyards 50 kilometres north of Bordeaux, did understand. Throughout the 1980s, whenever someone called for an appointment, he and his wife would provide a home-cooked lunch and a wine tasting. They were besieged by guests so often that by 1989 Jean-Michel's wife said, "Enough." So he opened Cordeillan Bages, an elegant hotel and restaurant, which has collected two Michelin stars.
Over the years, Cazes bought up more of the surrounding land, including the abandoned village of Bages in the heart of the Paulliac vineyards. He is lovingly restoring the tiny hamlet and dreams of opening a cinema. What is open so far in Bages is a hip bistro, Café-Restaurant Lavinal, with a year-round wine and cooking school above it.
Another vintner who clearly relishes receiving the public is Frédéric Claverie. This handsome winemaker makes Saint-Emilion Grand Cru at Château Haut Veyrac, 40 kilometres east of Bordeaux. He serves tour groups lunch in a stone farmhouse, complete with a fireplace burning cuttings from the vineyard.
We sat down at the long farmhouse table and started with a sangria-like aperitif and creamy potato and asparagus soup. Then came garlic toast topped with lamprey fish, sorrel and mushrooms. The feast continued with chicken stuffed with chestnuts and mushrooms, firm Pyrenées cheese and quivering, custardy crème renversée. All this, along with various Haut Veyrac vintages, for just $27 a person.
Women winemakers are joining forces to have a stronger presence as well. Les Médocaines is one of them. They are four friends from Médoc who are working together to take turns opening their châteaux for tours and tastings.
Bordeaux's mission to copy California-style hospitality is still in its infancy. The Bordelais are feeling their way, not easy for an insular culture. But the trend is clear. In 2006 the number of oenophiles visiting vineyards hit 15,000, up 20 per cent since 2002. La Winery is expected to attract 100,000 visitors annually.