In the preface to the book Grand Bordeaux Châteaux: Inside the Fine Wine Estates of France, Philippe Chaix describes discovering Bordeaux as a bewitching act: on foot, he reports, it means ambling through the city of stone and gazing into its mirror-like river. Setting off to explore the Mèdoc and Saint-Èmilion, he notes, the experience makes it astoundingly easy to lose oneself in vineyards striped with paths and lanes, dreaming of those great houses so dear to novelist François Mauriac and falling in love with the old châteaux.
Grand Bordeaux Châteaux
Riffling through the pages of the brand new release from Flammarion, distributed in the US by Rizzoli, is equally bewitching. Expanses of stone marked by centuries of patina echo the character of row upon row of bulging barrels made of aged wood. But viniculture is also a business, so these time-honored elements rest alongside stainless steel and smooth-surfaced concrete vats that stand resolutely like sentinels in winemaking halls. It’s the patina I respond to—turrets, towers and neoclassical façades topped with mansard roofs glowing in the sumptuous light. But time never stands still and I must admit the modern architecture created by some of the most celebrated architects of our day brings the present into the context of the past quite powerfully.
Architecture with Heart in Bordeaux
The lauded names in the table of contents are resonant to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of wine—Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Mouton Rothschild. But my imagination was sparked by a winery unknown to me. Château Cos d’Estournel was dreamed into being by Louis Gaspard d’Estournel several centuries ago. “We can date its creation precisely,” writes Clive Coates in Grands Vins: The Finest Châteaux of Bordeaux and The Wines. “It is a summer afternoon in 1811. D’Estournel is standing in the vineyard of Lafite looking north towards his own land at Cos.” As said dreamer returns home that day, he declares, “I too can produce a grand cru.”
The architecture of Château Cos d’Estournel is playfully exotic, inspired by the founder’s trips to the Orient. Paired with the fact that he had previously bred Arabian stallions, shipping them to and from the Far East, the aesthetic gained him the nickname the “Maharajah of Saint-Estèphe.” The novelist Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pen name of Stendhal, visited the estate and described its ambiance as “just-back-from-the-Indies.” His tour of Bordeaux took place in 1838, the decade when D’Estournel made great headway in adding these oriental details to the property. In the mix were three sandstone Chinese-style pagodas and his final flourish—a triumphal arch leading to the main road that is inscribed with the family coat of arms and the motto “Semper Fidelis.”
The chapter of the book devoted to Château Cos d’Estournel opens whimsically: “Once upon a time there was a dandified marquis from Bordeaux who had eyes only for the Indies, his horses, and his wine.” This dandy, explains Chaix, was born during the reign of Louis XV and died, penniless, during that of Napoléon III. He’d put everything he had into his winery—his hope of selling bottles by shipping them to the Orient a bust financially, though the voyages to India and back transformed the quality of the wine, a phenomenon I first came across while reading Napoléon’s memoirs. The emperor noted a similar surprise when his army carted bottles of Burgundy across the Egyptian dessert and back, the quality of the wine improved during the trip. Of d’Estournel’s wine, Coates writes, “It was judged ‘very good’ before it set out. ‘Perfect’ when it had returned.”
The winery is now owned by Michel Reybier, who has restored the property and enhanced its equipment. He hired Jacques Garcia to design the visitor reception areas and Jean-Michel Wilmotte to create a vast new cellar of 51,600 square feet in concert with the Bordeaux agency BPM and architect Alain-Charles Perrot.
The wineries in the book are grouped by locale—the Left Bank and the Right Bank—separated within the pages by La Cité du Vin, an ultra-modern building sited on the Garonne River. Architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières of XTU say their building design was inspired by gnarled vine stock, wine swirling in a glass and eddies on the Garonne—every detail of the architecture evoking wine’s soul and liquid nature. They describe it as having a “seamless roundness, intangible and sensual.” Just as the first bridge built over the Garonne River, the Pont de pierre, which was commissioned by Napoléon I, La Cité du Vin serves as a link in the book between the wineries that are separated by the river.
Stendhal in Bordeaux
The opportunity to see this very bridge excited Stendhal so much that it’s one of the first things he mentions upon arrival. In his posthumously published manuscript Travels in the South of France, the avid fan of Napoléon Bonaparte reports he has traveled nearly seventy-two hours from Paris by stagecoach: “Left Paris on March 8th at a quarter to five in the afternoon and arrived in Bordeaux on Sunday, March 11th, at four-fifteen in the morning. I was so drowsy from fatigue that I did not notice when we crossed the famous Bordeaux bridge to which I had been looking forward with such pleasure.”
The beautiful low bridge he mentions has 17 arches to represent the number of letters in Napoléon Bonaparte and a pile of bricks at each end capped by a white medallion in honor of the emperor. Both design details are ironic given its construction took place during the Bourbon Restoration between 1819 and 1822.
Many consider Stendhal to be the first official travel writer because he had a habit of recording travelogue-type details about the places he visited. Given the deadly snark he is prone to unleash, his descriptions of Bordeaux, for the most part, are infinitely flattering: “When, toward midnight, on a beautiful moonlight night, you come out of the rue Saint-Catherine and see on your right the magnificent rue du Chapeau-Rouge, on your left the rue de Fossés de l’Intendance, and facing you the Place du Théâtre with, beyond it, the Place de Tourny and glimpses of the trees on the Quinconces, you wonder whether any city in all the world has such an imposing sight to offer.”
He adds, “In Bordeaux you are constantly being brought up short by the sight of a magnificent house […] all Louis XV style but ennobled by space.” The dance of the châteaux as the pages of this book turn makes it clear he was so on point. Even the ones to which modern elements have been added still provide a lover of Neoclassical French architecture a thrill. “Bordeaux is unquestionably the most beautiful city in France,” Stendhal goes on to say. “It slopes down toward the Garonne and from all sides there is a fine view of that lovely river…”
His only frustration early on was his quest to trace the path to one of his heroes, Michel de Montaigne. He hails a cab and gives the driver the address rue des Minimes, Number 17. “That was the address of Montaigne’s house,” he continues. “I found it had been torn down four years ago and a police barracks now stands in its place. Well, now gentlemen of Bordeaux, could you not spend even twenty-five francs to have the stonecutter engrave the following words on one of those square stone blocks in the barracks’ wall that has replaced the houses from Number 10 to Number 23: ‘on this spot stood Montaigne’s house. It was number 17 and was torn down in 1833.’”
He tries to appease himself by visiting the philosopher’s tomb only to find the doors locked and the abbot with the key gone. “Poor Montaigne!” he proclaimed, declaring him imprisoned by caretakers who didn’t, um, care. “This has been the first thing to offend me since I left Paris.” In true Stendhalian fashion, he chides himself for his outburst, writing, “It is not much, to tell the truth; moreover I do not offer my feelings as a model, far from it. I am merely writing down my impressions which frequently, it is true, can not withstand the full light of print.”
Stendhal admires the inhabitants of Bordeaux, particularly their “completely epicurean way of life.” He was certainly a good judge of this, as his writing often mentions the successful and unsuccessful meals he had while off on one adventure or another. In “The Privileges” section of his Memoirs of an Egotist—a list of anecdotes expressing how he believed life should be—he writes, “In every place, the beneficiary, after saying, ‘I pray for my food,’ will find: two pounds of bread, a beefsteak medium rare, a leg of mutton ditto, a bottle of St-Julien, a carafe of water, a fruit, an ice-cream and a small cup of coffee. This prayer will be granted twice within twenty-four hours.”
It was such a happy circumstance to have found the author mentioned within the chapter about Château Cos d’Estournel because he is so perfect for this literary adventure. He was a keen observer who happened to have a wealth of knowledge about architecture and its attributes. He declares, “…if an architect’s monuments are to speak to the heart, the architect himself must have a heart. And there is nothing rarer in France.” I wonder if he wouldn’t rethink this statement after seeing the built artistry featured in the book. He goes on to say, “The proud heart of a true architect is often displeasing to Power: witness the life of Michelangelo.”
Stendhal’s perceptions of Bordeaux and the beautiful book that captures the modern heritage the French wine industry in the region is securing make me hope I can visit the area during my next trip to France. Like this writer before me, I will be taking notes in the hopes I can leave my own version of a literary legacy!
The Diary of an Improvateur and Architecture with Heart in Bordeaux © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by