For centuries Bordeaux has been the corporate center of French winemaking, known for luscious wines, elegant chateaus and shrewd winesellers. Now there's a new twist: More consumers want vineyards to use organic or sustainably farmed grapes, and so wineries are responding by mixing tradition with high-tech quality control.
The vineyards at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte let visitors look at both the past and the future of winemaking. The vineyards date back to the 1300s, and the stone manor house was built in the 1700s. In 1990, Daniel and Florence Cathiard, former members of the French Olympic ski team, bought the chateau and in recent years began integrating sustainable and high-tech practices into their business.
"If you look 20 years ago, chateaus were not organic or biodynamic at all," said Alix Ounis, who gives tours at the chateau. But now, more and more chateaus are going in those directions.
Smith Haut Lafitte now farms organically, has oxen in the vineyards instead of tractors to avoid compacting the soil, and captures some winery CO2 emissions to reduce the global warming footprint. The Cathiards also sell grape seeds to their daughter's company, which uses them in natural skin care products.
The winery offers a variety of tours, a restaurant and a 72-room five-star hotel, Les Sources de Caudalie. Several companies also have shuttle trips from the city center of Bordeaux to the many chateaus in the area, and advance reservations are a must.
Bordeaux's old city also has been transforming, and tourists have responded.
Delphine Cadei, whose family is from Bordeaux, says that for a long time the city was "very dark, and not a nice place to live." Parking lots covered the wide stone quays along the river, but those are gone as part of a citywide makeover. According to tripadvisor.com, what once was a sleepy city (literally nicknamed "Sleeping Beauty" in French) now is a thriving tourist destination and mecca for wine enthusiasts.
Cadei is married to a co-owner of Le Wine Bar, a charming, high ceiling place with a broad selection of wines by the glass and bottle, and luscious foie gras and pate plates.
The old city is filled with cafes, restaurants, shops and bakeries, as well as medieval city gates such as Port Cailhau, built in 1495. You can go inside for a small fee and walk up a tiny, curved staircase to look out over the square. The Grosse Cloche (Big Clock) gate is even older, and is featured on the city coat of arms.
A huge new wine museum has just opened, too. La Cite du Vin was built in a swirling, rounded postmodern style, at a cost of over $90 million. It houses tasting rooms, interactive aroma exhibits, thousands of bottles of wine from scores of countries and a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city.
The museum also features historical and environmental displays.
Vineyards all over the world are facing pressure to limit pesticide use, according to Andrew Walker, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis. There are different views about the best options, but plant breeders are working on grape strains with natural resistance to major pests and diseases.
Natural doesn't always mean low-tech. Smith Haut Lafitte and other vineyards utilize a variety of technologies to monitor the soil, the grapes, fermentation and aging.
Smith Haut Lafitte uses a program called Oenoview to analyze the perfect harvest time. Data provided by satellite measures plant emissions related to ripeness, providing a digital map of every few square feet of the vineyard.
"We know in every single row of the vineyard how ripe the grapes are," Florence Cathiard said in an email. "We then taste the grapes in each plot and mark the vines which will be harvested the following day." Then an optical scanning machine in the winery looks for imperfect grapes and culls them out.
Cathiard says visitors like the combined focus on sustainability and wine quality.