Last of a three-part series
BORDEAUX, France — Château Pédesclaux shares a postal code in Pauillac, the land of cabernet sauvignon, with famous wineries such as Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild and Latour, three of the five “first growths” of Bordeaux. Yet Pédesclaux lies on a nondescript, aptly named street called Rue de l’Industrie, a bumpy half-mile stretch from the D2 highway to the Gironde River that includes an auto repair shop, a masonry works and an abandoned hotel. A defunct chemical refinery to the north further mars the view.
It’s an inauspicious setting for a chateau listed as a “fifth growth” in the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux estates, entitled to boast Grand Cru Classé status on its wine label.
Despite its incongruous setting, Pédesclaux symbolizes the new Bordeaux. The estate and its 26 hectares (64 acres) of vineyards were purchased in 2009 by Jacky Lorenzetti, a real estate magnate and owner of a popular Paris rugby team. Lorenzetti hired architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte to refurbish the modest chateau and design a modern winery. The result, unveiled this past spring, is striking. The chateau is now encased in glass, almost like a museum piece — or an aquarium, if you’re feeling uncharitable. On the inside, traditional rooms flow seamlessly to modern, suggesting continuity. The new winery is airy and filled with natural light, not the dungeon atmosphere of a typical winery. Like many new wineries in Bordeaux and elsewhere, it embodies the most modern tenets of winemaking, emphasizing gravity to avoid mechanical pumping of the wine and small-lot fermentation to give the winemaker maximum flexibility when creating the final blend.
If you haven’t heard of Pédesclaux, don’t fret. The chateau passed through nearly 40 owners before Lorenzetti bought it, and the wines were sold exclusively to a single British retailer. “Frankly, the wines were not that good,” says Emmanuel Cruse, Pédesclaux’s general director. Cruse is the owner of Château d’Issan in the Margaux appellation, a third growth. He lost a bidding war with Lorenzetti to buy Pédesclaux, but the two became friends. Lorenzetti ultimately became half-owner of d’Issan and hired Cruse to manage Pédesclaux and Château Lilian Ladouys, an estate in nearby St-Estèphe that Lorenzetti bought in 2008.
Lorenzetti and Cruse have expanded Pédesclaux’s vineyard holdings to a total of 41 hectares (101 acres) and improved the viticulture. The effort is apparent in the wines, even in a difficult vintage such as 2013. “When we finish our work in the vineyards, I think you will see a dramatic change in the wines,” Cruse said in an interview during last month’s Vinexpo, the biennial trade fair held in Bordeaux.
Pédesclaux may be the most dramatic transformation on display in Bordeaux this year, but it is not the most glamorous. Château Margaux, another first growth, celebrated the bicentennial of its classic chateau building by unveiling a new production facility designed by London architect Lord Norman Foster. It, too, utilizes glass walls and natural light, while echoing the 1815 chateau with a tile roof and support pillars that evoke the iconic plane trees lining the drive approaching the chateau.
Margaux’s new facility is designed to take advantage of a decade of research into its vineyard’s soils, allowing winemaker Paul Pontallier and his team to pinpoint areas of vineyard where the grapes ripen best and keep those for the final blend.
“Precision viticulture” is the buzzword in Bordeaux. I heard it not only at Margaux and Pédesclaux but up and down Bordeaux’s Left Bank: at Château Lagrange in Saint Julien, Pichon Baron in Pauillac and Malartic-Lagravière in Pessac-Léognan. The last two wineries renovated their facilities over the past decade. Château Montrose in St-Estèphe also unveiled a newly renovated facility during Vinexpo.
These renovations allow winemakers to “concentrate on the selection of vineyard parcels and improve the final wine,” says Eric Boissenot, a star consultant to dozens of Bordeaux chateaux, including four of the five first growths. Boissenot is famous for his skill in blending wines, and the emphasis on precision viticulture gives him more elements to combine into the final wine.
Precision viticulture may not be unique to Bordeaux. I first heard the term nearly a decade ago at Iron Horse Vineyards in California’s Sonoma County. But the Bordelais have embraced it, and with their traditional flair for style and their stunning new facilities, they may be redefining winery architecture for the next generation.
And the transformation isn’t over. As I drove south along the D2 from Pauillac to Bordeaux, I noticed a gaping excavation underway at Château Beychevelle. Odds are, it’s not a new car park.