There's a green revolution sweeping through the land of great reds, writes Kevin Begos
For centuries Bordeaux has been the corporate centre of French winemaking, known for luscious wines, elegant chateaus and shrewd wine-sellers.
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 Haut Lafitte offer visitors a look at the past and the future of winemaking. The vineyards date back to the 1300s, and the stone manor house was built in the 1700s. Then 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 times change.
Smith Haut Lafitte now farms organically, uses 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 skincare products.
Andrew Walker, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, says vineyards all over the world are facing pressure to limit pesticide use, and climate change is a challenge, too. There are different views about the best options, but plant breeders are working on grape strains with natural resistance to major pests and diseases.
But natural doesn't always mean low tech. Smith Haut Lafitte and other vineyards now use a technologies to monitor the soil, the grapes, fermentation and ageing. Smith Haut Lafitte uses a program called Oenoview to analyse the perfect harvest time. Satellite data measures plant emissions related to ripeness, providing a digital map 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.
Smith Haut Lafitte hosts tours, a restaurant and a 72-room five-star hotel. Several companies also offer shuttle trips from downtown Bordeaux to the many chateaus in the area.
Bordeaux's old city has been transforming, too. Delphine 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 fois gras and pate plates.
Her family is from Bordeaux, and Cadei 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.
Tourists have responded, and Bordeaux is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France. 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.
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 more than $100m. It features historical and environmental displays, tasting rooms and interactive aroma exhibits, thousands of bottles of wine from scores of countries and a restaurant that gives a panoramic view of the city.