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Bordeaux: Old World, New Tricks

Elyse Glickman, photos by the author

On your next professional visit to Bordeaux, France, be sure to check out city venues that show how an "Old World" wine industry is staying timely and relevant.

Given Bordeaux's history as a winemaking center, the city and region is one of the world's quintessential destinations for serious oenophiles and foodies. However, a few things happened along the way-New World wines and increased competition, among other things. As recently as ten years ago, the city was simply a jumping off point winery tours winding through the countryside, and historic towns like St. Émilion, which is a sort of Disneyland for wine tourists.  However, enter the savvy Alain Juppé, Bordeaux's mayor and former prime minister of France, who organized a makeover to the city that would make Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent proud.

Downtown Bordeaux.

The now UNESCO-heritage certified city boasts foodie-focused boutique shopping as well as 40 wine bars that run the gamut from traditional, to ultra-modern, to concepts that unify past and future, as well as some pre-history (i.e., jagged limestone that seems to burst out of the Art Nouveau walls at Grand Bar Castan). Bordeaux wines are also enjoying an international renaissance, evidenced by documentaries such as Red Obsession, a film chronicling how Bordeaux's top châteaux are struggling to accommodate demand for their rare, expensive wines in China.

While your professional travels may take you to wineries in the St. Émilion, Médoc, Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes and Margaux appellations, as a professional keeping your pulse on new trends in the "Old World," you'll want to schedule some quality time in Bordeaux City to experience how the wines of the increasingly diversified region are not only being enjoyed at wine bars and restaurants, but how they are being made exciting for both new and old generations of wine drinkers.

From the Classroom to the Crus

The Bordeaux Wine School
and Bar à Vin—both operated by Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB)—could perhaps serve as the Sorbonne of wine education for consumers, overseas buyers, importers and sommeliers who want to prep themselves with knowledge before going out into the fields.  The bar (a mix of Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern décor inside a 18th century building renovated by architect Françoise Bousquet) offers a rotating selection of 30 Bordeaux reds, whites, rosés and sparkling wines, with tasting notes and production statistics sheets readily accessible. Wines are served by the glass and can be accompanied with a plate of cheese or charcuterie.

According to Guillaume Gresta, Bar à Vin's manager, consumers have a thirst for knowledge. In 2012, 81,013 glasses of wine were served to 63,905 customers, including a sizable number of seasoned beverage industry pros from abroad. 

"Like the wines of Bordeaux, the Bar à Vin team is a blend of dedicated, passionate professionals who come together in a wonderful mixture of characters, nationalities and abilities," he says with a flourish. "Our sommeliers and wine advisors bring their own unique qualities, much like the different grape varieties and terroirs of Bordeaux."

Out on the floor, one of Bar à Vin's lead sommeliers stresses between pours that the wine school is an essential pursuit for retailers, restaurateurs and sommeliers who want to learn the unique story and behind-the-scenes history of Bordeaux so they in turn can relay that story to their customers at home.

Bar à Vin.

"We encourage American professionals to go to our wine school first to build upon their existing level of knowledge before going to the vineyards," he says, echoing the sentiments of Gresta. "As we exclusively serve Bordeaux wines, our wine advisors are trained extensively on the appellations, so they can discuss the unique characteristics of the various Bordeaux wines available. Constant training is always is important because the selections at our bar change so regularly."

A Bordeaux Wine School tasting.
 A narrow winding staircase that originates at the corner of the bar leads up to The CIVB's Bordeaux Wine School. Although the classrooms are triangular and compact thanks to the building's original Baroque design, they are gorgeously outfitted with sleek decanters, stainless steel sinks and other accoutrement required for courses, which run from two hours (the consumer-tourist intro and tasting) to two and three days for the professional intensive class, which start at 350 Euros ($475) per session or bundled sessions running at 1,092 Euros ($1,500).

The Level One course is a comprehensive review of what still makes Bordeaux one of the world's definitive wine production regions, including soil types, grape varietals, the classification system and Bordeaux's different appellations.

More than 30 wines are tasted during the two days, and participants create their own wine blend to better understand why the practice remains such an important component of winemaking in Bordeaux.

The Level Two course, over three days, covers food and wine pairing, expanding one's wine tasting vocabulary, correct glass selections, aeration and decanting, storage guidelines and accessories. The "Grands Crus" level consists of field trips to Bordeaux's most prestigious vineyard areas: the Médoc, Sauternes, Graves and Saint-Émilion, as well as historical background about wine production from the 15th century forward.

Maxine Colas, my guide around the Bordeaux region, taught an abbreviated version of the professional Level One class. "For a professional sommelier, wine merchant, importer or retailer making a buying or exploratory trip, the classes are an excellent overview that goes beyond just history and various appellations," says Colas. "The big picture is complicated even for people who have been in the industry for years. It is a mosaic of three different classifications, 57 different appellations within the entire Bordeaux vineyard and a mix of established and newer producers."

Colas elaborates on the how every wine producer in Bordeaux, along with merchant, broker and has to pay the CIVB. These contributions are then used to set up local and global publicity campaigns, set up tasting events abroad for trade and consumers, and organize trips for journalists and professional beverage industry groups.

Maxine Colas.
One of the other functions of the CIVB to relay information between government authorities and the producers focused on weather conditions and production laws.  

. . . and to the Max

Like the CIVB's school, the classroom setting is one of Max Bordeaux's cornerstones. The layout of the artsy wine bar and gallery is set up as a "Galleries Lafayette" of Bordeaux wines. The gallery looking space, complete with sculptural wine towers, sleek Enomatic machines, plush furniture and glasses suspended from the ceiling is a showcase for about 48 of Bordeaux's best Grands Crus wines.

The interior of Max Bordeaux.
While a "tasting card" will run guests from €20-30, ($26-40 U.S.) and prices go up to €45-60+ ($60-80) for tastes of the top echelon First Growths and Super Seconds (Château Lafon-Rochet, Clos Fourtet and Domaine de Cheval), Canadian-born sommelier-in-residence Leagh Barkley argues that Max Bordeaux offers great value for sommeliers and wine buyers wanting to dive deeper into their knowledge of Bordeaux wine.

"What is most striking about this bar is that it is not at all traditional," affirms Barkley. "Our location is focused on the modern and the traditional coexisting, which also nicely represents what Bordeaux is all about today. Our 'look' is especially important when you consider that customers are surrounded by wines that are often approached with pretension given their pedigree and their fame outside of France," continues Barkley.

"Our un-stuffy ambiance allows customers of all experience levels to feel welcome and included.  In addition to the Grands Crus, we feature wines that are good quality for their prices in order to introduce customers to different styles of a certain appellation or expression."

Barkley is also a believer that no matter where in the world your wine bar is located, educating younger customers as well as industry professionals helps many sectors, from the producers to other related businesses.

"People can come in and start enjoying wines at an early age without going to (such sub par things) as the white zinfandel," he says. "Why not bring them into the world of wines through good quality wines to begin with? Why not take the fear out of it?"  

Sommelier Leagh Barkley at Max Bordeaux's Enomatic.

Barkley's logic is that if a person under 30 comes into a wine bar and senses the experience will be snobby, they won't want to be looked down on and leave. However, by educating and welcoming prospective customers and encouraging repeat business, your establishment will not only benefit, but retailers as well, as the sommelier or program has taken the fear out of the equation. Max Bordeaux's loyalty programs include special student prices for different events, as well as including excellent lower priced representations of a certain red or white to use as a teaching tool alongside the top wineries represented.

"As a sommelier, don't be aggressive . . . be open and warm," says Barkley. "Ask them about the foods and beverages they like. Ask them if they would like fruity red wines or more refreshing whites, then guide them towards wines that appeal to their tastes. From there, you have seized an opportunity to teach your customers something new. Help them build their confidence and motivation to try more."

. . . and when only the best will do . . .

The original Millésima, tucked discreetly outside of Bordeaux's city center, could be seen as the Cartier of Bordeaux wines, serving an elite clientele with only the top of the area's Grands Crus as well as wine futures-most highly-demanded Bordeaux wines one to two years before they are bottled and released into the general market. Founder and CEO Patrick Bernard expresses that this is an essential stop for buyers, importers, retailers and other wine professionals from all over the world to taste barrel samples from more than 150 of Bordeaux's top estates. 

"Estates use the feedback they receive about the quality of the wine and vintage to estimate demand and set initial prices," Bernard explains. "In May, the estates release their prices and allow a group of 400 registered négociants (wine merchants), to buy their future wines. However, not just any wine merchant can buy these wines directly from the estates.  This group is known as the the 'Place de Bordeaux,' and represent the estate owners in promoting and distributing the wines all over the world."  

Although Millésima only sells to private individuals, not bars, hotels restaurants," e- and m-commerce executive Gérard Spatafora notes that visiting wine professionals can learn a great deal at the facility, not only from the tasting sessions but also Millésima's business model and their way of marketing limited-edition releases and formats. 

"Everything is in the original wooden cases, because we only buy direct from the actual properties," Spatafora says. "It is the only way we can guarantee the quality of the wine, because we can assure our clients has been bottled and packaged right at the château and then stored here under the perfect condition."

Spatafora describes Millésima's unique structure as a multi-channel wine company, allowing them to sell top Bordeaux wines through our NYC wine store as well as through the internet, paper catalogs, on the phone.

"We have clients who will buy $25,000 euros [$34,000] in one order, and they ask to make what's called a multi-point delivery, to business offices in different cities in different parts of the country or world.

Millésima's e- and m-commerce executive Gérard Spatafora wields cases of Bordeaux straight from the châteaux.

One customer for example, may want to have some of the order delivered to his business office in London, and other parts of it delivered to his offices in Gestadt, Switzerland, and on his boat near St. Tropez, and homes in New York and Los Angeles.   We are known for our expertise on dealing with these kinds of complicated things." 

All told, the benefit of learning complicated things is that you can make your customers' and staff's work environment with the Bordeaux wines not only less complicated, but more fun and enlightening.

For more Information:

CIVB/Bordeaux Wine School and Bar à Vin

+33 5 56 00 22 851
+33 5 56 00 22 66
3 Cours du 30 Juillet
33075 Bordeaux Cedex, France
www.bordeaux.com/us/ wineschool

Max Bordeaux

+33 5 57 29 23 81
14 Cours de l'Intendance
33000 Bordeaux, France


+33 5 57 80 88 08

87 Quai de Paludate

33050 Bordeaux, France


USA Location:

1355 2nd Avenue

New York, NY 10021

Maxine Colas

Bordeaux Wine News/

Bordeaux Wine Educators and Trip Advisor


Wineries to Watch

Château Jean Faux

Pascal Collotte


Château Le Puy

Pascal Amoreau

33570 Saint-Cibard, France

+33 05 57 40 61 82


Château Piada (AOC Barsac)

Fréderic Lalande

1 Piada 33720 Barsac

Tel: +33 5 56 27 16 13

Château Léognan (AOC Pessac-Léognan)

Philippe Miecase

88, chemin du Barp

33850 Léognan France

+33 (0) 5 56 64 14 96

Château Biac

Yasmina Asseily

33550 Langorian, France

+33 05 56 67 61 54


Château Siaurac/Baronne Guichard

Paul Goldschmidt

33500 Neac, France

+33 05 57 51 64 58


(Château Vray Croix de Gay, Pomerol

Château le Prieure, Grand Cru Classe Saint Émilion

Château Siaurac, Lalande de Pomerol)

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