The chateaux of Bordeaux are opening their private doors to visitors – but only if you have very deep pockets.
Known for its high-end wines, sumptuous chateaux and aristocrat vineyard-owners, Bordeaux has been strangely short of luxury tourist activities, but times finally are a-changing.
Too little luxury
“Not enough is done at the very top end of the tourist market,” said billionaire Bordeaux wine producer Bernard Magrez who, finding too little luxury for his liking has decided to open his own tour agency.
“Everyone in Bordeaux thinks people wait on bended knee for their wines,
but nowadays excellent wines are produced all over the world,” he told AFP.
Helicopters and a Rolls Royce
So from September this year, when his agency officially opens, Magrez will be offering luxury short stays in four of his 18 Bordeaux chateaux, with helicopter or Rolls Royce on call for tours of the region.
Prices, understandably, start at 2,000 euros (310 dollars) per person for a two-day, one-night stay.
Dinner at the chateaux with one of the family, a rare vintage tasting, a private music concert, cookery courses with a top chef or a wine blending
session with internationally-known winemaker Michel Rolland, are some of the options Magrez will be offering rich wine-lovers, or just simply the very rich.
From a low start, Bordeaux wine tourism services over the last 10 years have grown rapidly, but the trend has been toward numbers.
Early experiences largely were chateaux-owners welcoming wine-buyers,
or students and backpackers working in the vines. But a local wine crisis
in the early 2000s, when too much wine chased too few buyers, prised open
chateaux doors to a more general public.
“The oenotourism trend in Bordeaux is more oriented towards volume, agencies and hotels and restaurants catering to the very top end are harder to find,” said Anne Francoise Quie, who started her own luxury tourism business
in 2006 with three colleagues.
“In my view, luxury tourism can only be tailor-made, for very small groups, often of two people,” she said.
Quie and her partners offer a “gourmet day” that includes visits to the four participating Margaux chateaux — Rauzan Gassies, Kirwan, Prieure-Lichine
and La Tour de Bessan — plus lunch or dinner with the owners. Prices start at
about 1,000 euro a day for two, and clients can also spend the night. “We have
no limits really. It is up to what people want,” Quie said.
Wine tasting trips
Over at the newly opened Regent Grand Hotel, which brings the number of
luxury establishments in the area to five, concierge Bastien Lalanne said top-end tourists were mainly foreigners.
“Americans are the avid wine-lovers, they are looking for discoveries, to learn about different grapes and comparisons with Californian wines. They want
to know the history,” he said.
Russians, on the other hand, tend to go for big names such as Petrus, Cheval Blanc and Margaux, he said, pinpointing a factor that may influence how luxury travel develops in the future.
Where wine-lovers in the past, cash-heavy or cash-strapped, came respectfully on bended knee to Bordeaux, newer and less wine-savvy wealthy travellers, demand simply to see the highlights and move on.
“The Russians stay two or three days with a chauffeur and an interpreter and have very heavy tasting schedules,” said Lalanne politely, meaning their
wine intake was high.
But Bordeaux is realising it must adapt to those with less respect but much
more money, mainly because markets are changing and rich tourists are also
potential buyers blessed with bulging bank accounts.
Other than wealthy Americans and Russians, Brazilians and Chinese have also been sighted, and there are now 25 high-end tour agencies in Bordeaux compared with only three 20 years ago.
Listing examples of luxury extravagance, guide and interpreter Marie-Chantal Leboucq, mentions a plane flying a “happy birthday” trailer over a chateau filled with Russian guests, all in 18th century costume, and another decked out for a party in sumptuous 16th century Queen Margot trappings.
“There are more and more luxury clients but the competition is tough,” said Marie-Christine Dubosq, who runs another agency catering to high net worth clients. “Places like Italy, Spain and Portugal have made huge efforts.
We have lessons to learn,” she said.
After all, up to now, for the lucky rich wanting a piece of Bordeaux, the habit was to spend a couple of thousand on a few bottles. Alternatively, like Bernard Arnault, director of luxury goods group LVMH, owner of chateaux Yquem and Cheval Blanc, or Simon Halibi, the Syrian investor and owner of Cantenac Brown, you could simply buy the chateau, rather than just visit it.