Bordeaux’s winemakers reconstruct the past to charm tourists

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Jean-Francois Janoueix and Jean-Michel Cazes have more in common than producing wine.

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Jean-Francois Janoueix and Jean-Michel Cazes have more in common than producing wine. They share a passion for old limestone and are banking on tourism to revive Bordeaux’s crumbling cottages and dying villages.

Over time, as big properties were bought out and small vintners and estate workers left old abodes for modern suburbia, the picturesque villages and vineyard homes of one of France’s prime wine regions were left abandoned.

“The villages need to be reborn,” said Janoueix, owner of 17 wine estates, including Chateau Haut Sarpe near Saint-Emilion, 28 miles east of Bordeaux.

“The great wine estates don’t care about these modest homes, but they are the markers of the past. When we demolish them, we gain a few vines but lose a whole piece of the past.”

Determined to keep the rural heritage alive, Janoueix is personally financing renovation of the rustic hamlet of Sarpe at the gates of his estate. “I want it to have the atmosphere of the past,” he said as a mason meticulously restored a nearby facade.

True to his vision, the village takes one back in time. An original “rural post office” sign clings to a wall, though no-one can quite remember when the building last sold stamps.

Guests can visit an 18th-century windmill and a kitsch 1950s nightclub built for the grape pickers. In Haut Sarpe’s cellars, he offers wine tastings amid a collection of antique tools and equipment.

A few steps away, a farmhouse provides room and board to modern-day pilgrims walking the historic Santiago de Compostela, or the Way of St James, to the Spanish site 658 miles away where tradition holds that the apostle is buried. Soon, an old-fashioned bakery will open on the square.

Inspired by the savvy approach to wine tourism in California’s Napa valley, Janoueix hopes to attract tourists to Sarpe to introduce them to a slice of wine history, as well as his wines.

And he is well-located. The local tourist office estimates that Saint-Emilion, a Unesco world heritage site, receives one million visitors per year.

“We would be stupid to be 500 metres from Saint-Emilion and do nothing,” said Janoueix.

Fifty-five miles away in Bordeaux’s Medoc region, there is no world heritage site near Cazes’ Chateau Lynch Bages and when he took over the property in 1973, “there was not a single tourist”.

Yet he sensed wine tourism was the future and 36 years later, Lynch Bages receives 20,000 visitors a year.

In addition to several wine estates, the Cazes family owns an upscale hotel, two Michelin-starred restaurants, a wine estate bed-and-breakfast, a wine school and a wine tour agency. A fifth of their business revenue comes from wine tourism.

Yet as business flourished, the lively village of Cazes’ childhood quietly slid into ruin.

In 2003, when Cazes needed to enlarge his cellars and the architect proposed demolishing the abandoned hamlet of Bages, located on his back doorstep, Cazes balked.

“I didn’t want to see the village disappear,” said Cazes. “I didn’t want to be remembered as the man who knocked down a village to stock my wine.”

Instead, he hired craftsmen to restore the old limestone buildings with the goal of creating a modern village that would attract visitors.

“We need to brush the dust off the image of the grands crus of Bordeaux,” he explained.

Cazes’ vision has taken shape: a pretty village square, a bakery, a stylish bistro, a refined boutique, a master basket-weaver, an annexe to an expensive hotel, a butcher and soon, an upmarket wine bar and cigar lounge.

A cheerful playground attracts mothers and toddlers. Free open-air movie nights bring in the locals. And the buildings retain the names of the original owners.

“Here we have a history, an architecture, the art of living”, said Cazes. “The town represents how we see Lynch Bages – conviviality.”

He’s unfazed by criticism that he’s created a mini-Disneyland: “Disneyland’s a wonderful success; if only I had so many people…”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.