Travel & Living

In Bordeaux, Chanel Preserves the Craft of Winemaking

A journey into the winemaking heartland of Bordeaux uncovers Chanel's efforts to preserve the greatest of all French traditions. After fashion, of course.
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When you think of the storied Maison Chanel, wine is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind. Indeed, the famed fashion house established by its namesake Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is, for most, synonymous with a beau monde Parisian style. However, for more than two decades—and with little of the public attention that usually accompanies anything Chanel-related—the family behind the luxury fashion house has quietly been acquiring winemaking estates, both in France and abroad. And, in many ways, for Chanel’s owners, the similarities between viniculture and haute couture make for an apt pairing.

“Chanel is invested in history, in what we refer to as patrimoine,” Nicolas Audebert, the director of Chanel’s vineyards, points out.

A term that connotes heritage or legacy, patrimoine is a word that embodies the house’s approach to fashion. The same can also be said of its approach to winemaking. “We share the same long-term vision for investment,” Audebert notes, “embracing quality, of leaving things to time, of protecting a French notion of savior-faire.”

That commitment to protecting French savoir faire—a way of doing things, a collective know-how that embodies a tradition of craftsmanship—is key to understanding Chanel’s expanding ownership of historical winemaking estates. Around the same time that the company’s owners  purchased their first vineyard—Château Rauzan-Ségla, in 1994—Chanel established Paraffection in 1997, a subsidiary formed to hold the company’s ownership of maisons d’art (highly specialized maisons producing hand-crafted pieces—button maker and costume jeweler Desrues,  embroiderer Lesage, and the plumassiers Lemarié, among others). The aim of Paraffection was to ensure the survival of artisanal craftsmen who were upholding traditional French techniques of design and fabrication.

As Audebert underscores, the acquisition of winemaking estates in Bordeaux and beyond serves a similar purpose—to ensure the longevity of the industry and its traditions. Since 1994, Chanel has gone on to acquire Château Canon and Berliquet, also in Bordeaux, as well as St. Supéry Estate Vineyards in California’s Napa Valley and, just last year, Domaine de l’Ile, an estate on the island of Porquerolles, which is just off the southernmost tip of the Côte d’Azur.

“We are trying to develop the business for a new target consumer,” he notes, “we want to explain to a new generation why Bordeaux is not only the wine that your father or grandfather was drinking.”

Convincing a new generation of connoisseurs to drink wine produced in Bordeaux is likely the easy part. Explaining the complicated system established in 1855 to classify Bordeaux’s winemakers and their product is an entirely different beast.

Sparing the complexities that differentiate “cru” categorization and “left bank” vs. “right bank,” the concept of terroir is perhaps the most important for any budding wine enthusiast to understand. In short, a wine region’s terroir is composed of its geographic and climatic makeup (soil, terrain, weather), in addition to any traditional practices, that affect the growth and harvesting of grapes for wine. Soil, for example, can vary from acre to acre as it does in the Bordeaux  region, allowing for the subtle variations in the flavor found in the wines produced in vineyards neighboring each other.

In  the case  of Château Rauzan-Ségla, for example, the varied nature of the estate’s underlying soil composition adds to the dynamic quality and range of the wine it produces. Adding a layer of complexity to this is the fact that the estate grows several varieties of grapes—predominantly cabernet sauvignon, followed by merlot, and a smaller number of cabernet franc and petit verdot grapes.

At harvest time each year—which can fall anytime between September  and early October—Audebert, along with vineyard manager François Baudoux, oversee the hand-picking and processing of the estate’s 70 hectares of grapes. After their initial harvest, the grapes are left to macerate in large stainless steel vats—a fermentation process that begins the moment the skin of a grape is broken and exposed to the heat—and ends only when Audebert and his  team decide the desired color, flavor and tannins have been achieved to the standards they need. 

From there, the nascent  wine is transferred  to handmade oak barrels—made  only from 100-year-old trees—where  it is left to further mature for 18 months. It is at this point that the mastery of blending wines truly begins and the complexity of terroir and grape  varietal come to the fore. Various wines from one section of the vineyard can be complemented or amplified by those from another, each offering their  own distinct flavor profile. In short, the interplay between soil, grape varietal and vinification come together under Audebert’s guidance to create some of the world’s most sought-after wine.

For  Audebert, however, what makes Bordeaux’s wines exceptional isn’t just the strength of its terroir. “With over 400 years of history here,” he underscores, “Bordeaux  is very old, with a unique concentration of high-level châteaus all in the same place.” Like their acquisition of various historic maisons, Chanel’s aim in acquiring legacy winemaking estates is not strictly about profits. 

“When you compare our efforts with larger companies that want to have a vineyard everywhere in the world,” Audebert points out, “you see that we are approaching this very differently—it’s not about strategy, it’s about couture.”

In spite of Audebert’s claims to the contrary, there is a discernable  methodology to Chanel’s ongoing expansion into winemaking, one that  reflects the company’s familial history. Since 1954, Chanel has been owned by the Wertheimers, a tight-knit family that eschews the spotlight. And, just as the Chanel business has been passed down to successive generations of Wertheimers, so too are the historic vineyards they acquire and the communities they have traditionally supported. An ambition worthy of raising a glass to.

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