Many are surprised to learn that in Bordeaux, the word chateau does not have the same use as it has in the rest of France, and generally in the French language. Speaking as an English born American in France (Michael speaking) the association with the word chateau, especially in the context of French Chateau I would immediately assume that it is a castle. You know….the fairy tale edifice with spires and towers and perhaps a moat. This would not be far off being correct for everywhere in France except Bordeaux. Consider the Loire valley for example. My family and I took a trip up there a few years ago and my enduring memory was that every chateau we visited was the quintessential French castle more or less as my image portrayed above, replete with grandeur, gardens and water features.
Leafing through my trusty ‘Le Robert’ French Dictionary I have found the word chateau. It defines it as a castle, palace, fort, mansion and stately home. Then tucked away in parenthesis and small italics I found the word “Vignobles.
In our business advising on and selling Bordeaux vineyards it is not uncommon for us to go to ‘chateau so and so’ and find that it is 10 hectares of rolling Merlot vineyards without a spire, tower or moat in site. In fact quite the opposite the residence associated with the chateau might be a small farm house or what is termed a ‘Girondine.’ Imagine buying sight unseen you would be buying a fabulous Bordeaux chateau…..sans chateau, no castle. Ooops!!
So what is the origin of this mismatch and potential confusion, especially for us Anglo-Saxons? Could it be that the famous red liquid of the south west has gone to our heads? Nope. The origin dates back to the early significant vineyards of the Medoc (the Bordeaux Left Bank). In the 16th and 17th century French noblemen came to the Bordeaux region to invest in wine and enjoy the vineyard lifestyle. They started what is still today the concept of the gentleman’s farm and by 1855 had developed such a following that it was felt necessary to establish a classification of wines – with their wines at the top of course.
So the early Chateaux of Bordeaux were indeed castles (consider Château Cos d’Estournel, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lascombes, Chateau Lafite Rothschild) and many of them were located in the Medoc region north of Bordeaux. However, with the massive expansion of the wine industry in the nineteenth century, the word chateau came to be associated with the wine and its production rather than with the building and its grandeur.Today the name chateau, in Bordeaux, is a title or marque that has more to do with branding and quality than a building which perhaps is no surprise after all in a region that has built its name on wine rather than architecture.