Architecture as metaphor: the winery at Château Cheval Blanc

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The names of wine estates in Bordeaux relate to the name of an owner, a feature of its terroir, a location, or character of its situation – even if it is just the sound of bells which peal nearby. Château Cheval Blanc is one of the few, if not the only, famous 19th century Bordeaux estate whose name may have originated as a metaphor for what the wine might represent: a white horse symbolizes the sun, the moon, the sea, and the heavens. It seems appropriate that its new winery continues this metaphor being described by its architect, Christian de Portzamparc, as “a cellar under the hill,” extending from the Château as if “the ground rises, carried by cement sails, toward the light and the sky”. The shape of the building not only mimics the topography but also the fluidity of its contents. The hill crests at 8.65m (more of a knoll really) above the surrounding vineyards. There are two staircases leading to the top which sweep the longer north and south facing facades and which will be planted with wild vines. From the top one has an unhindered view over the 37 hectare estate. The sloping roof of the winery is landscaped with planted verges of over fifty different varieties of wild grasses, flowers and clumps of blue bushes. The shrubs arranged haphazardly accentuating the impression of a wasteland left to itself. But the heat in the recessed roof garden, even in a late afternoon of early April, is quite intense, similar to the wooden terrace of an alpine resort café. White concrete, and snow, have the effect of not just reflecting the light and heat but intensifying its impact on the immediate surroundings.

Constructing any building which requires a working space, mostly horizontal, of some 5,300m2 necessitates significant roofing: hardly an epithet of great beauty. There are several ways to approach this and a rude classification might suffice: the aircraft hanger approach – as in the Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in British Columbia and Byron Hill Winery in Santa Maria, California; the concealment philosophy where, say, a wall dominates the structure, as exemplified by Dominus Estate in Yountville, California (creating a rattlesnake heaven amongst the gabions) or Quintessa, Rutherford, California. Alternatively, create an enormous super-structure which the roof straddles in submission as in Jackson–Triggs, Ontario and the last option: make a feature of it. This is the method adopted for the new winery at Château Cheval Blanc.

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1. It was most likely that that the impetus and inspiration for their development came from Robert Mondavi and coincidentally he brought this over from Cheval Blanc's neighbour Château Figeac.

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