“How do you define the poetry of winemaking, in which the vine needs sun, but the wine production process considers light an enemy?”
Norman Foster, 2013
Over the past decade, Foster + Partners has completed three wineries: Bodegas Portia for the Faustino Group in the Ribera del Duero region of Spain (2010), major additions and modifications to Château Margaux in Médoc (2015), and a new building for Le Dôme in St-Émilion (2021). Each is radically different in size, form and materiality, but all were shaped by the landscape and the demands of experienced winemakers. None is about show; Foster + Partners’ clients felt no need to advertise. Maximum efficiency and a memorable experience for visitors were the goals, and the architects found an inspired solution to each set of requirements.
Each successive design, though unmistakably different from the last, has nonetheless influenced the next. Norman Foster explains: “Portia was our first winery and we approached the project with no preconception. The way in which we understand the design process is by exchanging information with the client. This helped us learn everything about winemaking and challenge some of the assumptions made in the design of wineries. When, years after, we were commissioned to design the extension to Château Margaux, some of the experience was brought into the project, yet the differences in the winemaking process, the different types of wine, location and of course the remarkable adjacent Château and existing architecture required the design team to again start the design process with no preconceptions. The same principle then applied to Le Dôme, again informed by its incredible setting in St-Émilion’s heritage-protected vineyard, to design a winery suitable for their tradition of the so-called garage wine and their very unique winemaking process.”
From afar, Portia could be mistaken for an industrial plant, rigorous and earthy, hugging the ground. Branching steel trees support the Nouveau Chai of Château Margaux which is integrated with the old production areas. Le Dôme appears as a shallow ellipse of vintage tiles that seems to float above the vines. The apparent simplicity of these forms belies the complexity of the design process.
Of the three, Le Dôme posed the greatest challenge. It’s an upstart amid its legendary neighbours; launched in 1996 as a garage operation by Jonathan Maltus, a British businessman who sold his consulting companies and moved to France. There he was introduced to a vigneron for whom he offered to work without salary for a year to learn the trade from the ground up. As he recalls, “I went from running a business with 350 employees to sweeping up and pruning the vines, before immersing myself in the making of wine.” Buoyed by his new passion he purchased three hectares of the best terroir a mile outside the village of Saint-Émilion, christened it Le Dôme, and processed the grapes at the neighbouring property of Château Teyssier. Renowned wine critic Robert Parker gave a 100 rating to his 2010 vintage, encouraging him to believe he could achieve the coveted designation of Grand Cru Classé if he met the requirement of making the wine on-site.
In January 2018, Maltus flew to Madrid to discuss his needs with Foster after reaching out to the London office. The challenge was to build in a UNESCO-protected landscape among wineries that were centuries old and to put all the operations under one roof without encroaching on the precious vineyard. In the course of a ninety-minute meeting, Foster sketched a rotunda topped by a shallow dome supported by branching ribs and, against all the odds, that concept was realised in under four years. Pablo Urango and Taba Rasti, senior partners in the practice’s Madrid office, headed the team that developed the design, negotiated approvals and shepherded it to completion. Bâtiments de France, the official watchdog, initially refused to permit any new construction. The architects argued that the decrepit structure on the site had no architectural or historical value. They pledged to honour the beauty of the landscape and its monuments, replacing a ruin with a graceful curve. Neighbours and the mayor of Saint-Émilion offered their support and the authorities granted permission.
Meanwhile, the design team spent a year refining the details of the exterior and interior ramps, and the reciprocal geometry of the curved glulam beams of spruce and oak that support the forty-metre span of the dome and the heavy load of the tiles. An oculus two metres wide pulls light into the central atrium. The layout of the winery is concentric, and the radius of the circles was set by the number of tanks and barrels required for an annual output of 30,000 bottles from an estate that has now grown to ten hectares. Trucks bring grapes to a wedge of open space where they are sorted and carried by conveyor to a tight inner circle of twelve fermenting tanks that sit 1.2 metres below grade. Two blending tanks are mounted on casters so they can be wheeled away when not in use. A mezzanine gallery provides access to the tanks, and equipment is brought in from Château Teyssier when it comes time to bottle the wine.
Though the basic steps of winemaking have changed little in the past century, its technology has been transformed. “I’m still learning how to use this building, having left the organisation to the architects,” says Neil White, the oenologist at Le Dôme. But he can exercise complete control over the process from his smartphone, reading temperatures and making minor adjustments even as he travels to a sister winery in California’s Napa Valley. Every winery has its own personality and White has all the tools he needs to realise his vision.
Maltus compares the building to a Rolls Royce for the perfection of details and finishes. The authorities had hoped the architects would use traditional masonry, but the loadbearing concrete drum, bush-hammered to expose the aggregate has the warm tone of local stone and many of the terracotta tiles were salvaged from the old structure. The rusticity of the outer shell makes Le Dôme a congenial neighbour to a medieval church and the prestigious Château Angélus, as well as the gentle slopes of this fruitful valley. Within, functionality gives way to elegance as you move higher. Visitors ascend the inner ramp to view the working areas and emerge into the wine bar and entertainment spaces at the upper level. A lightweight aluminium structure suspended below the oculus filters summer sun and the projecting roof shades the terrace and perimeter glazing. The curved beams and sinuous sofas give the room an organic character – an apt metaphor for a winery – and a symbolic bridge between the vines and the tasting table.
Château Margaux, located on the left bank of the Gironde, is everything Le Dôme aspires to be: a storied estate that has evolved over 500 years to become one of the world’s most respected labels.
For 200 years, there were no significant additions, leaving Margaux with little capacity to meet future needs. Foster + Partners was invited to develop a masterplan for the estate, adding the Nouveau Chai primarily for the production of white wine, creating an underground Vinothèque and restoring the historic Orangery. Other buildings were refurbished and unsightly additions were removed. The design team was headed by Foster and they worked closely with winemaker Paul Pontallier, the late manager of Château Margaux to maximise efficiency by reconsidering the function of every space, making the best use of the latest equipment and consolidating production, while preserving the character of the 265-hectare estate as a farming village surrounding a great house.
Foster recalls his first visit, which sowed the seeds of later design proposals: “It was in the middle of a grape harvest and we shared a splendid lunch on a long table under the great roof of an open barn…In the countryside of Bordeaux, in village markets and farms, I saw superb examples of traditional roofs, all with the same warm textures of aged clay tiles. Often a handsome wooden structure would be revealed below, with generously overhanging eaves.” His immersion in the forms and materiality of this wine-growing region prepared him for the challenges of designing Le Dôme from the ground-up.
In contrast to these rustic landmarks, employing rough-hewn beams for support, the Nouveau Chai pares its structure to a minimum, supporting a twenty-eight-metre span on twelve peripheral steel columns. They have a taut elegance as they branch out at the top to absorb the load from a metal diagrid, much like the curved ribs of Le Dôme. A tightly coiled helical stair leads up to a gallery that provides access to the stainless-steel tanks. Equipment and services have been relocated to the chai from the old production facility which is now reserved for the making of red wine.
To an even greater extent than Le Dôme, the Nouveau Chai fuses the vernacular with sophisticated engineering. From a distance, it merges into the existing complex of single-story sheds. Close up and within, it demonstrates Foster’s love of lightness, openness and nature in the crisp geometry of the steel frame, the triangular glazed openings for natural light and ventilation, and the reliance on passive strategies to cool the interior in the heat of summer. Margaux used to erect a temporary canopy during harvest to shade the grape sorters, but now this operation has been moved into the chai. Massive folding doors of lime-washed oak swing open to accommodate this activity and a slender steel frame supports the double glazing above.
A second addition is hidden from view: a Vinothèque for the storage and display of historic vintages extends seventy metres beneath the vineyard and away from the flood plain. The vaulted concrete structure has niches for the storage of bottles, and it builds anticipation for the handsome visitors’ tasting room, clad in triangular oak slats, at the far end. The thermal mass of the earth and concrete preserves an even temperature year-round, as in the cellars of Bodegas Portia.
The 640-square-metre Orangery is the oldest building on the estate, predating the house, but it was being used as a bottle store and had lost much of its character. Foster’s team stripped the additions, revealing south-facing windows that flood the interior with sunlight. It has resumed its original role as a winter shelter for potted orange and lemon trees while serving year-round as a space for catered events and a refectory during harvest.
Complementing all these additions and changes are courtyards that serve a variety of purposes, and a remodelled visitors’ centre that caters to the growing public interest in the art of winemaking. It’s the point of departure for a promenade that extends through the production areas to the subterranean tasting room and up a spiral stair beside the château. A wine singled out for praise by Thomas Jefferson in 1787 is more than ever in demand and determined to maintain its pre-eminence.
The commission to design Bodegas Portia came from Grupo Faustino, a family-owned firm that has been making wine and winning awards over the past 160 years. It has seven other wineries—one in Navarre, one in La Mancha and five in the province of La Rioja and its move to Ribera del Duero was meticulously planned. Faustino waited until the early 1990s to buy the property and plant Tempranillo grapes between the motorway and the medieval village of Gumiel de Izán, 100 kilometres north of Madrid. Not until the first harvest of 2003 had been deemed a success did they commit to building a winery on this 150-hectare site.
Rather than hosting a competition, which is the customary practice for all significant buildings in Spain, Faustino researched the work of leading firms and selected Foster + Partners for its forty years of excellence and emphasis on rigorous analysis. They asked for a building that was tailored to their specific needs; neither client nor architect had any preconceptions of what form it would take. The goal was to combine quality with quantity and achieve a new identity for the brand. “We had never designed a winery before, so it was a completely new typology for us,” says Pedro Haberbosch, the Foster + Partners’ partner in charge.
The architects considered a linear plan and several other configurations before settling on a trefoil plan that would exploit the sloping site. Bodegas Portia is laid out on three levels, as a hub with three spokes. Fermentation tanks occupy a lofty hall that projects out towards the motorway to give the winery a public presence. The barrel and bottle cellars burrow into the slope, reducing the mass of the building and enhancing sustainability. Trucks ascend a ramp over the barrel cellar to load grapes from the roof terrace into the fermentation tanks and descend a similar ramp over the spine of the bottle cellar. Each of the three wings opens into the hexagonal hub with its blending tanks and control room.
The clarity of the plan and the efficiency of the operation can be likened to the airports that Foster + Partners has designed, but here the scale is more intimate, and the building seems to emerge from the vineyard that surrounds it. The entry portal appears as a dark hooded void, framed by two low wings that are clad in Corten, cross-ribbed to suggest diagonal shingles. The rusted steel changes its tone from orange-red to burnt umber as the sun moves around, and the massive steel entry door is flanked by panels of staves salvaged from old barrels.
A choreographed sequence of spaces and light levels, progressing from the brilliant sunlight of the forecourt, through the barred shadows cast by the entry canopy and the shaded portico draw you into the shadowy lobby. This is an industrial building that engages the visitor and is meant to last. The prefabricated concrete post and beam structure is resilient yet graceful. Oak, steel, and glass – materials used at each stage of production – are employed consistently throughout the building and every surface is impeccably finished and detailed.
Beyond the hospitality areas, the craft aesthetic gives way to that of the machine – a dramatic shift that is further developed at Château Margaux and Le Dôme. The fermentation hall contains fifty-four stainless steel tanks, fat truncated cones supported on splayed legs and lined up in rows, plus ten smaller tanks for premium wines. Skylights and clerestories filter natural light. In the hub, double doors open wide for fork-lift trucks carrying pallets of barrels and crates to and from the cellars. Working areas are lit from overhead fluorescents, but the void above is dimly lit from a red polycarbonate clerestory that traces the slope of the land beyond. The retaining wall below is poured concrete; above the clerestory are the same precast beams and panels that are employed elsewhere.
The halls had to provide an ideal working environment and the flexibility to increase production to a million bottles a year. In contrast, Maltus preferred to stay small, forfeiting the opportunity to expand his new facility at some future date. Sustainability was a priority for the client and architect, given the remote location of the winery, and the hot, dry climate. The thermal mass of its heavy concrete structure absorbs and retains heat. The ribbed geometry of the three wings increases the contact area between precast concrete panels and air to increase the passive exchange of heat. Embedding the cellars to a depth of up to six metres ensures that the temperature remains stable even in high summer without recourse to air conditioning.
Thus, each of these three wineries addresses the character of the terroir and the personal preferences of winemakers who are deeply committed to the craft of creating memorable vintages. And, as Foster relates, despite the differences of scale and site, there are as powerful a set of shared sensibilities between the three designs as there are differences: “Wineries in their very essence are industrial buildings in which special products are made. As such, a deep understanding of the winemaking process, and the specific needs of each winemaker have shaped each of these three buildings to their final form: a trefoil was the right scheme for Portia, a linear building for Margaux while a round geometry, at Le Dôme, was the right arrangement for the way in which the client elaborates wine.
In addition, wineries are a celebration of this process, in which visitors are invited to immerse themselves. In our projects for Portia, Margaux and Le Dôme the architecture helps explain the culture of wine. Visitors can follow the process through the building, putting them in close contact with the various making stages, starting not only inside the winery as a building but also in relation to the surrounding vineyard. On that note, Portia and Le Dôme are in tight, respectful contact with the surroundings blending into the landscape, UNESCO-protected in the case of Le Dôme, an aspect that is also combined with a fantastic existing listed architecture by Louis Combes in the case of Château Margaux.”
The architects have shared the passion of their clients, entering a world in which tradition and innovation, viticulture and technology, production and hospitality are skillfully blended.
“When this building is finished, we will be better architects and you will be better cellar masters.”
Julio Faustino Martínez, chairman of Grupo Faustino, 2003
Editors: Tom Wright and Hiba Alobaydi
04 April 2022
Michael Webb is an author specialising in modern architecture and design. He has written over twenty-five books and contributed to many others. Webb, previously based in London, worked for The Times and Country Life magazine. In 1969, he moved to the US and became Programming Director of the American Film Institute. He then curated a travelling exhibition for the Smithsonian, Hollywood: Legend and Reality, before resuming his writing career. Webb now lives in Los Angeles where he continues to be a regular contributor to leading journals in the US, Europe and Asia.