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Summer gigs pull crowds to French wine country

AFP · 24 Jul 2012, 09:07

Published: 24 Jul 2012 09:07 GMT+02:00

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"It's a trend, and it works. It attracts people who are not the usual jazz music audience," the pianist Francois Faure said as he stepped off stage at the Saint Emilion Jazz festival this week.

"They are not so much jazz fans as wine fans" who come to taste the music and the wine country setting as well as the wine.

The organizer of the event, one of half a dozen packing the summer schedule in and around south-western Bordeaux, turned to the festival scene after retiring from a career as a wine merchant.

"The beauty of the village attracted me, and I found the idea of connecting music to it terrific," said Dominique Renard. "We talk about wine blends and grape varieties; well here we have the village, the wine and the music -- those are our three varieties in this blend."

Contacts forged over long careers in wine have helped launch new festivals.

When Renard started his privately funded event, he turned for support to local winegrowers and two longtime friends.

One was the legendary music producer Tommy LiPuma, a wine lover whom he befriended long ago over lunch at a Bordeaux chateau.

"I'm a collector, but strictly for drinking," LiPuma said.

Robert Parker, the world-famous wine critic, was the second celebrity friend lending support.

"I love music, and of course, I love Bordeaux," Parker said.

"Dominic Renard is a dear, dear friend," he said. "He asked, would you come as the godfather of wine? I said, absolutely. I haven't been to Bordeaux in the summer since the '70s."

The critic noted that just as Bordeaux wines are seen as having vastly improved in the last 30 years, so has the city thanks to a sweeping renovation to its historic centre.

"My wife hasn't been back here since 1986. I have to take her to Bordeaux to the quays to show her what Mayor (Alain) Juppé has done. It's extraordinary. It's one of the most beautiful cities in France now," Parker said.

The concert series in Bordeaux vineyards are part of that renaissance, and in some cases, the venues would not have been possible without it.

When the Jazz and Wine festival needed an open-air venue to host Herbie Hancock early this month, they ended up welcoming more than 2,000 people to Bordeaux's 15th-century Place Pey Berland, which had a multi-million-euro facelift in 2004 that created a spacious pedestrian zone.

But most of the venues are small, favouring an intimate atmosphere.

For the evening concert in Saint Emilion, the mesmerizing rhythms of percussion artists Hakouk Trio filtered through the vineyards from a small open-air stage set in the moat of the tiny medieval village.

"The setting is exceptional," said the pianist Faure. "It's not like the usual venue."

Story continues below…

"Our concerts are practically private concerts," said Renard. "They are small like the village, and we try to provide the same high quality, just like our wines."

Many venues have a strong connection to wine. When Chateau Pichon-Longueville agreed to host Rene Barbera, a hot young tenor, for the Estivales de Musique de Medoc concert series on July 12th, they realized they had only one place suitable for 300 guests, in terms of size and acoustics: the barrel cellar.

"To host the concert, we had to remove almost two-thirds of our barrels, which of course is a long and painstaking job," said Marie-Louise Schyler, spokeswoman for Pichon-Longueville.

"But the concert was fantastic, the acoustics superb, and it was a great experience."

Barbera said he found the wine country audience "great, very responsive" -- and the setting inspirational.

"I stayed at the chateau, and woke up to a view of the vineyards and the smell of fresh air -- and wine," said the Chicago-based tenor.

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