Summer gigs pull crowds to French wine country

Fresh air, fine wine and world-class performers are pulling the crowds to Bordeaux's wine country for an ever-rising number of summer jazz and classical concerts in the French region.

"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."

"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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Cold snap ‘could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent’

A rare cold snap that froze vineyards across much of France this month could see harvest yields drop by around a third this year, France's national agriculture observatory said on Thursday.

Cold snap 'could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent'
A winemaker checks whether there is life in the buds of his vineyard in Le Landreau, near Nantes in western France, on April 12th, following several nights of frost. Photo: Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

Winemakers were forced to light fires and candles among their vines as nighttime temperatures plunged after weeks of unseasonably warm weather that had spurred early budding.

Scores of vulnerable fruit and vegetable orchards were also hit in what Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie called “probably the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the 21st century.”

IN PICTURES: French vineyards ablaze in bid to ward off frosts

The government has promised more than €1 billion in aid for destroyed grapes and other crops.

Based on reported losses so far, the damage could result in up to 15 million fewer hectolitres of wine, a drop of 28 to 30 percent from the average yields over the past five years, the FranceAgriMer agency said.

That would represent €1.5 to €2 billion of lost revenue for the sector, Ygor Gibelind, head of the agency’s wine division, said by videoconference.

It would also roughly coincide with the tally from France’s FNSEA agriculture union.

Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed during a visit to damaged fields in southern France last Saturday that the emergency aid would be made available in the coming days to help farmers cope with the “exceptional situation.”

READ ALSO: ‘We’ve lost at least 70,000 bottles’ – French winemakers count the cost of late frosts