Guests attend a dinner during the “Fete de la Fleur” (Flower party) on June 20, 2013 at the Chateau Lagrange in Saint-Julien-de-Beychevelle, southwestern France. The event traditionnally marks the end of Vinexpo, the world’s biggest wine and spirits fair gathering 45,000 professionals from around the globe. - Photo by AFP
BORDEAUX: The illuminated facades of historic chateaux light up the night sky. The air is filled with the crackle of fireworks, the tinkle of crystal and the lilt of opera.
Tuxedos and evening gowns are de rigueur and some of France's top chefs are sweating away in the kitchens.
Bordeaux has always known how to throw a party and when the planet's biggest wine fair is in town, no expense is spared in the effort to seduce the movers and shakers who help to maintain the region's status as the epicentre of the viticultural world.
This year's Vinexpo was played out against a background of uncertainty over the direction of the world economy and fears of an EU-China trade war, both subjects of concern for European wine producers in general and Bordeaux in particular.
But there was no cutting back on the banquets that chateaux owners admit can cost them up to 500 euros per head ($650), even before the cost of pouring vintage wines down guests' throats is taken into account.
“These meals create an impression of quality, of a certain art of living that is enormously beneficial to the image of Bordeaux wines in general terms,” explains Jean-Michel Cazes, a former grandmaster of the Commanderie du Bontemps, one of the oldest and biggest fraternities in French wine.
“It is an excellent form of public relations aimed at our customers.” The Commanderie du Bontemps is in charge of organising the Fete de la Fleur, the Vinexpo closing dinner that is traditionally the hottest ticket of the week.
This year's was held on Thursday at Chateau Lagrange, a leading estate in Saint Julien that has been in the hands of Japanese drinks giant Suntory since 1983.
A red carpet leading up the chateau ensured the women among the 1,500 guests did not have to squelch through the mud in their high heels after a week of unseasonal storms in the region.
Such was the demand for tables that the waiting list for cancellations had 500 names on it. One Bordeaux merchant who thought he had secured his places only to be rebuffed at the last minute has started legal action against the organisers.
Michelin-starred chef Frederic Simonin served up a meal of lobster with ravioli made with Japanese vegetable daikon, local beef grated with summer truffles and mille-feuilles of tomme de brebis, a creamy sheep's cheese from the Pyrenean mountains. Guests were also treated to a Lagrange '95 and magnums of Lafite-Rothschild from the outstanding 1990 vintage, from the Commanderie's own cellars.
Around 200 food and 80 wine waiters were on hand to make sure it all passed off without a drop being spilled and, after being entertained by an operatic tenor, the evening climaxed with a spectacular fireworks display.
Highlights earlier in the week included an 800-cover dinner given by another fraternity, the Jurade de Saint Emilion, whose new inductees included several Chinese importers, a nod to the growing importance of the East Asian superpower to the future of Bordeaux and the French wine industry in general.
The dinner for that celebration was cooked by another star chef, Philippe Etchebest, and hosted in a 1,000-square-metre temporary wooden structure erected in the centre of Saint Emilion, a world heritage site as well as the capital of the Bordeaux sub-region that bears its name.
Even humble journalists get a taste of the action, with Chateau Mouton-Rothschild hosting a dinner for the international press that also served as the opening of its new cellars.
“Not such a bad old job, after all,” one of the lucky reporters was heard to declare as he nursed a glass of the illustrious property's 1975 vintage.