Esquire: Russian Art Wine in Bordeaux

Twelve works by Russian painters have decorated the 2014 vintage labels of one of the most reputed wines of the Bordeaux region. It is almost unbelievable that this could happen in the most conservative wine region in France. A grand cru with a Russian touch is now featured on restaurant wine lists and sold in wine shops across the world.

Saint-Emilion, a Bordeaux region located on the right bank of the Dordogne, is a quite patriarchal place. In December 1999, local villages and vineyards entered the UNESCO World Heritage List as «an outstanding example of a historic vineyard landscape preserved in its original form». According to legend, the city of Saint-Emilion was founded in the 8th century by a Breton monk who was able to perform miracles big and small. Among others, the region produces Merlot based wine.

Chateau La Grace Dieu des Prieurs is a Saint Emilion vineyard. The name is translated as The Grace of God of the Priors. In the Middle Ages, the estate served as a haven for local residents fleeing epidemics. The map shows that the estate is located between the bell towers of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, the neighboring commune that is of no less importance to wine connoisseurs. The wine of Chateau La Grace Dieu des Prieurs usually consists of Merlot, a grape variety with a softer taste.

The wine combines opulence and delicacy. It is an extremely refined product, the so-called right-bank Merlot, characterized by softness and fruity finesse. A small percentage of the «aggressive» Cabernet Franc in the blend only emphasizes the nuances. In a word, this is a modern, in-demand style of Bordeaux wine, presented, however, in bottles of a fundamentally archaic shape, used in Bordeaux two centuries ago. The combination of tradition and modernity is the prevalent formula for success in today's winemaking, in a sense even the norm. But the real agitator that brought something new and never-before-seen into the measured life of the commune was not the wine per se. It is indeed surprising to see Reshetnikov's Low Marks Again on a label, even if one is, say, a sixth-generation conservative Bordeaux winemaker. It is even more surprising to see the giant red letters Art Russe along the main road of the patriarchal Saint-Emilion.

Art Russe is a foundation that owns one of the largest collections of Russian art of the late 19th and 20th centuries. In 2017, Art Russe granted permission to use reproductions of paintings of Viktor Vasnetsov, Ilya Repin, Vladimir Serov, Filipp Malyavin, Viktor Popkov, Nikolai Fechin, Fyodor Reshetnikov and other Russian artists – the Itinerants, Modernists, Socialist Realists – for wine label design. The main objective of the unexpected move is to show the scale of creativity and diversity of styles in Russian art. «In this way we hope to raise awareness of Russian art», said a spokesperson for Art Russe. «Winemaking in Saint-Emilion does not need support. We hope that the reproductions on the labels will arouse interest in a bright cultural phenomenon, which Russian art undoubtedly remains.»

At the same time, the story with the labels is just one part of a bigger upgrade project. Indeed, the wine estate reconstruction project was carried out under the supervision of the renowned architect Jean Nouvel. A graduate of the National Superior School of Fine Arts in Paris, Jean Nouvel became famous for the projects of the Opera House in Lyon, the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and several dozen other notable and unique buildings. He set out to bring energy and modern design to the archaic landscape of the French village. As Mr. Nouvel himself admits, this new project in Bordeaux combined his two passions: art and winemaking. Jean Nouvel familiarized himself with Soviet Impressionism from the collection of Art Russe at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi, and was extremely impressed. Organized in 2015, the event was the first ever large-scale exhibition of Russian art in the Middle East.

And while Jean Nouvel has changed the design, the renowned enologist Louis Mitjavile was behind the changes brought to the contents of the bottle. Coming from a well-known family of Bordeaux winemakers, he has been advising wine estates in France, Argentina and the United States for twenty years. In the world of winemaking, he is sometimes referred to as a magician. Having joined the project, Mr. Mitjavile unveiled to the public his modern vision of a Saint Emilion classic: a brighter, more nuanced and exciting wine.

The artworks displayed on the labels are very diverse in terms of themes and styles, but there is something that unquestionably unites them: all of them are Russian and Soviet classics, forever imprinted in memory of every Russian adult by illustrations from the Russian language school textbook. Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom, The Swan Princess, Low Marks Again, The Flying Carpet and even Vladimir Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power - all these works have found a new breath in their wine label reincarnation.

The link between content and design, according to authors of the project, is in the fact that both wine- and artmaking are creative processes. «Fine wine is a true work of art, and as such deserves featuring outstanding works of fine art on its labels», believe creators of the project.

In 2017, twelve works were selected for labeling the chateau's 2014 vintage. The decision on the choice of paintings was made by a group of experts, who are now preparing for a similar exercise for next year's vintage.