A Glass of Bordeaux: Photographing the Vineyards of Southern France

Photo of Chateau d’Yquem in southern France by Doris Kolber 
© 2012 Doris Kolber. All Rights Reserved.


Chateau d’Yquem is the finest sweet wine in the world. The Chateau is located in Sauternes, France, just south of the city of Bordeaux. The wines have been made here since the 1400’s where the Chateau has survived monarchies, kings, wars and revolutions. Chateau d’Yquem was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who bought hundreds of cases at a time and shared them with George Washington.

The Bordeaux region of France is home to some of the finest and most expensive wines in the world. Names like Margaux, Lafite, Rothschild, and Latour have been part of wine lore for centuries. It is only in the very recent past that the region and its vineyards opened themselves to the general public and have begun to shed their reputation as a snobbish and closed society.

My wife and I have visited wine regions around the world, and we were excited to finally visit Bordeaux since it is the “mother lode”, the heart and soul of wine. Say what you want, but you cannot deny that Bordeaux created the mystique and prominence that fine wines have commanded for centuries. And this created not only the opportunity to travel to Bordeaux and experience their wine region, but it opened the doors to creating some wonderful images of our experiences.

Photo of the vineyards at Chateau Canon in southern France by Doris Kolber
© 2012 Doris Kolber. All Rights Reserved.


A view from Chateau Canon, on the outskirts of the town of Saint-Emilion. The vineyards of Chateau Canon are in the foreground with the monolithic church of Saint-Emilion in the background. Stone walls built in the 1700’s surround the vineyard. Chateau Canon itself sits above a portion of the underground quarries that were dug hundred s of years ago. This region of Bordeaux produces wines of legendary proportion, with the vines growing in the ground above the labyrinth of quarried caves.

Besides the wines of Bordeaux, many of the town and villages in the region are classic examples of Medieval and Provincial French architecture. Some of them are hallowed ground in the wine world. On the Left Bank of the Gironde River, the towns of Margaux, St. Estephe, Pauillac and St. Julien are home to some of the most famous wines in the world, while St. Emilion on the Right Bank has been producing wine since the 2nd Century. The wineries (called “Chateaux” in Bordeaux) cover the range from centuries-old buildings to recently built high-tech facilities.

The Bordeaux region is huge. It covers an area in southwest France of over 3,000 square miles and is one of the largest wine regions in the world. When we decided to visit Bordeaux, I was told by wine professionals that no more than three or four Chateaux visits would be possible in a day. I doubted that at first, but Bordeaux is different from the rest of the world.

Photo of vineyards of Chateau Clinet along the church in the town of Pomerol, France by Cliff Kolber
© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All Rights Reserved.


One of the prime vineyards of Chateau Clinet is situated along the church in the town of Pomerol, near Saint Emilion. The vineyards have been producing Merlot grapes for hundreds of years.

Visits must be booked in advance, and each Chateau requires at least an hour for the tour and tasting. Since most Chateaux close two hours for lunch, bookings must be coordinated for the timing and the distance between them. It is a challenge, but we were able to book ten Chateaux during our three days in the region.

As a first-time visitor to the region I was expecting the Chateaux and their staff to be formal, cliquish, old school and traditional. Instead, as I began emailing the Chateaux to make advance bookings, what I found were warm, accommodating and welcoming individuals. That warmth and welcome continued as we visited the region. It was a delight to meet the owners, families or staff at each of the Chateaux we visited. They were not only hospitable but also accommodating with our photography requests.

Photo of poppies and grapes vines in vineyard in Southern France by Cliff Kolber
© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All Rights Reserved.


Poppies grow abundantly throughout France and many Chateaux in the Bordeuax region plant them among the vines for extra nourishment and protection.

Photographing vineyards, wineries and the region takes concentration and a focused eye, but the results are worth the effort. Probably the biggest issue, unique to wineries, is concentrating on photography while tasting wines throughout the day. If you make the commitment though, you can create an amazing portfolio.

In Bordeaux the tours are either private or in small groups anyway. In any event, it is recommended that at the beginning of a tour you should approach the guide and discuss the fact that you would like to lag behind at times for photography. As a side note, most of the Chateaux do not charge a fee for the visit and tasting, and the few that do, charge between five and ten Euros.

I separate winery photography into three segments: the vineyard, the tasting room and the winery facilities. The vineyard is outdoors, while the tasting room and winery facilities are generally indoors. By keeping these segments separated, I always have a mental checklist so I am reminded to shoot each segment during a visit. It sounds pretty simplistic, but it works!

Photo of vineyard field workers in Southern France by Cliff Kolber

© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All rights reserved.


Field workers coming in from the field for lunch break. These are highly trained individuals who are experts in pruning and maintaining the vines in Bordeuax.

Photo of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Southern France by Cliff Kolber
© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All rights reserved.


Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in late spring at Chateau Lynch-Bages. These will b harvested in September when they are full grown and dark purple.

The vineyards are full of amazing subjects and can be incredibly photogenic. You just need to be observant and let the scenes come to you. The rows of vines are large classic landscapes and can be overwhelming and even seem ordinary. So just take a moment, be patient. Notice the patterns, the individual vines, the root systems, leaves, grapes, soil and rocks. Most of the vineyards are planted on rocky soil and the older vines can be gnarly looking plants. These are all subjects that lend themselves to interesting compositions.

Experiment with depth of field and selective focus in the vineyards. And think about what drew you to a particular scene. What is the subject? Zoom in and shoot that subject – your center of interest. Simple compositions work best; clutter is distracting. Be simplistic.

Photo of free-roaming horse in winery field in Pauillac, France by Cliff Kolber

© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All rights reserved.


Horses roam freely in the fields along the road in Pauillac and add a nice touch to the vineyard scene.

Photo of forty year old vine at Chateau Clinet in Southern France by Cliff Kolber
© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All rights reserved.


Forty year old vines create the grapes of the wines of Chateau Clinet. All vineyards in Bordeaux are pruned low to the ground so that the plants retain heat overnight generated from the rocky soil.

During the tour of the facilities (cellar, barrel/vat rooms and bottling areas) remain aware of lighting. Unless absolutely necessary, avoid using flash, even (and especially) in the darker areas of the cellars. Flash, especially on-camera units, will create uneven lighting, shadows and unflattering, washed out results. Instead, increase the ISO and brace or support your body against a wall, door, table or piece of equipment (I am assuming a tripod is not being used). If you use a lens with image stabilization you are able to pick up two stops of speed, which helps reduce the effect of camera shake. So, instead of flash, if you use good support technique, high ISO and image stabilization you should be able to create clean, sharp images using only ambient lighting.

Photo of barrel room at Chateau Pontet-Canet in Southern France by Cliff Kolber
© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All Rights Reserved.


One of the barrel rooms at Chateau Pontet-Canet. After transferring wines from the vats to these French oak barrels, they are stored for 16-20 months before bottling.

Photo of Cooperage, barrel-maker, at Chateau Margaux in Southern France by Doris Kolber

© 2012 Doris Kolber. All rights reserved.


Chateau Margaux is one of the few wineries in the world that has its own cooperage. This cooper, or barrel-maker, can assemble up to three barrels in a day. But his primary value to the Chateau is in the maintenance and repair of existing barrels.

Photo of worker at Chateau Margaux racking the barrels in Southern France by Cliff Kolber
© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All rights reserved.


A worker at Chateau Margaux is in the process of racking wines from a recent vintage. Racking is the process of siphoning wine into a new barrel in order to separate the wine from the sediments an old yeast (the “lees”) that settle at the bottom of the barrel.

Vintage 2011 Chateau Margaux wine barrel photo by Cliff Kolber

© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All rights reserved.


Vintage 2011 Chateau Margaux wine in the process of being aged for two years in a barrel made of French oak. All of the barrels at Chateau Margaux are new (never used) and made of oak harvested from the Troncais Forest in France.

Photo of the Oak Vat Room at Chateau Pontet-Canet in Southern France by Doris Kolber
© 2012 Doris Kolber. All rights reserved.


The Oak Vat Room at Chateau Pontet-Canet where the wines are stored for fermentation. The wines from these oak vats will be blended with the wines in concrete vats to create one of the highest quality wines in Bordeaux.

Tasting rooms in Bordeaux can be pretty interesting and eclectic. That’s where the Chateau has a chance to show off its wines, its history, awards and lineage. The tasting rooms we encountered ranged from very formal with heavy, antique furniture and boardroom type settings down to simple, informal settings in the entry area of the Chateau.

Photo of tour guide pouring a glass of Chateau Margaux in Southern France by Cliff Kolber
© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All Rights Reserved.


Our guide is pouring a glass of vintage 2008 Chateau Margaux. It is one of the most well recognized Chateaux in Bordeaux and was built in the early 1800’s and is located in the middle of the vineyards and winery buildings. It is still being used as a private residence today.

The display of the wines and glasses in the tasting room sometimes present interesting and unique compositions. Shoot the wine bottles or glasses close-up, especially if the name of the Chateau is on the glasses. Once again, be very aware of the lighting even without flash. Because the bottles and glasses are made out of glass, they reflect significant light, so you need to be careful about hot spots and reflections. Move around and adjust your position until the least amount of light is reflecting off the bottle or glass you are shooting. For an action scene, photograph the guide as he or she pours the wines.

Photo of the tasting room at La Mission Haut-Brion in Southern France by Cliff Kolber
© 2012 Cliff Kolber. All rights reserved.


The tasting room at La Mission Haut-Brion, one of the Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux. The furniture and artwork are antique, hundreds of years old. Unfortunately we were not offered a taste of wine from each of the glasses on the table.


Photographing wineries requires a degree of patience, concentration and an uncluttered, clear mind. You’ll get plenty of chances to shoot and experiment, but as the day goes on and the tastings proceed, the mind might become a little less clear and a little more cluttered! You’ll definitely have fun though, and an amazing experience. So if you have the opportunity to visit Bordeaux, you will be in a very special place in the world to create an amazing portfolio.

Story by Cliff Kolber
Photography by Cliff Kolber and Doris Kolber

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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