Le Dôme winery is tucked away in Saint-Émilion, a medieval village near Bordeaux in the south-west of France. A patchwork of stone cottages, cobbled streets, Romanesque churches and world-famous wineries, the Unesco World Heritage Site might be home to just a few thousand residents, but it is a leading destination for discerning oenophiles. 

The owner of Le Dôme, Jonathan Maltus, an Englishman born in Nigeria, moved to Saint-Émilion in the 1990s. It was a radical period when a group of winemakers known as the Garagistes were ripping up the rulebook on how to make traditional red Bordeaux wines. Avoiding lengthy ageing processes and tannic flavours, the makers created limited runs of full-bodied, fruitier reds in small-scale – or ‘garage-sized’ – production areas. Maltus’ Le Dôme wine came about in 1996 and, after much critical acclaim, reached cult status among the cognoscenti; even today, bottles of it are hard to acquire.

e Dome winery in France
Spanning 40m, the building’s dome-shaped roof features a central 6m-wide skylight that allows natural light to flood into the building, where a circular atrium lets visitors look down onto the wine production and storage spaces

More people will now be granted an insight into the realm of Le Dôme with the completion of its state-of-the-art winery by Foster + Partners. This is the third winemaking facility that the global studio has worked on in France (the first was Faustino Winery, and the second Château Margaux, was completed in 2015), but it is designed to specifically pay homage to the charming locale.

‘When Jonathan Maltus first approached us, he expressed a desire to create a distinctive new winery set against the unique backdrop of Saint-Émilion. He wanted the building to be a celebration of the beautiful site, focusing on the views of the vineyard and making the landscape the primary protagonist in the design,’ explains Norman Foster. 

Foster’s French winery immitates the rolling hills with its domed roof
The building has been partially embedded into the ground to minimise its visual impact on the Unesco-protected landscapes

‘We also had to have extremely fruitful discussions with local heritage authorities, who commented that the building should make a positive contribution to the area by blending in with the landscape.’ Set towards the end of a tree-lined avenue, the winery features a sloping roof meant to imitate the gently undulating form of the site’s terrain. Beneath is a ring-shaped volume that has a wide panel of glazing wrapped around its circumference, allowing visitors and staff inside to have unrestricted 360-degree views of the surrounding vineyards. This volume has also been partially embedded into the ground to minimise the building’s visual impact on the landscape, and better its thermal mass performance.

Access to the winery is via a curving ramp that sits on the exterior of the building, further accentuating its connection with the outdoors. Internally there is a second ramp that winds its way through the winery’s two floors. The ground level is dedicated to wine production and storage, while the first floor is what Foster + Partners describes as the ‘social heart’ of the building, featuring entertaining areas, a wine bar and tasting tables. At the centre of the plan is a cavernous circular atrium, which means those on the winery’s upper level can look down and catch glimpses of the winemakers at work. The entire space is bathed in natural light streaming from a 6m-wide oculus set directly above, in the roof.

detail of the oculus at Le Dome winery
The decagonal oculus sits at the centre of the roof, which is made up of mutually supporting oak beams arranged in a reciprocal structure

With their abundance of stainless-steel machinery, winemaking facilities can sometimes appear as somewhat cold, industrial spaces, but contrastingly Le Dôme winery is imbued with warmth and tactility. The base of the building, for instance, is made from concrete mixed with locally sourced stone aggregate. This has then been clad with panels of local oak, in a subtle nod to the barrels sometimes used to ferment varieties of wine. The same aggregate has been used in the winery’s interior to fashion terrazzo-like flooring on the upper level; furnishings here are also crafted from oak and upholstered in earth-tone leather.

‘The building uses local materials to reduce carbon emissions related to transport, while also embodying the spirit of the place,’ adds Foster. ‘The warm palette of materials and the fluid interior spaces blur the boundaries between workspaces and tasting areas, creating a welcoming space.’ Oak has also been used on the underside of the winery’s terracotta-clad roof. Spanning 40m in width, it has a twisting, reciprocal structure made up of mutually supporting beams. As no columns are required to bolster it, the floor plan can remain open, allowing staff to work in a more collaborative manner, much like the Garagistes did.

both the oak roof overhang and façade cladding at Foster’s winery in France
The oak roof overhang and façade cladding

In the sphere of winemaking, the term ‘terroir’ refers to how particular elements of an environment such as soil type, climate or topography can affect the character and flavour of wine grapes grown there. In the case of this winery, the environment has had as much influence on the design of the building as it has on the produce. The resulting architecture is therefore much like bottles of Le Dôme – a rarity.  §

wine tasting hall at Le Dome winery
The wine tasting hall at Le Dome
the landscape around Le Dome winery
The winery sits in a landscape of vineyards and gentle rolling hills