In response to my last column “Bordeaux: Something for everyone” that discussed my experience at the recent Union des Grands Cru de Bordeaux tasting in San Francisco, I received many questions and comments about the area and its history along with several on the wines themselves.
From these responses, I realized that though many wine consumers are familiar with the great wines of Bordeaux, most are unfamiliar with its storied history and the intricate complexity of its vineyard resources.
Bordeaux’s history spans two millennia dating to when vines were first planted in Roman times. For several centuries, the wines produced were mainly for domestic market and to quench the soldiers’ thirst. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the vineyards suffered many setbacks continuing through the 5th century when things began to stabilize under Frankish rule and stayed so for the next several centuries.
But dramatic growth did not return until the Middle Ages.
The marriage of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the mid-12th century opened the Bordeaux region to the English market and eventually to the world’s stage. Trade with England became the foundation of Bordeaux exports until the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England in 1337 lasting to 1453 when France re-conquered the area. All through this dark period, England turned to Portugal for her wines and a strong relationship was built that continues today with a great English footprint throughout the prestigious Douro region and production of the prestigious Port wines.
The city of Bordeaux is located on the Gironde Estuary and has been an active seaport for centuries with the wine trade leading the way. Just last year, the long-anticipated and ultra-modern Cité du Vin opened its doors at the entrance to the port of Bordeaux celebrating the global culture and living heritage of wine.
According to Sylvie Cazes, president of the sponsoring Foundation for the Culture and Civilisations of Wine, “Cité du Vin will offer a trip through time and space to discover the world’s wine civilizations.” A lofty goal that has seen great success since its opening in June 2016.
The Gironde River separates the two faces of Bordeaux where soil type, elevation and exposure have over the centuries dictated the preferred varietals to ensure optimal quality. On the Right Bank you will find the celebrated areas of St. Emillion and Pomerol where cabernet franc and merlot are the varietals of choice. On the Left Bank lies the Médoc with its several highly esteemed appellations where the emphasis is on cabernet sauvignon.
Still on the Left Bank, but to the south of the city, merlot and cabernet sauvignon become more equal partners in the Graves and Pessac-Léognan for the reds with sauvignon blanc and semillion for the highly acclaimed whites. And farther south, the same white varietals find a home for the luscious sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
Emperor Napoleon III requested a formal classification of the best wines of Bordeaux where they would be on display for visitors from around the world at the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris. Brokers ranked the wines from First to Fifth Growths according to each château’s reputation and price, which at the time related to quality. The formal 1855 Classification remains in effect today with only three changes since its inception, including the elevation of Château Mouton Rothschild from Second to First Growth in 1973.
But the classification of 61 red wines included only those châteaux from the Médoc plus Château Haut-Brion from Graves (now Pessac-Léognan). There was also a lesser known three-tier classification of the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes but no mention of the wines from the Right Bank. Since that time, St. Emillion has adopted its own classification system that (unlike the 1855 Classification) is reviewed every 10 years often resulting in legal challenges by châteaux that were either demoted or eliminated.
A few years ago, my wife Barbara and I spent several days touring Bordeaux while enjoying memorable visits at nine of the region’s most venerable châteaux on both the Left and Right Banks. Being a long-time lover and collector of Bordeaux, I was enthralled with the wines we tasted. But the history, culture and architecture of this magnificent area really captured for me a sense of Bordeaux’s true essence.
Bordeaux is a land where the old and new are coming together by combining cutting-edge technology in the winery and vineyard while maintaining an unwavering respect for both history and tradition. On the world stage it’s the wine that defines Bordeaux, but in the greater picture there is so much more to appreciate and enjoy.