Bordeaux, a History

In August I made my second ever presentation to the North East Wine Tasting Society (after a successful look at German wines back in 2011) with a selection of wines from arguably the most famous wine region of them all, Bordeaux. I make no claims to be a Bordeaux expert, truth be told I hardly ever buy the region’s wines for personal consumption as I don’t trust the extreme variation in quality and price (not necessarily linked) in Supermarkets and wine shops. Yes, I’ve had some good ones, but I’ve also had some dire examples and it’s not always easy to spot which is which. However, even with all my reluctance to buy, Bordeaux’s influence and ubiquitous presence across the wine world is such that currently it still makes up over 8% of my cellar (rising to 12.5% if you include the last 2 years drinking).

In preparation for the tasting I not only researched the back stories of the various estates whose wines I was showing, but also of the region as a whole, both to improve my (lack of) knowledge of the Bordelais and also to fill out the evening itself. The wines and their reception will be posted shortly but here I set the scene with a potted history of Bordeaux across the Millennia which, while familiar to many, hopefully contains enough to keep novice and enthusiast alike interested.

The area around the Gironde Estuary, where the rivers Garonne and Dordogne meet, shows traces of human settlement as far back as 35,000-10,000 BC and the region was heavily populated by the time of the Roman occupation when Augustus created the province of Aquitania in 27 BC. The Romans prized the local grape Vitis biturica (named for the Bituriges-Cubi tribe) – possibly an ancestor of Cabernet Sauvignon (& more directly of Carmenère). The Aquitanian (as opposed to Celtic) settlement of Burdigala was later to become Bordeaux, although whether this influenced the name or, as some claim, it is from “au bord de l’eau” – “the water’s edge” – who knows?

The first large vineyards were on the right bank of the Gironde since most of the “left bank” & current Médoc vineyards were a swamp and remained so for the next 1,500 years. The maritime climate and location on the 45th parallel provided for temperate winters and long warm summers, perfect conditions for growing grapes. The export of Gallic wines to Rome was in such quantities that, in 60 AD, Italian vine-growers asked the authorities act and by Imperial decree half of the vineyard of Gaul were uprooted, but they rapidly increased again. During the 4th Century, in Aquitaine, the Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius (Decimus Magnus Ausonius, 310-363 AD, born in Burdigala) claimed that “the Glory of Bordeaux and its universal fame comes from its wines”. Like Montesquieu, the French philosopher who lived fourteen centuries later, Ausonius was just as proud of his vineyard as his writings and his name lives on with the St. Emilion flagship estate Château Ausone (as does another Roman, Figeacus, in Château Figeac).

Little is recorded of Aquitaine in the early Medieval period except as a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella, with monasteries across the area, most famously at St. Émilion – religion and wine production are closely linked across Europe at this time so it is safe to assume the region continued where the Romans left off. Bordeaux’s destiny was sealed in 1152 with the marriage of Aliénor, Duchess of Aquitaine, to Henry Plantagenet (who became Henry II of England) after a failed marriage to King Louis VII of France.

Aquitaine and Poitou became part of the English crown and Bordeaux especially prospered until the end of the Hundred Years War when Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, lost the Battle of Castillon in 1453. During that time the English cemented their love affair with light bodied Clairet (locally used to describe a dark rosé) which became “Claret” to the English export market; mainly wines from Graves, St. Émilion, Entre deux Mers and Blaye. Although more wine was being produced further inland, including Bergerac and the “Black wines” from Cahors, trade was controlled through the port of Bordeaux with (unfair) export and tax restrictions – the Police des Vins – favouring local production, so often wines from the outside areas were never sold or spoiled. Trade to England reached as much as 40,000 tonneaux a year (1,000 tonneaux is approximately equal to 1 million bottles).

Now part of France it was in the 17th Century that Bordeaux jumped forward significantly. In 1599 King Henri IV hired Dutch engineers to drain the Médoc marshland revealing the gravel and mineral rich soils which were perfect for the ever expanding vineyard, at the same time helping to supplement a large export market back home in the Netherlands. Not that the Graves was suffering, as in 1663 Samuel Pepys mentions Ho Bryan (Haut Brion, Pessac-Léognan) in his diaries, the first written mention of a wine “brand”. Haut Brion dates back at least as far as 1533 when Maison Noble d’Aubrion was acquired by the Pontac family – a name that springs up frequently in the region.

The 18th and early 19th Century was a time of French colonial trade as export to England fell to 10% due to almost constant war between the imperial nations. The first commercial bordelaise-shaped bottles appeared at this time and the spread of vineyards in the Médoc increased dramatically. This was recognised in 1855 when history was set in stone due to the Paris Exposition. A list of the best Bordeaux wines (determined by price) was drawn up for Emperor Napoleon III by local brokers and all but one (Haut-Brion) were from the Médoc, now the powerhouse of the region despite its relatively late start compared to the Graves and Right bank. The 1855 Classification is so ingrained in Bordeaux psyche that in 150 years there has only been one change to the  lists, when Château Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to First Growth status in 1973.

But this is also when things started to go wrong. The industrial revolution and free trade agreements brought an age of prosperity for the vine-growers but trade, especially with America, also brought disease and in the early 1850s Oïdium (Powdery mildew) decimated production. Sulphur treatment was quickly identified as a cure, but then Phylloxera arrived from the U.S. in 1869 and from 1875 to 1892 almost all the Bordeaux (and European) vineyards were ruined, especially as Downy mildew hit in 1882 at the height of the plague. By 1888, when copper sulphate was identified as the Downey mildew cure (in “bouillie bordelaise” – bordelaise porridge) enough damage had been done to affect the area for the next 60 years with many families forced to sell up.

Bordeaux replanted using the new technique of grafting onto American rootstock (Vitis aestivalis) to defeat phylloxera, some quicker than others (Haut-Bailly still has about 4ha of ungrafted vines dating from before 1907). Slowly, interrupted by 2 world wars and a depression, the area started to recover, with the hard frosts of 1956 the last major disaster for the region. Bordeaux today is France’s largest wine growing area at over 120,000 hectares – 1.5 times the size of the Rhône and 5 times larger than Burgundy. At the start of the 20th Century more white grapes than red were planted producing an ocean of dry to semi-dry wine usually labelled Bordeaux blanc, Entre-Deux-Mers or Graves. After World War II growers began shifting to red varieties, with most people thinking of Cabernet Sauvignon, even though it is only planted on 26% of the total area. Merlot is actually the most common, dominant in right-bank blends and a large component of left-bank ones, with Cabernet Franc, Malbec (Côt), Carmenère and Petit Verdot used to a lesser degree. Assuming a planting density of 6000 vines per ha (some properties will plant 8000 or even 10000 vines per ha) the region’s 120,000 ha are home to at least 720 million vines, with 10,000 producers making over 700 million bottles.

In an attempt to improve, or at least regulate, quality the first guidelines for wine origin were established in France in 1911, with the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) formed in 1935 to manage the formal AOC system. In Bordeaux the the C.I.V.B. (Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux) was set up in 1948 who, together with 18 winemakers’ associations, coordinate the quality regulations and promotion of the 54 regional appellations (57 before Côtes de Bordeaux became official). Today, 98% of Bordeaux production is AOC – although many argue that changing techniques and climate mean such stringent regulations are archaic. Classifications were also brought in for the Graves, the Médoc Cru Bourgeois and St. Emilion – not without controversy.

With increased inheritance taxes in the early 1980s the trend of ownership moved from family to corporate and in the past 20 years the number of winegrowers has halved and the average size of estate has increased, from 5 ha in 1987 to almost 13 ha in 2007. Increased investment has led to prosperity, at least for the top Château, and allowed new technology, renovation in the cellar, better selection, new oak etc. to create arguably the best wines in the world.

Sadly all we hear about now is the next vintage of the century, the Chinese buying up wines (and properties) and the soaring prices – even the second wines of some estates are beyond the reach of most. Meanwhile, quality and prices vary so much amongst the vast number of lesser estates that the average consumer often hasn’t a clue on what they are buying when they see “Bordeaux” on the label. This may help explain why there was not a single Bordeaux wine on show at the recent 2012 Northumbria Food & Wine Festival in Corbridge. For me it means I tread warily when buying from the region, so it was with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity that I put together the NEWTS tasting and which prompted this condensed history lesson.

Salut!

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