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Bordeaux Wine: a (very) brief history

Bordeaux is a big name in the wine world. Famous for producing bold red wines fit for aging and sweet white wine, you would struggle to get far with learning about wine without coming across this region. But where did it all begin?

What do Malton and Bordeaux have in common?

Ok, so not a lot, but both places were home to the Roman empire at some point and although Malton didn't become a wine hotspot for the rest of time, Bordeaux certainly did. The Romans rocked up around 60 BC and by the 1st century AD, Bordeaux was getting a good rep for it's wine. This region, unlike Malton, had excellent grape growing soil (for the Biturica grape variety that was then popular and is potentially the ancestor of what we now know as Carménère) and easy access to a river (more like Malton) to ship the goods away. In fact there is evidence to suggest that Bordeaux wine made it's way to England at this time and fragments of pottery have been discovered at Pompeii that mention Bordeaux wine, so it really did get about. Wine production has continued in the region ever since.

Fast forward 1,000 years

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine

When I started working in the wine trade I didn't realise how quickly I would have the opportunity to bring together my love of the Plantagenet family and one of my favourite medieval heroines, with wine. But Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (look her up, she's a bit of an icon) are an important part of the Bordeaux story. When they married in 1152 Aquitaine, which includes the modern area of Bordeaux, came under English rule. Henry and Eleanor abolished the tariffs on wines coming into England and the Brits went nuts for the stuff. So much so that Bordeaux established a monopoly in the production, sale and distribution of wine to England. St Emilion, the oldest of Bordeaux's wine guilds, was founded in 1199 on the back of this success.

The 100 (and 16) year war

The flow of trade was stopped pretty abruptly by the Hundred Years' War which lasted from 1337 -1453 (so not 100 years at all...). Aquitaine was back in the hands of the French by 1453 and the importation of Bordeaux wines to England was off the cards. In 1475, Louis XI authorised British ships to return, but the golden age between England and Bordeaux was never restored.

Along come the Dutch

As the 17th century rolled in, it brought with it the emergence of new customers - the Dutch. The Dutch influenced the areas production towards the first fine wines, such as the famous 'Ho-Bryan' that would become Haut-Brion. With them they brought innovation, such as sterilising barrels with sulphur to facilitate the conservation and transportation of wine. But most importantly, they also drained the marshy Medoc and planted vineyards in this area. This allowed for a much larger area for growing grapes and also easier links to the river for transportation. Some of the most famous areas of Bordeaux, such as Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe are in existence due to this piece of Dutch ingenuity.

The Medoc

The 'Age of Enlightenment' to the 19th century

Another big name from the history books had their influence on Bordeaux wines. Thomas Jefferson visited Bordeaux in 1787. As wine lover and collector, he spoke widely of the quality of the wine and further enhanced the popularity of the region. This grew and grew and following the French Revolution and the First French Empire, Bordeaux's second golden age was afoot. The free trade agreement with England and the arrival of the railway in 1852 meant exporting the product was easier than ever. The golden age was crowned in 1855 when the first classification system was written. In a moment of pure imaginative excellence they named it, the 1855 classification system.

This classification consists of 60 Chateaux for red wine from the Medoc and one in Graves (Haut-Brion) and 27 Chateaux in Sauternes and Barsac for sweet wines. This is still used and has barely changed since it's inception.

Not all good things last

Whilst the early 19th century was a big party in Bordeaux, the second half was not so good. From 1875-1892 Phyllozera (an insect/pest) destroyed most of the vineyards in the region. In order to carry on making wine, vines were replanted using Vitis vinifera wines onto American vine rootstock. Prior to this epidemic, vineyards had large plantings of Petit Verdot and Malbec, but different grapes took differently to the grafting process. Now Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are much more common - simply because these were the grapes that thrived.

However, after they were back on their feet from one problem, two world wars came along, the great depression hit, American introduced their prohibition laws and there was extreme cold in 1956.

Bordeaux Today

After a rocky few years, the latter half of the 20th century saw the Bordeaux region steadily rise once

again. Robert Parker Jr. had a huge influence on the region's success after reviewing the 1982 vintage. This review put Bordeaux back on the map, particularly increasing the American interest in the area and on the back of this, there was a big increase in prices.

In the past few decades there has also been a shift to low yields, with only the best grapes being used to make the Grand Vin. Vineyard management is also better than ever, and with an increased knowledge of vines and soils, coupled with trends in organic farming, Bordeaux is producing fresher and cleaner wine.

As in many areas, the climate emergency is having a big impact on Bordeaux. Merlot has been the dominant grape in the region for many years, but this requires more moisture and slightly cooler conditions than other varieties. Therefore, there is a trend towards planting other grapes including new grape varieties that were approved for use in 2021 in Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior wines. These are well-adapted to alleviate the stress associated with temperature increases and shorter growing cycles. These varieties are:

  • 4 New Red Varieties: Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional

  • 2 New White Varieties: Alvarinho, Liliorila

The original grape varieties that these are added to are:

  • Red Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carménère, Petit Verdot

  • White Varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Semillon, Muscadelle, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Merlot Blanc and Mauzac.

Bordeaux is also adapting it's landscape - with more woods, forests and hedges being introduced, space is being given to animals and insects and there is a reduction in the chemicals being used.

In summary, Bordeaux is changing just as it has over the centuries. It needs to find new ways to deal with another crisis and what this looks like is still up for debate. But one thing is for certain, there will still be wine coming out of this region for many years to come.

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