From Ancient Roman vineyards to one of the biggest wine regions in the world, we take a look at the history of Bordeaux wine and how it has become the impressive producer of wine it is today!
What is Bordeaux Wine?
The term Bordeaux Wine refers to wine that has been made in the region of Bordeaux in France. Predominantly producing red wines, more than 90 percent of Bordeaux wine is created using Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Almost all of these wines will be blends. The famous red Bordeaux blend includes Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère! Wines made in this region tend to be medium to full-bodied, with notes of dark fruits, such as plums and black currants. Bordeaux wines are ideal for ageing, as they tend to have higher levels of tannins, meaning that they can be left for several decades!
The Beginnings of Bordeaux
The history of Bordeaux wine begins around the year 60BC when ancient Romans took over the Bordeaux area. Planting vineyards and cultivating the grapes, wine began to be produced there by the Romans. Bordeaux was the perfect spot for this based on a number of factors. Firstly, the conditions were ideal, with the exact soil types and climate required to grow some incredible tasting grapes. Secondly, Bordeaux is located in a prime position for trading with the rest of the world, as the Garonne and Gironde rivers made shipping off the bottles easier!
By the 1st Century AD, Bordeaux was beginning to become renowned for its wine, with documents discovered across Western Europe mentioning it at this time. The Roman link lives on in Bordeaux to this day, with the remains of many buildings located in the grounds of several vineyards in the region, particularly in St. Emilion.
The Royal Wedding
One of the next biggest moments in the history of Bordeaux wine is the union of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet, who would later become King Henry II. At their wedding, in 1152, Bordeaux wine was served, thus forging a link between the drink and their royal family. As the marriage put Aquitaine, which included Bordeaux, under British control, wine began to be exported in exchange for other goods.
Several of their children, and future Kings, were also big fans of Bordeaux wine, with Richard the Lionheart said to drink the wine every day. During their reign, much was done to increase the popularity of Bordeaux wine across the world, with King John abolishing the export tax to England from the French region, allowing the production and reach to grow.
Trading with The Netherlands
The next major advancement in the history of Bordeaux wine is the development of roads to connect the wine to Dutch buyers. Many wines at this time did not last for more than a year, meaning that it was essential to transport the bottles as quickly as possible. A quicker export time would also allow for better value.
The Dutch were responsible for effectively reshaping the whole of the Bordeaux region in an attempt to make distribution easier. During the 1600s, much of the land in the Bordeaux region was swampy, making it unusable for growing vines. The Dutch were able to come up with a way of draining this land, producing more space for grapes to be grown and a more direct route for distribution. This area is now known as the Medoc.
Political Tensions Halt Trade
The start of the 18th century saw a series of political struggles slowing down the trade of wine. The Spanish Succession War, for one, was making trade across the English Channel particularly challenging. Official trade between France and England was halted due to tensions between the countries, but wine historians have noted that unofficial trade was still well underway, as bottles of Bordeaux were popping up at auction houses across Britain for wealthy wine lovers to get their hands on.
Business is Booming in the 18th Century
As the 18th century went on, the wine business in Bordeaux was massive, with so many vineyards spread throughout the region that the area had to be further split up for categorisation purposes. In 1725, specific areas and districts were formed so that wine drinkers were able to discover exactly where the wine they were buying was from. Together, the region was known as the Vignoble de Bordeaux. At this time, many wealthy landowners began to build their own Chateaux in the region, in order to plant extensive vineyards to get in on the expanding wine business.
1855 Classification of Bordeaux Wine
Another key moment in wine history is the classification system that was put in place in 1855. This classification ranked the wines from the Medoc region, allowing consumers across the world to identify which were the very best. Since the classification was put together, more than 160 years ago, only one modification has been made, when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted to First Growth status. Having stood the test of time, with only one major change, it really shows that the classification was well thought-through at the time. Being ranked from First Growth through to Fifth Growth, the First category will be the best of the best wines and will have the higher price tag.
Known as the Great French Wine Blight, a disastrous Phylloxera infestation singlehandedly destroyed much of the incredible progress made in Bordeaux at the end of the 19th-Century. The tiny insects devoured and destroyed the vines, ruining much of the crop. Luckily, a solution was found by grafting American rootstock, which was resistant to the bugs. Prior to the epidemic, Malbec and Petit Verdot had taken up large plots of the vineyard land, but they did not take as well to the grafting process as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Therefore, following this time, these three varietals became the dominant grape types grown in the region.
The Great French Wine Blight also led to fewer vines being planted in each vineyard. Before, there would be around 20,000 vines per hectare growing, whereas now this has halved, with 10,000 vines or fewer in the same space.
Much of the 20th-century proved challenging for Bordeaux. The World Wars in the first half of the century more or less put a stop to sales, and owners were running low on funds to keep their vineyards going. While the 1920s saw some great vintages, many of which are still in demand today, the financial situation in following decades caused many smaller vineyards to stop production. More economic troubles came in the 1970s, when the 1972 vintage was priced so ridiculously high that it caused the entire Bordeaux market to crash! Even when prices were halved, consumers still refused to pay for the bottles.
Luckily, help came in the form of the 1982 vintage and the writings of wine critic Robert Parker, whose high praise of this particular wine caused the industry to boom once more.
Today, Bordeaux remains the most popular and desired wines in the world and is number one on the list of all collectors. With so many incredible collectable bottles and vintages to age, Bordeaux wines absolutely dominate wine auctions.
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Image Credit: Colin