Bordeaux is undoubtedly one of the best known and celebrated wine regions in the world, with the top wines fetching astronomically high prices in today’s market. The devoted torch is passed from generation to generation of wine drinker and each new year brings much excitement and discussion as to whether it is going to be the next great vintage. The region has become pillared by its annual vintage reports and first growth Châteaux, but behind these lie a nuanced and often forgotten history whereby Bordeaux was not always king and indeed, Bordeaux as we know it did not even exist. There is much pontification that occurs when talking about Bordeaux, so we thought it best to arm you with a brief history as to how this little pocket of land on the Atlantic coast came to be so coveted.
Much of what has made the region and its wines what they are today is the relationship between it and the English. Pivotal to this was the marriage, in 1152, between Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine which brought Gascony and most of Western France under English rule. This established strong trading ties between the two and definitely introduced a taste amongst the English for Bordelais produce. However, it was the decadently sweet wine from Bordeaux’s sub-region of Sauternes that was initially most celebrated and sought after. This historical alliance between Aquitaine and England continued for 300 years, and even once the area returned to French rule, the precedent had been set and the English were very much hooked on the Bordelaise nectar. Eventually, the shift in tastes occurred and people moved from the honeyed wine to a light red tipple from the area that was coined claret on account of its translucent red hue. As we know, the name claret has very much stuck, but the claret that we know today is far different to that of our ancestors.
Now, something quite remarkable took place in the region which would change the face of Bordeaux forever. Because, what is rather fascinating to know is that until 1650, Bordeaux’s left bank - officially known as the Medoc - was pretty much just a marshland. It took the Dutch to come in and flex their draining skills to transform the region. Finally, in 1690, Bordeaux’s most highly regarded estates of Lafite, Latour and Margaux were able to begin planting their vines. Once we arrive in the 1800s, things really seem to kick into gear with a rising middle class across Europe and England driving demand, reduced taxes on wines from France - then, just two pence a bottle. - and the controversial Classification of 1855 being initiated by Emperor Napoleon III in time for his Universal Exposition of Paris which would see all of the best wines of France displayed. Indeed, it is this classification that creates the backbone of Bordeaux today but at the time it was drawn up by a group of courtiers who “tried not to create an official ranking, but only offer you a sketch from the very best sources.” (Wine Spectator). Initially, this list was a mere whittling down of the Chateaux of Bordeaux for the huge festivities due to take place in Paris and perhaps not designed to stand the test of time and intense scrutiny.
Now, despite such promising advances, Bordeaux’s thriving position was not set to last. From the 1870s, the region went from one struggle to another; phylloxera destroyed most of their vineyards and then prohibition was introduced and a complicated time of war and communism ravaged their remaining markets. By the 1950s, they were holding on by the skin of their teeth. Lucky for us, the Bordelais are a resilient bunch and in 1955 they launched their classification system for Saint- Émilion, (yes, a different classification system to the rest of Bordeaux) which witnessed the rise in adulation for the right bank commune and its neighbour Pomerol. 1982 saw the birth of one of Bordeaux’s most legendary vintages which coincided with striking global affluence and prosperity. The now-famous en primeur market was born and the Bordeaux that we know and love today really came into being.
As well as an intricate history, Bordeaux is also somewhat of a complicated beast to get your head around. There are five permitted grapes in the region: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. However, over 90% of wines produced here are made from Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot. Bordeaux is then split in two and forms the Left Bank and the Right Bank. The Left Bank is known for its gravelly soils and graphite-driven red wines that are predominantly made from Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are celebrated for being bold, structured and with great ageing potential. The most prestigious sub-regions here are Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint–Estephe, Margaux and Pessac-Léognan. Meanwhile, the Right Bank is known for its red clay soils and Merlot-dominated blends that produce plummy and intense wines with more gentle tannins. Pomerol and Saint- Émilion very much lead the charge here.
To really hold your own when talking about Bordeaux, it is important to understand the two primary classification systems that are at play here. Firstly, the Crus Classés de Saint- Émilion that classifies the top quality producers in Saint- Émilion and is revisited every ten years. In 2012, 64 Châteaux were awarded the top ranking of Grands Crus Classés and this year will see the selection revised. Then we have the Crus Classes of 1855 which ranks the producers from 1-5 in the Médoc (Left Bank), Graves, Sauternes and Barsac. Bar one change in 1973 (taking Mouton-Rothschild into first growth), this classification has never been changed. When discussing which Châteaux are in the system, we use the word growth. For example, there are five first growth Châteaux in the Médoc - Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Haut Brion, and Château Mouton Rothschild.
Whether you love it, hate it or are indifferent to it, Bordeaux wine is a cornerstone of the wine world and understanding its cultural and historical importance is essential for any wine lover, albeit no small feat.