It’s really worthwhile shining the spotlight on Bordeaux as a wine region once in a while. It really does have it all: some of the most interesting and complex history; a very complex trade infrastructure; and above all else, some of the best and most expensive wines in the world.
Bordeaux as a wine region is steeped in history. From the earliest recorded sign of vines in the region from a poem by Ausonius in 300AD, to the modern day where the top wines can be sold for tens of thousands of pounds.
Le Grand Coutume
One of the most relevant historical occurrences to us was the decision by King John to give the Bordeaux residents exemption from the Grand Coutume – an export tax on all ships leaving Bordeaux. This was a tactic of King John’s to get the locals of his inherited land onside. Along with some favourable and accommodating treatment of the Bordelaise in London, King John’s mission was achieved and as a result of the good relationship between England and Bordeaux, the streets of London were running red with claret! Despite the odd war between Britain and France and a few trade embargos, Britain continued to be a very important customer of Bordeaux wine.
Draining the marshy Medoc
The Medoc sub region of Bordeaux is home to four of the five premier cru classé châteaux. Believe it or not, wine production in the Medoc is relatively modern. I stress ‘relatively’. It was in the 17th century that the Dutch implemented their new drainage technology to drain the Medoc, which was previously unused marshland. And the rest, as they say, is history.
1855 Medoc classification system
It can be hard enough nowadays knowing what you’re buying as a wine consumer. Especially in France where it’s often the case that you’d need to know the château names to know the quality they offer. Classification systems on the whole help to demystify this as they are, to some extent, a guarantee of quality. It was in 1855 that Napolean III requested there be a classification system in Bordeaux, which was (and still is) such a prolific producer. The brokers of the region ranked in importance the major châteaux (all bar one from Medoc – Chateau Haut-Brion) based on reputation and the prices they commanded from the marketplace. With the exception of Château Mouton-Rothschild (promoted to 1er cru in 1973), there have been no amendments since and these wines, grouped into five categories from 1st to 5th growths (“1er to 5eme cru”) continue to command some of the world’s steepest prices in the modern era.
The word that strikes fear into the hearts of the Bordelaise. This is the name of the Aphid that ran Europe’s vines ragged in the late 1870s. It spread throughout Europe and Bordeaux was hit as hard as anyone. American rootstocks are resistant to the pest and so the vast majority of vines you see in Europe today have been grafted onto American rootstock to avoid any such tragedy happening again.
Also known as ‘futures’, this is the buying system famous in Bordeaux that’s often used for the region’s top wines. This is where the customer buys the wine before it’s even released. It came about in 1970s when the Amercian market wanted to secure its allocation of Bordeaux and were willing to pay up front. This was accommodated by the cash-flow conscious châteaux and the system remains in place today.
The lay of the land
As mentioned above, Medoc used to be marshland only four centuries ago. It didn’t take long after the Dutch drained it for the region to realise its potential as a wine growing region. Nowadays, four of the top five Bordeaux châteaux live here – les premiers crus classés. They go by the names of:
– Château Margaux
– Château Mouton Rothschild
– Château Lafite Rothschild
– Château Latour
The fifth, Château Haut-Brion, you’ll find further south in Graves.
Medoc is on the left bank of the Gironde estuary and is famous for its gravel soils. It is said that the gravel retains the heat from the day and radiates it at night, helping the grapes to ripen. These are perfect conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the predominant variety of Medoc. There are also plantings of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and some Malbec. Merlot can often be used as a ‘safe bet’ as it ripens much more reliably than Cab, giving the grower a fall-back option.
The southernmost of the key Bordeaux wine regions, Graves is famous also for its gravelly soils (hence the name). Another suitable habitat for Cabernet Sauvignon, but this region is the only one famous also for its white wine. Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends dominate, and with some oak-ageing relatively common, these wines can potentially age beautifully too.
Formerly the northern part of Graves before it was afforded its own classification in 1987 on merit. The most important thing to know about this region is that it’s home to the fifth premier cru classé château – Haut-Brion. This is also the most urban region surrounded by the southern suburbs of Bordeaux city.
A very pretty village on the right bank of the river and very famous for its Merlot-driven red wines. Saint-Émilion the wine region houses some of the world’s most expensive wines along with Medoc, including the likes of Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone, the latter demonstrating the diversity on offer here too with its wine led by Cabernet Franc, another variety that thrives here. It’s the extra clay in the soil that helps Merlot and Cabernet Franc of this region worthy of its world-class status.
Pomerol, the neighbouring region to Saint-Émilion, has become a household name these days in the context of fine wine. Rewind 120 years or so and that notion would’ve surprised most. Its vineyards were abandoned during the Hundred Years War (14th/15th century) and despite resumption in production thereafter, it took until the 19th century for its wines to be recognised again. While Britain was the Left Bank’s biggest customer, the Right Bank wines were normally northbound for Paris, Belgium and Holland. And Pomerol is where you’ll find Château Petrus, another of the world’s bank-breaking reds!
Literally translated as ‘between two seas’ which gives quite an accurate description of its geographical positioning. Entre-deux-Mers sits on the land where the river Gironde splits in two (the Dordogne and the Garonne). It’s one of Bordeaux’s bigger regions and is the main source of Bordeaux AOC, the entry level end of classified Bordeaux, meaning there’s some great value to be found here. And mainly red too, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, since most growers changed their vines from white varieties in the 60s and 70s.
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