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Bordeaux History

History & Geography of Bordeaux

Examine the history of many of Europe's wine regions and you will find a vinous story that stretches back centuries, or indeed millennia. There are wine press-houses on the banks of the Mosel, for example, that date from the time of the Roman Empire. Many of the vineyards there have been tended by monastic orders for well over a thousand years, and the same can be said of Burgundy, where some sites had been under the tenure of Cistercian and Benedictine orders for eight centuries when they were confiscated during the Revolution at the end of the 18th Century.

Bordeaux, however, is often regarded differently; many that buy and drink its wines are aware that the Médoc was drained by Dutch engineers only in the 17th Century, thus opening up the famous gravel ridges of the peninsula to viticulture, and it is easy to assume that this was the beginning of Bordeaux as a region.

A few, however, realize that Bordeaux has a more ancient history.

Although there is very little hard evidence on the beginning of viticulture around the area, it does seem that the Romans cultivated the vine here just as readily as they did in Burgundy or on the Mosel. The first mention of wine and the vine in the region is ascribed to Ausonius, a 4th Century poet after whom the estate of Ausone in St Emilion is named. It seems likely however, that the first vines were planted here much earlier than this reference suggests, although there is no evidence to support this assumption.

There is also little information regarding viticulture in the years that followed, and it is not until the 12th century that we begin to see a more complete picture of how the vine was coming to dominate Bordeaux. At this point a number of the regions identified today, particularly Graves but also Blaye and Bourg, were already extensively planted, and some estates in the former, such as Pape-Clément, can trace their history back to these early days.

By the end of the century the region was under English rule, following the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, and trade was fostered by tax breaks granted to the French merchants. The effect was to reduce the cost of all goods shipped through the flourishing port to the eventual consumer, making the wines of Bordeaux the best priced in England. Unsurprisingly, demand for the wines was high.

Following the end of English rule in 1453 trade may have faltered a little, but it soon picked up again, and the British Isles remained important export markets for the merchants of Bordeaux. Despite heavy taxation of French products that was part of a trade war between England and France, and the Methuen Treaty of 1703 which favoured the import of wines from Portugal, wine remained a booming business, and when the aforementioned draining of the Médoc was completed it was not long before the wealthy bourgeoisie were buying up the land, planting extensive vineyards and building fine chateaux. Trade relations improved and many merchants, often originating from Germany, such as Eschenauer and Kressmann, and the British Isles, such as Barton and Johnston - still today all important names in the Bordeaux wine trade - settled in the region to deal with the business of securing and shipping wine to their relative export markets.

By the 19th century the left bank of Bordeaux was pretty much how we see it today, with the great vineyards of the Médoc in prime position, in what is today a seemingly immutable position following their positioning of the Classified Growths, a ranking drawn up by the merchants of Bordeaux at the behest of Napoleon III prior to the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1855.

Those of St Emilion and Pomerol were not held in such high regard, and it is only in more recent years that the wines of these regions have commanded comparable prices, or indeed been graced (or vexed?) with their own classification in 1955.

There have been great trials for Bordeaux since 1855, however, starting with oidium or powdery mildew, an imported American disease with some similarities to a peach affliction, a fact noted by an English gardener named Tucker who first described the disease in Europe and who rightly suggested that sulphur, which he used to treat his infected peach trees, would also be effective on the vine.

As the end of the 19th Century approached more imported diseases came to the fore, a consequence of the trade of plant specimens between the two continents; next on the list was phylloxera, and Bordeaux was just as cursed by this pest as any other region. Here the cure was not so simple, and as vineyard after vineyard succumbed to the infestation it eventually became apparent to all that grafting onto American rootstock was the only reliable solution. Other imports, most notably downy mildew and black rot, also swept the vineyards in the decades that followed. Then came war, economic depression and more war; and so it is of little surprise that so many of the profiles of Bordeaux properties on this site tell the same tale when looking back at the 20th Century.  For many it has been a process of regeneration, the restoration of dilapidated chateaux and the replanting of disorderly vineyards. 

Climate and Varieties

Bordeaux has a very temperate climate which is due to the moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean, an effect which reaches far inland thanks to the presence of the Gironde Estuary. The winter is generally mild and does little damage to the vines, there was an exception however with the 1956 vintage, when a severe winter frost killed many vines and as a consequence there was a widespread need for replanting in the years that followed.

Spring and autumn are also usually mild, whereas in recent years we have seen that the summers can be very hot, with the earliest harvest on record (and many French documents record centuries of data) being that in 2003.

Whether this global change in the climate is due to mankind's influence or natural variation is open to debate, but what is incontrovertible is that in recent years the ripening of the fruit in Bordeaux has become less of a concern, and it is only September rains, or midsummer storms, that threaten the livelihoods of the vignerons and chateau proprietors today.

What they harvest is principally Merlot, the most widely planted variety, although for many the classic image of Bordeaux is of an austere, ageworthy wine from the Médoc, which is far more likely to be dominated by Bordeaux's most exported grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon.

The only other player of any significance is Cabernet Franc, a fine variety which also dominates in Chinon and Bourgueil in the Loire, but in Bordeaux only a few estates, such as Cheval-Blanc, feature it. It is otherwise a to be found as part of a blend, often alongside Petit Verdot, and very rarely accompanied by Malbec. As for the white varieties, whether sweet or dry these are dominated by Sauvignon Blanc and then Semillon, with a little Muscadelle. Look closely and you may also find small areas planted to Ugni Blanc and Colombard.

Styles naturally vary, between commune and between region, but the best red wines have a fine structure of tannins and acidity that should frame an elegant body of fruit which will impress with balance and seamless integration rather than raw power.

The white wines vary from dry, as is typically of the Graves region, through to the many sweet wines of the region which are best represented by the chateaux of Sauternes and Barsac although there any many lesser appellations in Bordeaux producing a similar style. All are dependent on the development of noble rot, an effect of the fungus Botrytis cinerea.

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