Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Bordeaux Wine History

Wine making in Bordeaux goes back into the mists of time. The Bordeaux region is the largest and oldest fine wine vineyard in the world, covering more than 284,000 acres of vines in 57 appellations. Tradition has it that wine making dates back to the 1st century AD when the Bituriges Vivisques, a Gaulish people from Burdigala (the Roman name for Bordeaux), planted Biturica vines on the banks of the Garonne. Biturica is the ancestor of today’s Cabernet Sauvignon, thought to be originally from Albania. Pliny recorded that vines were grown in Bordeaux in 71 AD. The Biturica grapevine was resistant colder winters and Bordeaux's oceanic climate and soil were ideal, and thus, the city’s most identifiable roots were planted 2,000 years ago.

The first author to mention that wine was grown in his native Bordeaux was the 4th century Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius and it is believed that Château Ausone in Saint Emilion stands upon the foundations of his villa Lucaniac.

Unlike most areas of France, where the Church developed and controlled the wine, the merchant class traditionally was at the centre of the Bordeaux wine trade. Perhaps this is due to its location near a port which made for easier commerce. The ancient port of Bordeaux is called the Port de la Lune (the Port of the Moon) due to the enormous curve of the river in the city centre. The Port de la Lune unites the heart of the city around its crescent shape - which inspired the Bordeaux coat of arms and the estuary is amongst the largest in Europe.

Bordeaux's wine trade took off on the 12th century when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II bringing Bordeaux with her as part of her dowry. Eleanor brought with her a taste for Bordeaux wines and before long galleons were shipping barrels of wine to and fro the Channel. In fact there was so much wine shipped that the weight of a ships cargo became measured by the number of wine barrels (tonneaux) it could hold - giving rise to our word “ton”.

Graves was the largest producer of wines back then, with Château Pape Clement as its oldest named vineyard. In 1305 Archbishop Bertrand de Goth, who was to become Pope Clement V, presented it to the see of Bordeaux.

The wines from Bordeaux at this period in time were much paler than the red wines of today as the result of a short fermentation, usually of no more than 1 or 2 days. As soon as the wine was fermented, it was run off into barrels, so the grape skins (which contain the colour and tannins) were left only a short time in contact with the juice. These wines didn't last long, and were usually drunk very quickly. Such wines exported from Bordeaux were known as Clairet, which is the French for “clear” and this is where our word claret comes from. Originally all clarets were clairets and the English adored them.

In the 17th century, after the Aquitaine returned to French ownership, the Dutch became the main importers of Bordeaux wines. The Dutch brought improvements to the wine making techniques of the region which made longer fermentation and ageing possible. Dutch engineers drained the marshes so that vineyards could be planted and clarets began to be produced in the Graves and on the sands and gravels of the Médoc to the north west of Bordeaux. The wines were "black" (or darkly coloured) red wines that we recognise today.

In 1663 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“Off the Exchange with Sir J. Cutler and Mr. Grant to the Royall Oake Taverne in Lombard-street . . . And here drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most perticular taste that I never met with.”

This wine was none other than Chateau Haut Brion made in Graves, by Arnaud de Pontac, first President of the Bordeaux Parlement. Three years later in 1666, Arnaud de Pontac sent his son to London, where he opened a restaurant, grocers and tavern named the Sign of Pontac’s Head, and here he introduced his claret to the fashionable elite of London society.

In 1725, the spread of vineyards throughout Bordeaux was so vast that it was divided into specific areas so that the consumer could tell exactly where each wine was from. The collection of districts was known as the Vignoble de Bordeaux, and bottles were labelled with both the region and the area from which they originated.

In 1855 the Emperor Napoleon III organised the Exposition Universelle de Paris to showcase the best of all that was France, hoping to surpass the one in London. The exhibition was an elaborate vehicle for boosting trade, and wine was just a small part of it. For the Exposition, Napoleon III requested a classification system for France's best Bordeaux wines which were to be on display for visitors from around the world. Brokers from the wine industry ranked the wines according to a château's reputation and trading price. In their view, the market (which was mainly British) had already determined which Bordeaux wines were best, and the classifications needed to reflect the market's judgement. The result was the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. Although intended as a listing for the show, and nothing more than that, the classification stuck fast and now appears to be with us for the rest of eternity.

From 1875-1892 almost all Bordeaux vineyards were ruined by Phylloxera infestations. The region's wine industry was rescued by grafting native vines on to pest-resistant American rootstock. As Phylloxera is native to the east coast of the United States, the native American vine species generally evolved with resistance.

In the 20th century the rapidly expanding wine industry created the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) whose mission was, and still is, to ensure the quality of wine. Today, 97% of Bordeaux wines are very successfully marketed according to AOC standards. This mission of improving quality brought the whole industry to a higher level with the creation of new classifications (Saint Émilion in 1955) and the appearance of new AOC's (Pessac Léognan in 1987).

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