A Brief History of Bordeaux


Bordeaux Wine Guide & Bordeaux Regions

Examine the history of many of Europe’s wine regions and you will find a vinous story that stretches back centuries, in some cases 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 hundred years 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 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 ofBordeaux as a wine region of note. In truth, Bordeaux has a much more ancient story to tell, one that stretches back just as far as it does in any other region of Europe. Despite this ancient origin, exact detail on the beginning of viticulture around the Gironde and its two major tributaries, the Dordogne and the Garonne, is hard to come by. Nevertheless, evidence from the writings of notable historical figures indicate that the Romans were just as ready to cultivate the vine here in Bordeaux as they were in Burgundy, Germany and elsewhere.

The Romans: Ausonius

ausoniusOne such figure is Decimius Magnus Ausonius (pictured right, in a 16th-century interpretation by André Thévet), a Roman poet who is credited with the first mention of wine and the vine in Bordeaux. Ausonius was born in the region somewhere around AD 310; early on in his life he established a school of rhetoric and grammar here, where he taughtPaulinus, who later became Bishop of Nola. Having established a credible academic reputation, Ausonius was then summoned to Rome where he tutored a young Gratian, many years before he became Emperor of the Roman Empire. The teaching appointment was one that brought great rewards for Ausonius, as he eventually took a seat in the Roman consulate. But with the passing of the years he returned to Bordeaux, where he continued writing, in particular penning many notable discourses on viticulture. He was well qualified to write on the subject, as he had invested his new-found wealth in the purchase of a good-sized estate, a proportion of which was planted to vines.

It is for these works, as much as his poetry, that Ausonius is most appreciated today. Although Ausonius wrote of his vines reflected in the “yellowing Garonne“, suggesting that his estate was nowhere near St Emilion, there is some circumstantial evidence to link the Ausonius of the 4th century and the estate in St Emilion which goes by the name of Château Ausone today. Ausonius purchased vineyards all around Bordeaux – as I have already indicated, he accrued some wealth during his life – and so he may well have purchased land in St Emilion, regardless of the location of his vines near the Garonne. In addition, the excavation of a Gallo-Roman villa within the vineyard ofChâteau La Gaffelière (which is very close to Château Ausone), revealing a beautiful tesserae floor now on display in the Gaffelière tasting room, lends some credence to the claim that this was once his home.


Although it is certain from the writings of Ausone that there was viticulture here during the 4th century, it seems likely that the first vines were planted here much earlier than this date. Nevertheless, we do not have any evidence to indicate exactly when. Similarly, there is very 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.

Plantagenets: Henry & Aliénor

By the 12th century a number of the regions identified today, particularly Graves but also Blaye and Bourg, were extensively planted up; indeed, some estates in the first of these three regions, such as Château Pape-Clément and Château Carbonnieux, can trace their history back to these early days, their origins intimately intertwined with the church.

The most influential figures of this era were Henry II and Aliénor d’Aquitaine, a name frequently anglicised to Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1137, at the tender age of fifteen years the young Aliénor, set to become one of the most wealthy and influential women in all Europe, inherited the duchy (and thus she owned all the land around Bordeaux) from her father William X, following his demise during a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In July 1137, only three months later, Aliénor was married to Prince Louis Capet. Prince Louis had already been crowned junior king, and only a few weeks later, when Louis VI died of dysentery at Béthisy-Saint-Pierre, Louis Capet, or Louis VII as he is better known, became senior king. In the space of a few months Aliénor went from small-time duchess to Queen of France.

Although Aliénor d’Aquitaine bore Louis VII two daughters, the lack of a male heir meant their marriage was doomed to failure. Louis VII occupied himself with wars and crusades, and his failure to support Aliénor’s uncle Raymond de Poitiers, who was as a result defeated and beheaded byShirkuh, uncle of Saladin, probably did little to improve the already frosty relationships between the two. When it was clear that Aliénor would not be bearing Louis VII a suitable heir the marriage was annulled in March 1152. Some records of the time suggest that this annulment was completed on the grounds of salacious adultery, or on the basis of previously unknown kinship between the two, but modern historians regard this as nothing more than a discrediting smokescreen to facilitate Louis VII’s escape from the marriage. Aliénor was thus no longer queen, although she retained her power and her wealth, including all the lands of Aquitaine, and thus her allure. No wonder she was quickly wed again, this time to a distant cousin namedHenry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou.

This union was – if such things are measured in numbers of children produced – a successful one, as Aliénor bore Henry eight children. Perhaps more relevant to our wine-orientated point of view, the lands of Bordeaux now passed from the hands of the French crown to the English, as just two years after their marriage her husband was crowned Henry II of England. The new king and queen fostered trade between their two dominions with tax breaks granted to the French merchants; the effect was to reduce the cost of all goods shipped through the flourishing port of Bordeaux to the eventual consumer, including those in England, a natural export market. Unsurprisingly, demand for the wines grew. This remained the situation for near enough three hundred years, and it only came to an end when Bordeaux reverted to French rule with the routing of the English occupiers in 1453 at the Battle of Castillon, the final conflict of the Hundred Years’ War.

Revolution: From Nobility to the Merchant Class

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, the direct consequence of a trade war between England and France, and the Methuen Treaty of 1703 which favored the import of wines from Portugal, wine remained a booming business for Bordeaux. So 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 châteaux. One of the most notable names was that of Ségur, a noble family who built up an extensive estate during the 17th and 18th centuries, so much so that Marquis Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur, son ofAlexandre de Ségur, was commonly referred to as the Prince des Vignes. He owned huge tracts of the Médoc, and today his name lives on in the region, at Château Phelan-Ségur and of course Château Calon-Ségur.

The Revolution saw many such estates wrested from the hands of their noble proprietors and sold off, a key moment in the splintering of many of the Médoc’s greatest estates, although subsequently introduced Napoleonic laws of inheritance, which abolished primogeniture, were probably more to blame. Through the 19th century trade relations improved and many merchants, often originating from Germany, such as Eschenauer and Kressmann, and the British Isles, such as Barton and Johnston – all important names in the Bordeaux wine trade – settled in the region to deal in order with the business of securing and shipping wine to their relative export markets first-hand. Many of them, increasingly wealthy, bought the châteaux that had once been home to the region’s most noble names. By the middle of the 19th century the left bank ofBordeaux was pretty much how we see it today (accepting that ownership has often changed, and vineyards bought and sold), with the great vineyards of Pauillac, St Julienand Margaux in prime position, ranked in what today seems like an immutable system, a list drawn up by the merchants of Bordeaux at the behest of Napoleon III prior to theExposition Universelle de Paris in 1855. The vineyards of St Emilion and Pomerol were not held in such high regard, going at this time unclassified, and it is only in more recent years that the wines of these regions have commanded comparable prices, or indeed been graced (or perhaps vexed; your view may well depend on whether you are a Bordeaux lawyer or not) with their own classifications, if at all.

Bordeaux: Modern Times

There have been great trials for Bordeaux since 1855, often microbiological, starting with odium or powdery mildew, an imported American disease with some similarities to a disease of the peach tree, 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. In this process of discovery Bordeaux played a significant role, as it was host to the International Phylloxera Congress in 1881, and saw a number of experimental treatments – such as carbon bisulphide injection – tested in its vineyards. Other imports, most notably downy mildew and black rot, also swept through the vineyards during 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 of decline and then recovery when looking back at the 20th century.

The past few decades have seen a rebirth of Bordeaux, dilapidated châteaux rescued and restored, disorderly vineyards analysed and replanted. And accompanying this extensive regeneration a new class of owners has arrived; just as the merchants once took over where nobility left off, today it is often only big business – more often than not banks, insurance companies or telecommunications networks such as Crédit Agricole,AXA Millésimes and Bouygues Telecom – that can afford to buy the best vineyards andchâteaux. Times have still been hard, although on the whole much has improved; viticulture is more precise, the process of fermentation (both alcoholic and malolactic) is better understood, and the quality of the wines made here has been steadily on the rise. For the consumer, though, there are still downsides; the style of wine coming out ofBordeaux has changed, being less savory, more approachable in youth, sweeter and more slick. And prices have continued to rise far in excess of inflation, pushed ever forward by the Bordelais who are eager to reap the rewards of a growing global market and the ability to manipulate supply to enhance the sale price of their wines. It is all a very long way from anything Ausonius might have conceived as he walked among his few vines, basking in the warm, yellow sunshine on the banks of the Garonne.

For more details on Bordeaux and how it ‘works’ today, the subsequent pages of this guide should be informative, as in subsequent installments I will continue to look in more detail at viticulture, winemaking, consultants, the Bordeaux trade and many other features of this famous wine region, followed by a region-by-region assessment. For more specific details on the history of Bordeaux’s many châteaux, however, a much greater depth of information may be found in my individual Bordeaux profiles, which are continually augmented, expanded and update.


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