Bordeaux: A History of the World’s Premier Wine Region

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Bordeaux: A History of the World’s Premier Wine Region

When we think of the history of Bordeaux, the first thing that comes to mind is wine. It’s a port city that dominates the wine trade and has tens of thousands of acres of vineyards. The surrounding region produces over five million hectoliters of wine each year, emerging from approximately 9,000 different chateaus. Bordeaux’s reputation as one of the foremost centers of wine production globally is well-earned, but how did it become such a mecca for wine lovers around the world?

The Early History of Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux has been inhabited since around the fourth or third centuries BC when a Celtic tribe called the Bituriges Vivisci settled here and named the town Burdigala. By the start of the first century BC, the tribes here were in communication with the Romans, but it was not until the early 50’s BC that the settlement came under Roman rule during Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and the Low Countries.

Roman Burdigala quickly emerged as a center of viticulture in Eastern France under Roman rule. By the second half of the first century, AD Pliny the Elder refers obliquely to wine being produced here in his writings. The first clear references to Bordeaux as a wine-producing region in western Gaul come from the Latin poet Ausonius, who in the fourth century AD wrote several poems about his own estate near the River Garonne, where he had approximately 25 hectares under grape cultivation, while also praising the wines of the wider Bordeaux region. Thus, the roots of Bordeaux wine lie firmly in the Roman period.

Bordeaux Beauties: A Selection of Fine Wines from the World's Renowned Wine Region
Bordeaux Beauties: A Selection of Fine Wines from the World’s Renowned Wine Region

The Geography, Climate, and Grape Varieties of Bordeaux and the Gironde

Bordeaux and the wider geography and climate of the Gironde River are ideally suited to grape cultivation and wine production. It benefits from a warm Mediterranean-like climate, while also enjoying winds and a micro-climate wrought by the cooler winds coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. This cools the vineyards in the summer and prevents excessive winter freezes during the colder months. In spring, ample supplies of water are provided for the growing season.

The Bordeaux region has become most acclaimed for its Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Merlot blends, and sweet Sémillons. Red wines dominate the region, though Sauvignon Blanc is also widely grown for the more niche white Bordeaux. Because of the micro-climates, other grape varieties are grown plentifully in specific areas and are mostly used as blending grapes in the famous red wines of the region. 

The Medieval Trade

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the kingdoms of the Franks, Burgundians and others in Gaul led to a clear decline in the French wine trade. Bordeaux history was no exception, but eventually owing to the expansion of European monasticism and the general emergence of Europe from the Dark Ages, followed the collapse of Roman rule in Western Europe, the wine trade began to reemerge in force from the ninth century onwards.

The High Middle Ages, the period roughly from 1000 AD to 1300 AD, saw a considerable rise in the prestige of Bordeaux wine. Much of this was owing to the region’s connections to England. The wider Gascony and Gironde regions were ruled for hundreds of years by the English crown and the city of Bordeaux served as the administrative capital of the English county here. Consequently, large amounts of Gascon or Bordeaux wine were exported to England and Wales, while a vast trade with Ireland also developed. This trade was damaged by the Hundred Year’s War between England and France from 1337 to 1453 but soon recovered.

Bordeaux Wine in Early Modern Europe

Today, Bordeaux is still considered one of the world’s leading wine regions, producing high-quality wines that are highly sought after by wine enthusiasts and collectors alike. The region has undergone significant changes in recent decades, with a growing emphasis on sustainability and organic and biodynamic viticulture. Many of the wineries in Bordeaux are also embracing modern winemaking techniques while still maintaining traditional methods.

Bordeaux wine remains a symbol of luxury and prestige, with some of the most expensive wines in the world coming from this region. The 1855 Classification remains a benchmark for ranking Bordeaux wines, but it has also been criticized for being outdated and not reflective of the quality of many newer wineries.

Despite today’s challenges facing the Bordeaux wine industry, it continues to thrive and innovate, with new wineries and vineyards opening up and a growing international market for its wines. The rich history of Bordeaux wine, from its early roots in Roman times to the present day, continues to shape the region and its wines, making it one of the most fascinating and complex wine regions in the world.

The Bordeaux wine region is known for producing some of the world’s finest and most expensive wines. Here are a few examples of some of the most famous Bordeaux wineries:

  1. Chateau Margaux

This is one of the most famous wine estates in the world, producing wines that are known for their elegance, complexity, and finesse. The vineyards are located in the Margaux appellation, which is known for producing some of the most refined and aromatic wines in the region.

  1. Chateau Latour

This estate is known for producing wines that are powerful, full-bodied, and long-lived. The vineyards are located in the Pauillac appellation, which is known for producing some of the most structured and tannic wines in Bordeaux.

Captivating Château Latour Bordeaux Wine in a Classic Bottle
Captivating Château Latour Bordeaux Wine in a Classic Bottle
  1. Chateau Haut-Brion

This estate is located in the Pessac-Leognan appellation, which is known for producing some of the most complex and age-worthy wines in Bordeaux. The wines from Chateau Haut-Brion are known for their balance, elegance, and finesse.

Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion, a Bordeaux Wine of Distinction
Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion, a Bordeaux Wine of Distinction
  1. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild

This is another famous wine estate in Bordeaux, known for producing wines that are rich, powerful, and long-lived. The vineyards are located in the Pauillac appellation and are known for producing wines with a distinctive cedar and graphite aroma.

Château Lafite-Rothschild, a Timeless Icon of Bordeaux Winemaking Excellence"
Château Lafite-Rothschild, a Timeless Icon of Bordeaux Winemaking Excellence”
  1. Chateau Palmer

This estate is located in the Margaux appellation and is known for producing wines that are rich, aromatic, and complex. The wines from Chateau Palmer are known for their silky texture and long finish.

Bordeaux is a wine region that has something for everyone, from casual wine drinkers to serious wine collectors. Whether you’re looking for an affordable everyday wine or a rare and expensive vintage, Bordeaux has a wide range of options to choose from. So, the next time you’re looking for a great wine to pair with your meal, consider a bottle of Bordeaux and experience the magic of this iconic wine region.

Want to read more on Bordeaux? Try these books!

The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide- 150 Years from 1870 to 2020 Bordeaux Bootcamp Second Edition- The Insider tasting Guide to Bordeaux Basics

References:

“Bordeaux Wine Guide | Wine Folly.” n.d. Bordeaux Wine Guide | Wine Folly. Accessed June 4, 2023. https://bordeaux.guides.winefolly.com.

“Learn the Complete Bordeaux Wine History and Description of the Wines.” n.d. The Wine Cellar Insider. https://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/bordeaux-wine-history-description-wines/.

“Understand Bordeaux History through It’s Wine | Bordeaux Region Guide.” n.d. Understand Bordeaux History through It’s Wine | Bordeaux Region Guide. Accessed June 4, 2023. https://bordeaux.guides.winefolly.com/history/.

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