The History of Bordeaux Wine
Wine is believed to have been discovered around 7,000 B.C. and since then, it has existed as a central part of almost every society around the world. Over time, the grape-based beverage became aligned with luxury and wealth before the industrialisation of the process meant that it became more accessible and widely enjoyed. The best Bordeaux wine tours explore not only the intricacies of a wine’s bouquet but the complex and fascinating past of the industry as well.
Today, there are almost 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in the world and it’s almost impossible not to think of Bordeaux when discussing the wine industry. The harvesting and production of grapes have existed in the region for thousands of years, first recorded during the time of Roman occupation. But how did Bordeaux wine become so famous? What caused it to become one of the world’s most sought-after varieties?
Wine was first introduced to the Bordeaux region during its Roman occupation. The empire ruled the area from about 60 B.C. and wine was soon cultivated for the soldiers. However, the success of wine in Bordeaux didn’t really begin until the discovery of a variety of grapes that could withstand the cold winters. It was called Biturica and some theorise that the success of the grape brought much prosperity to Rome, allowing for smoother trade relations. The fall of the Roman empire could have meant the loss of this invaluable grape type but many of the crops were tended to by monks in the region, which meant they survived the disrupted rulings that followed.
Ruins of the Roman empire can still be found dotted around the city and region, with the Palais Gallien amphitheatre a particular highlight. Many of the city’s oldest structures are built on Roman architecture and planning. For example, the Church St. Pierre was built on the site of the old port inside of the Roman Castrum; it would have once been used as a fortified military camp. Artefacts in Pompeii have also been found that reference Bordeaux wine, suggesting that the region’s prominence as a wine producer was well established even then. Bordeaux Walks offer guests the opportunity to enjoy a wine tasting in Bordeaux city centre(opens in a new tab), and we also provide Bordeaux food tours(opens in a new tab) and Bordeaux city tours(opens in a new tab) that delve into and highlight the history and architecture of the region.
The production of wine continued in Bordeaux through the Middle Ages, although only really gaining popularity in France. It wasn’t until the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine (the heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine, of which Bordeaux was a part of) and the future king of England, Henry Plantagenet (later known as King Henry II) that Bordeaux wine would start to make an international name for itself. This union in 1152 is attributed to the widespread success of wine in the region for years to come because Bordeaux was able to create a monopoly in the production, sale, and exportation of wine to Great Britain.
Richard the Lionheart, son of Eleanor and Henry, used Bordeaux as the base for his operations when he ascended to the throne. The growing popularity of Bordeaux wine meant that production expanded significantly and in 1199, Saint-Émilion, the oldest of Bordeaux’s wine guilds, was founded. The importance of the trading relationship between the region and England provided Bordeaux with many political favours, as well as wealth and power. However, much of the success of the product was lost during the Hundred Years’ War, which saw France take back control of the Bordeaux region and the outbreak of the Black Death that followed.
The Second Golden Era
During the 17th century, a second golden age began for Bordeaux. The wine from the region was popular with the Dutch but their main interests lay in the best value wine. These were the wines that didn’t age well so they needed to be transported rapidly. In order to achieve this, they began constructing roads and introduced a new method of storage by burning sulphur in the barrels. Even more significantly, in seeking ways to expedite the transport process, the Dutch began draining much of the unused swamp and marshlands in the region to provide them with an improved trade route and to open up more land where grapes could be cultivated. Many of the water channels that were created to drain the swamp water are still being used today for the same purpose. This important trade partner also proved valuable during the War of the Spanish Succession at the turn of the 17th century when travelling along the French coastline and the English Channel became risky.
At the same time, the Médoc wine varieties were beginning to be sold not only by the region but by the appellations as well. This allowed buyers to purchase their favourite varieties and also develop an understanding of the differences between the various wineries. On our wine tour(opens in a new tab), Bordeaux Walks makes various stops at fabulous wine bars where the staff highlight what you might expect from each variety or chateau.
After the French Revolution and the introduction of the Napoleonic code of succession law, large estate owners were forced to divide their property evenly among their children, creating smaller and smaller vineyards. However, in Bordeaux, they developed a shareholder system that wasn’t impacted by the succession laws. This allowed them to continue to grow in size for the years to come.
1855 saw the creation of the first official classification system. Emperor Napoleon III wanted a way to know France’s best Bordeaux wines for them to be displayed at the Exposition Universelle de Paris that same year. Wines were ranked from first to fifth crus (or growths), with all of the red wines on the list coming from the Médoc region except for one (join us on our tours(opens in a new tab) to find out which). The classifications have always remained the same apart from three changes.
The most significant event of the 20th century for Bordelaise wine was the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or the controlled designation of origin. The AOC provides certifications for French agricultural products based on the region in which they are produced. This came about in 1936 after significant lobbying and became a reference point for not only wine but other agricultural products such as cheese, poultry, vegetables, and even lavender.
In the late 20th century, wine critics began to develop a voice and influence in the industry and arguably the most significant of the critics was an American named Robert Parker. In 1982, he reviewed a Bordeaux vintage as one of the best in decades, sparking a newfound Western interest and demand for the region’s wines. While this had a huge impact on the agricultural industry, it also meant that visitors with a day in Bordeaux came to the city with one thing in mind. This movement also prompted the creation of “second wines” where producers use grapes of less quality that were not chosen for their more premium bottles.
Over 700 million bottles of wine are produced in Bordeaux each year from around 8,500 different producers that cover an area of 120,000 hectares of vineyards. Today, the varieties are predominantly red, although 10% of the vineyards are used for white wine harvesting. Join us on one of our Bordeaux wine tasting tours(opens in a new tab) to try them for yourself and learn more about the long, fascinating history of wine in the region.