Bordeaux Capital of Wine – A ‘Bottled’ History

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In the 1st century: it all began with a grape variety

Vine growing began to develop around the city of Bordeaux thanks to the discovery of a grape variety named Biturica which could withstand severe winter conditions (said to be origins of Cabernet Franc which was later in the 17th century crossed with Sauvignon Blanc to give Cabernet Sauvignon!).  It draws its name from the Bituriges Vivisques, Celtic inhabitants of Burdigala, port of Bordeaux. Privileged place of commerce between Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea and goods coming from England and Rome.

Here was a source of initial prosperity under Roman occupation which established “Pax Romana” and paved the way for trade.  The local economy took advantage of Rome’s craze for Bordeaux’s first wines, whose qualities were celebrated by the poet Ausone (309-394AD who owned 8 Bdx estates (right bank and Bordeaux).  Shipped back to Italy via river.

With trade privileges and tax exemptions granted to vine growers, large Gallic domains were divided up by the Romans and transformed into a mosaic of medium-sized properties and Gallo-Roman villas surrounded by vines.  The winegrowing area gradually took over the suburbs of Burdigala and hillsides of the right bank.

In the Roman times Burdigala boasted 20,000 inhabitants. The city was organized on a grid pattern with two main axis; the cardo (running from north to south along rue st Catherine of today), decumanus (East to west now Rue Porte Dijeaux).

The Palais Gallien  a 2nd century ampitheatre that could house 15,000 spectators are the only remains of this period.

3rd century ramparts were built to protect the city made up of a solid high 9m wall.

After the fall of the Roman Empire (476), five centuries of invasions (Goths, Vandals, Visigoths) almost got the better of Bordeaux’s winegrowing area, but by keeping a few plots of vines around churches and abbeys, monks were the people responsible for saving the Biturica’s gene pool.

Peace was restored in 10th century and the city began to rebuild itself around  its churches such as St Seurin.

2nd layer of fortifications the ‘Burgus’ was constructed in 13th century, one century later a third wall around ste Eulalie and st Michel made the city larger.

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12th century: Bordeaux, so British

Bordeaux began to retrieve its prestigious image of ancient times with the line of descent of the Dukes of Aquitaine, all named William,  of whom “William the Troubador” is the most illustrious representative, since he enjoyed such a sophisticated lifestyle and was the first medieval poet.  His grand-daughter, Alienor, initially married  Louis VII, King of France, but then divorced and unsettled alliances by marrying Henry II, Duke of Anjou, who later became Duke of Normandy and was subsequently named King of England in 1154.

This was the start of a profitable period of trade: English textiles for Bordeaux wines.

The wine at the time needed to be sold quickly as tuned to vinegar quickly. Bordeaux merchants were exempted from taxes by the King (in return for their allegience against the French king).  These royal privileges enabled them to provide England with a generous supply of “Claret”, a wine highly esteemed by the Anglo-Saxons (a type of dark coloured rosé wine, ancestor of our red Bordeaux). Claire in French means light.

Bordeaux’s Heroine – Alienor of Aquitaine

The recently renovated Royal Gate (West) of the Cathedrale Ste André is from the early 13th century, while the rest of the construction is mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries (romane, gothic). Alienor d’Aquitaine passed through this door at the age 17 yrs when she married Louis VII in 1137.

Her father Duke of Aquitaine William X died unexpectedly on crusade to Santiago de Compostella and she was in the custody of Louis VI. As soon as he heard the news of the death he sent his son and heir to fetch his bride and her enormous dowry (the duchy of a third of France, the entire SouthWest; Aquitaine and Poitou – the economic prowess laid in the north around La Rochelle due to the production of salt evaporated from the sea in large lagoons, the only preserver at the time). Louis VII was very pious and on his second crusade to Jerusalem, a very dangerous journey overland, his wife accompanied him. 15 years of marriage produced 2 daughters but no son. On their return on meeting the Duke of Normandy and his 18 year old fiery son, Henri Plantagenet, 29 year old Alienor decided it was time for a change. Louis agreed and they returned to Bdx to de-wed on the grounds that they were cousins and should never have married.

8 weeks later they married in 1152 and in 1154 he became Henry II and she became Queen Eleanor of England. The famous link was made.

8 children (4 sons  a nd3 daughters survived). Henry divided his realm between his first 3 sons leaving nothing for John! Henry King of England, Richard Duke of Aquitaine, Geoffroy married heiress ducness of Britany and John Lackland. Couple lead separate lives and on trying to retake her duchy she turned her sons against their father so was imprisoned. 1189 Henry died (son already died) so Richard became King of England and inherited Aquitaine (he was already the Duke there). His mother’s favorite, he released her. Third crusade earned him title Richard Lionheart. Bordeaux started to come into the picture.

Richard the Lionheart that made Bx his daily wine (not the poor white wine of Charentes around La Rochelle that Alienor favoured, built towers etc in 1190).

Richard killed and so it was the turn of John Lackland. He was the first to give Bdx merchants fair chance on the English market.

Best wine Graves, Archbishop Bertrand de Goth later as Pope Clement V moved papacy to Avignon (Chateau Pape Clement).

1203 Chateau de l’Ombrière, seat of Plantegenet power in Bordeaux, lower taxes for Bordeaux merchants (meant higher revenues), unblocked the port. In return defence against King of France. Bordeaux Bayonne and Dax merchants exempt from the Grande Coutoume (Great Custom).

Wine Flotilla  – Twice a year, before Christmas (Oct) and Easter (feb) , literally a fleet of up to 200 ships would leave England to go and “collect wine” , in exchange for textiles, food and metal. Also exported salted cod, prunes and flour.  East coast ships Orwell then to Isle of Wight to meet the Portsmouth fleet. With favourable wind in Bdx within a week. Wait for good wind for return often waiting near Brest (pirates).

The Ships were called ‘cogs’ and their capacity was measured in how many ‘tuns’ or wine barrels they could carry.

In this way, Bordeaux established itself as a monopoly for the production, sale and distribution of wine to Great Britain.

Vines gained ground and spread to the outlying areas of Fronsac, Saint-Emilion, Barsac, Langon…

‘Haut Pays’ High country wines (from Gaillac, Moissac, Agen (prunes took over) up the Garonne and Langon and Cahors up the Lot) and along Dordogne from Bergerac. Also Medoc –  all wines had to pass by Bordeaux and not small ports in Medoc.

Bordeaux controlled the export via its ports of all of these wines and made sure it sent its wines to market before its competitors (short lifespan of wines turned to vinegar). By middle 13th century ¾ all supplies of wine for royal court was coming from Bordeaux. There was a Police des Vins.

For three centuries, Aquitaine remained an English province and clearly displayed its flourishing prosperity.Bordeaux swore allegiance to England against France.

These privileges continued even withFrench kings and not stopped until eve of the French Revolution by finance minister of Louis XVI, Turgot.

The valuable La Rochelle due to its lucrative salt trade  was also part of Alienor’s duchy. With its easier access, its  modern port was first to supply English markets. In 1224 La Rochelle capitulated and was taken by French king which opened up the market for Bordeaux wine.

15th century: the end of the golden age 

The extraordinary flow of trade between the two countries was brought to a sudden halt by the bloody  Hundred Years War which opposed France and England.  In 1453, the legendary Battle of Castillon returned Aquitaine to France and Bordeaux was suddenly deprived of a market for sales of wine to England.

Libourne – Henry III built own walled town on Dordogne to control the traffic on the river (from partic Bergerac) in 1270 by the king’s chief Seneschal, his chief officer in the region – Sir Roger de Leyburn.

France did not like the King of England ruling a substantial part of France. 1st got back Poitiers. The new French king Philippe VI sided with Scottish and tried to stop English trade with flanders English wool. Edward III reacted by forming england’s first real fleet, 200 ships mostly wine freighters  off the Suffolk coast at Orwell. Just off Ostend English won the first battle of the war that lasted 115 years and ended with the loss of all Gascony in 1453 (pursued relentlessly by Black Prince, interrupted by Black death…)

English (under Henry V) retook N France and Normandy,  Joan of Arc

Burgundy joined French against the English changing sides

Bordeaux Pro-english archbishop Pey Berland encouraged English support. Decade of prosperity. 1451 French closed in taking Bourg, Blaye, St Emilion and Libourne. Bordeaux surrendered.

After 300 yrs English made one last effort, John Talbot 80 yr old down the medoc retook Libourne and Castillon and final battle at Castillon which ended the 100 year War . Him and his son died. 1453

Scots, dutch, Flemish, Spanish took over….

There was a mistrust of the Bordeaux people, defensive building such as the Château de Trompette (today the site of the largest square in Europe the Place de Quinconces) and the Fort du Ha built by Charles II  (near the modern Tribunals) to keep control.

17th century: long live Holland!

With greater political and economic stability, business picked up once again in Bordeaux, with some new customers appearing on the scene: they were from Holland, the Hanseatic League and Brittany.

The Dutch, in fact launched sales practices that differed greatly from their English predecessors’, and developed trade in brandy, eau-de-vie.  So, in addition to customary Clarets, Bordeaux wine producers began supplying dry white wines and semi-sweet white wines which would be used for distillation.

Dutch genius for invention, to preserve wine develop ageing of wine and bouquet. 1. Racking: 2. Dutch match 3. Fining with egg whites

Dutch favoured distillation, eau de vie rather than the elegant clarets of Medoc and Graves ‘reserved for English market). Favoured white wines and stronger red wines from North Medoc, also Cognac and Armagnac.

Smoother trade routes Spain, Portugal, and even South Africa (Constantia).

Important turning point modern oenology. Improve faulty wines, improved technique of winemaking and ageing.

Birth of the Crus

For 16 centuries England had been buying its wine major from Bx – a simple bulk commodity.

New Bordeaux wine considered finer,  better. ‘New French Claret’

1660 mkting as a distinct brand. Arnaud de Pontac rising class of merchants. Mayor of Bdx. Greatly sought-after by London’s “high society”, Bordeaux’s fine wines gained recognition here for their excellent quality.  The Bordeaux region became famous for the quality of its terroirs. Sent his son to set up the ‘Pontack’s Head’ shop, resto, grocery.

Excellent retailers and buyers, the Dutch set the direction of production for the very first fine wines such as the acclaimed, “Ho-Bryan”, future Haut-Brion.   They also introduced many new innovations, such as sterilising barrels using sulphur to make wine storage and transport easier.

Samuel Pepys 1663 Royal Oak Tavern, “ a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I ever met with’ First wine to be sold under the name of the estate, prototype of chateau.

It was not until the reign of Louis XI that wine trade picked up again and foreigners were able to return to Bordeaux.  A district outside the city was granted to them: the Chartreux (Chartrons) district.  Wine trade for export was dealt with by this community thanks to their fleet of ships which dominated the seas for almost two centuries.


Built on marshes outside of city walls. Carthusian monks built monastery here in 14th century. Nostra Dama Deus Chartrons. Dutch drained the chartrons. Separate village separated by the Ch de Trompette. 17th century Merchants from Ireland, Germany, Dutch, English settled in the Chartrons district, just a stone’s throw from the docks.  Family networks with relations in their home countries. Most were Huguenots (protestant) even those arriving from centre of france.

Flight of the Wild Geese; Catholics flee Ireland in 1600s, Lawton, Barton, McCarthy.

End 11th century. William Duke of Normandy the conqueror, beat Saxon King Harold in the Battle of Hastings. Norman compatriots ravaged rest of country as far east as Ireland founded Galway in E Ireland in fortified city. 14 dominant merchant families including Lynch rallied to cause of Catholic James II who had been chased by throne by protestants William of Orange. James beaten at Battle of Boyne in 1690. 1000s of young catholics from Ireland fled in Flight of the Wild Geese around the world. To La Rochelle, Bdx and Paris with the old King

Wines were exported in barrels, handled on the city’s docks and stored in this district inhabited by wine merchants where even today wine storehouses and export companies still remain.

Use of barrels revolution, ageing in chartrons cellars, 18th century 500 coopers worked in Chartrons. Wood shipped on gabares.

18th century:  the period of Englightenment

1709 savage winter killed many vines on outskirts of Bdx. Medoc began to be planted by bourgeois families: less exposed to frost, kind climate, soil similar to graves, xs simple, unplanted, cheap land and easy to work. wealthy client base, modern approach.

Merchants 18th century. Sons sent here from all over world. Danish; Cruse, Schyler. Eng/scot: Johnston, Fenwick. Dutch: Beyermann, Mahlers. German and swiss: Wetterwald, Bethman.

Safer to age in Bordeaux merchants leaving châteaux to focus on viticulture. Merchants adapted taste to different markets. ‘Travail à l’anglaise’ beef up with Spanish wines or from Rhone valley or n Medoc.

Place de Bordeaux has existed for 300 yrs and works resisting natural disasters, financial crisis, wars. Based on Trust.

Workers from the Pyrenees during harvest and other times; draining, planting in neat rows, with oxen, mules and carthorse

First half 19th century one out of 5 vintages write offs

New rich such as Louis Gaspard d’Estournel; many different architectural styles

Owners only there from May to after the harvest. There was no heating in the châteaux.

Powerful managers such as Skavinsky, Polish engineer. New gravity winemaking introduced by his sons at Pontet Canet, Leoville and Lynch Bages. New social awareness, small villages developed around chateau such as Mouton, Giscours and Beychevelle with schools and hospitals

Development of vinification: removal of stalks, oak barrels for 4 to 7 years, aged in Bordeaux, Since 1924 bottling at the château, bottling overseen by merchants

Golden Age due to wine trade and monopoly on maritime commerce  with French West Indies (coffee, cocoa, sugar…). Bx was Europe’s 2nd most impt port. Triangular trade; Black Africans deported to Caribbean (those that survived passage) slaves on plantations for European markets.Profits lined pockets of many Aquitaine families for generations to come.

The American islands, the archipelago of isles in the southern Caribbean region, ensured the development of Bordeaux wine exports during the 18th century.  At this time, Bordeaux had at its disposal a fleet of ships inherited from Colbert and thanks to this colonial trading, enjoyed extraordinary prosperity and became the leading port in France.

England, however, represented no more now than 10% of Bordeaux wine exports.

During a trip he made to Bordeaux in 1787, Thomas Jefferson, future President of the United States, mentioned a classification of wines established by wine brokers and merchants. Just before French revolution.  The concept of growths gained ground.  At this point in history, the first stoppered and sealed bottles appeared, gradually replacing transport casks.

1720 to 1757 two city administrators ‘intendants’, Boucher and then Tourny, modernized the city, taking down the walls and bringing in light. Harmonious elegance, Place Royale (pl de la bourse) for arrivals visitors by boat. Jardin Public, Portes, Gambetta, Victoire…Victor Louis Grand Theatre (1773), Palais Rohan.

Long straight throughways eg Crs d’Alsace Lorraine, Crs Pasteur, Medoc…1827 complete by boulevards. Heavy price; demolished cloister around cathedral, Palis de l’Ombriere.

The architecture of Bordeaux and its embankments clearly displayed the city’s affluence.  The largest collection of buildings in Europe was built in Bordeaux during the 18th century.  We can still admire the city’s magnificent classic style of architecture and its beautiful, pale sandstone facades.  This period of expansion would last until the French Revolution in 1789.

1822 first bridge to cross the Garonne

Wine Merchants who became rich at the end 18th century bought wine estates in the Medoc.

 19th century: prosperity and blight

With the dawn of a new century began the golden age.  In a few decades, production doubled and exports tripled.  Northern Europe was taken over by exporters and the English once again became the most important buyers.  The industrial revolution, as well as wine merchants’ and estate owners’ spirit of free trade largely contributed to this newfound prosperity.  It was accompanied by a heightened quest for ensuring fine quality which became a reality with the legendary Classification of 1855 requested by Napoleon III at the occasion of the Universal Exhibition.

Label developed. Bottle english invention 16th century. 1st bottles burgundy shape. 19th century first Bdx shaped bottles introduced.

Jefferson imported bdx wines to USA. Northen Europe best market.

‘Return from India’ Louis Gaspard d’Estournel sent his wines to India for the British Army. Found when returned from India they were ready to drink! Sold at a better price. New marketing concept!

But trade, particularly with the United States, did not just have positive aspects.  It also encouraged the proliferation of diseases and parasites that attacked vines:

  • Oidium 1850 mold microfungus, originally from USA, devastated the potato crop in Ireland causing widespread starvation
  • the spread of powdery mildew was abated by the invention of sulphur-based treatments (1857). mildew was treated with “Bordeaux mixture”, a copper-based preparation invented to allow vines to fight off this new disease imported from the United States.  “Bordeaux mixture” is still used nowadays all over the world. Developed by Ulysse Gayon and Alexis Millardet first introduced at Dauzac and Ducru owned by Nathaniel Johnston
  • Phylloxera (multi-formed insect) practically destroyed the winegrowing area between 1875 and 1892. First seen in Margaux and Pauillac in 1879 by 1880 everywhere. but salvation eventually came by grafting Bordeaux grape varieties onto American vine stocks resistant to this disease. Skeptical; It took to the 1920s before widely replanted with grafts.  At first tried the expensive, labour intensive system of injecting carbon disulphide into the soil (needed to be repeated each year)

1924 Philip de Rothschild was the first to bottle his wines at his property Mouton ‘Mis en bouteille au chateau’. Previously bottled by merchant (who could add wines from Spain etc). To control authenticity he started to control the process himself. Widespread not until 1970s.

Financial crisis, merchants controlled the markets, fraud developed AOC in 1930s. 1928 and 29 great vintages. Wall street crash 1930. Great depression, many rich had to sell. Bought up by working families from the Correze or from Les Landes. LB bt by local baker. Chx abandoned by the merchants, replanted with alfalfa and corn. It was only after the 2ndWW that owners began to group together to promote their wines. Commanderie de Bontemps. 1935 AOC laws.

1956 Frost killed a third of all of Bordeaux’s vineyards particularly those on cold clay soils away from Rivers

Resurgence of interest of wines in USA Alexis Lichine encyclopaedia, prices started to go up. Oil crisis 1973.

Emile Peynaud, Jean Ribereau Gayon, revolution in winemaking after 100 years of under investment. New winemakers and cellars in 1970s and 80s new benchmarks of quality.

Proprietors travelled in Europe, USA, Canada, Japan, Asia EEurope, Brazil, China.


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