Where is Bordeaux?
The sixth-largest city in France, the port city of Bordeaux is built on a bend of the Garonne River and is located near the Atlantic coast of Europe. The city straddles the Garonne, so it is divided into the Left Bank and the Right Bank. It is also a popular stopover for cruise liners. Renowned as a wine-growing region, the city located in southwestern France has a climate that is perfect for producing excellent wines. One of the world’s largest wine capitals, it is hemmed-in by green, sun-drenched vineyards.
Bordeaux is a culturally-rich city that traces its origins to almost 2,000 years. It became the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania in 70 A.D. In the 20th century up to 2016, it was the capital of France’s Aquitaine region. From 2017 to the present, it has been renamed as the capital of Nouvelle Aquitaine¸ a larger area that encompasses the Limoges in the north to the Spanish border in the south.
Bordeaux is a perfect base for visitors who want to explore its unforgettable UNESCO-listed sights. This includes mansions made for 18th-century wine merchants, the large Gothic cathedral, the Place de la Bourse, the Grand Theatre, and the 487-meter-long stone bridge, Bordeaux’s oldest road bridge across the Garonne River.
Wine-Making in Bordeaux
In the world of wine, Bordeaux is one of the most recognized and treasured names. The massive wine-producing Bordeaux region has over 13,000 growers and produces a variety of wines. It is so popular that it is the second most-visited city in France, second only to Paris.
There are about 125,000 hectares of vines in Bordeaux, representing 60 appellations. These appellations are all recognized by the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC). More than 10,000 different wines are made by a total of 7,375 wineries in the region, making it the biggest in all of France and even all of Europe. The largest vineyard, with 321 hectares, is Chateau La Borne. Each year, close to 2 billion Euros of wine is produced in Bordeaux, representing about 15% of all wine produced in France and making it the most important wine region in France.
History of Wine Making in Bordeaux
Viticulture in Bordeaux has been an art and tradition since ancient times. As early as 60 B.C., the Ancient Romans were the first people to cultivate and plant vineyards in the region. The Romans found the area perfect for growing grapes – it has the right soil and there is easy access to the River Garonne. The region started getting famous for its wines as early as 1st century AD. Evidence of this exists in Pliny the Elder’s writings when he mentions grapevines in Bordeaux.
In 1152, the heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine, Eleanor, married the future king of England, Henry Plantagenet (later known as King Henry II), and Bordeaux wine was served at the royal wedding. Bordeaux wine from the region of St. Emilion was exported to England. As a result, the wine became popular in England. It was so popular and so highly regarded that the son of Eleanor and Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, made it his everyday beverage.
Aside from the British, another major customer of Bordeaux wine around the 1600s was the Dutch. Unlike the British who preferred the best wines, the Dutch preferred the lower-priced wines of the Bordeaux appellation. The speed of delivery then became an issue because they wanted to easily transport these wines before they spoiled. This triggered an idea by Dutch engineers which drastically affected the Bordeaux landscape forever. While there were already a lot of vineyards in the area during that time, much of the region was still unusable swamps and marshes. The Dutch engineers, led by Jan Leeghwater, had the idea to drain the swamplands of Bordeaux to easily transport goods and to transform previously unused swamps and marshes into agricultural lands. This led to an increase in the production and export of wines from the region.
The commercial demand for Bordeaux wine flourished in the late 1600s. The first brands to gain recognition were Margaux, Lafite, Latour, and Haut Brion. Bordeaux at that time already had the busiest port in France. To facilitate the bottling, promotion, sales, and distribution of wines, negociants were hired by the chateaux owners. The unique negociant system is still in place today. The Dutch firm Beyerman became the first negociants in 1620. Other companies followed suit in the 1700s. These companies remain in business today – Schroder and Schyler (1738) and Nathaniel Johnston (1734), to name a few. This is how it worked: the chateau owner tended the vineyard, created the wine, and placed it in the barrel. The negociants aged the wines in barrels, bottled them and handled promotion, sales, and distribution.
The 1855 Classification was one of the most important events in Bordeaux wine history. Its main purpose was to inform and guide consumers, particularly royalty and the upper crust of society, on the best wine to purchase from the region. Bordeaux red wines were ranked into five classes: First Growth, Second Growth, Third Growth, Fourth Growth, and Fifth Growth. The classification of 1855 remains a reasonably accurate grouping of Bordeaux wine today. There were only three changes from the original classification. The first was done a year after, in 1856. Chateau Cantemerle was named a Fifth Growth because it was accidentally left off during the original ranking. In the 1870s, Chateau Dubignon, an original Third Growth wine, became part of Chateau Malescot St. Exupery. The last change occurred in 1973 when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted to First Growth status.
During the 20th century, Bordeaux wine had its share of ups and downs. The 1920s was a successful decade, but the 1930s Depression Era and World War II in the 1940s did not bode well for the region. However, throughout the war years, wine was still produced in Bordeaux. In fact, excellent wines were produced from 1947-1949.
Tax policies in the 1980s made it difficult for French chateau owners to pass down the vineyards to their children. As a result, more chateaux were sold to large corporations. In many ways, this was good for Bordeaux because it meant a much-needed investment of new equipment and technology that’s sorely needed in the region.
Since the 1990s, the trend in Bordeaux has been the consolidation of different chateaux. In the past few decades, different estates who had less than 100 hectares have combined with other estates to form 100-hectare properties. Today, only about 1% of Bordeaux vineyards have 2 hectares or less.
Other important trends in the Bordeaux wine region are organic farming and biodynamic farming. Today, about 10% of all vineyards are embracing organic farming. Many vineyards are also experimenting with organic farming practices on at least a portion of their estate. Biodynamic viticulture is the practice of looking at a vineyard as a living organism or as an entire ecosystem. Influential chateaux in the region such as Chateau Climens, Chateau Palmer, and Chateau Canet have increased the popularity of biodynamic methods in Bordeaux.
Today, Bordeaux wines continue to dominate the auction sales market. New markets are opening up for the wines. The new key market of the 2010s is in Asia, particularly China.
Types of Grapes Grown in Bordeaux
A total of six grape varieties are grown in Bordeaux. They are divided into three varieties for red wines and three varieties for white wines. The three red varieties are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. The three white varieties are Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle.
Merlot is the primary blending grape used in the Libournais area or Right Bank Bordeaux. The Left Bank of Bordeaux uses Cabernet Sauvignon as its primary blending grape. This gives the wine a bolder and more peppery flavor. The Left Bank is divided into two main regions: Medoc and Graves. Aside from the three main red varieties, they also use Malbec and Petit Verdot.
- - White Bordeaux
- Bordeaux Blanc or white wines only account for 10% of wine production in Bordeaux, but they are also important nonetheless. Aside from the three white grapes previously mentioned, other grape varieties used are Sauvignon Gris, Ugni Blanc, Merlot Blanc, and Colombard.
Types of Wine Produced in Bordeaux
As a general classification, the wines of Bordeaux may be classified into Left Bank and Right Bank blends. Left Bank blends have higher alcohol, acidity, and tannins. They tend to be more expensive. Right bank blends, on the other hand, have less tannin, lower alcohol levels, and less acidity. These blends are often less expensive.
Here is a more specific classification of Left Bank and Right Bank appellations:
- -Left Bank Appellations:
- Saint Julien
- Saint Estephe
- -Right Bank Appellations:
- St. Emilion
Here is a description of the most popular appellations:
- Possibly the most famous appellation in Bordeaux, the region is large, encompassing the Gironde estuary, extending up to eight miles from the river, running for about 50 miles towards the north. These red wines are characterized by a light body and strong flavor.
- Although generally known for sweet, white wines, Graves also produces fruity reds. The typical Graves red is based on classic grape varieties of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The typical Graves white has a dry, mid-bodied character. This appellation has focused on white wines that are fresher and crisper, often displaying pronounced citrus, lemon, and green apple characteristics.
- -St. Emilion
- St. Emilion wines are characterized by its dark color and full-bodied flavor. The limestone soil is what gives St. Emilion wines its distinct flavor. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are two of the dominant grapes that make this type of wine. St. Emilion is named after a Benedictine monk and it claims to have the oldest wine society in France.
- Considered the world’s finest, Sauternes wines are sweet and fruity. They are best enjoyed slightly chilled and can be paired with shellfish, salty cheese, spicy food, and Foie Gras. Since they have high sugar levels, they cannot be paired with desserts. Sauternes is the most expensive wine to produce in all of Bordeaux.
Popular Wine Brands in Bordeaux
Arguably the star of the Medoc, Chateau Potensac is world-famous for the consistency and quality of their wines. This brand represents the pure Medoc style, wines that have steady color, density and balance. Made by the Delon family, the producer is known for its dark, flavorsome vintages. Potensac’s 60-hectare vineyard has a great location: it is close to the river but on a high point of land.
One of the best producers of Graves wine is Liber Pater. Its owner, Loic Pasquet, wants to showcase wines from the original classification so they use grape varieties in small amounts. While Liber Pater uses modern equipment and techniques such as malolactic fermentation in barrels, it also uses 19th-century tools such as a plow that is 150 years old. The result is a taste that is as close as the wines produced from the 1800s. Pasquet spares no expense in producing the best possible wines.
The much-lauded producer of St. Emilion is undoubtedly Chateau Cheval Blanc. Many critics have named it the best St. Emilion wine. Cheval Blanc won its first gold medal at the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris. Although the vineyards have existed for centuries and sold under the Cheval Blanc name as far back as 1852, the wine producer makes use of state-of-the-art facilities. It produces the most well-known Cabernet Franc wine in the world. They are proud of the concentrated, intense flavor of their vintages.
The best producer of Sauternes in Bordeaux is Chateau d’Yquem. No other producer dares to refute this fact. The 400-year-old estate is located on the highest hill in Sauternes and produces a much sought-after, premium wine. The remarkable taste of this wine stays on the palate for a long time. Young vintages have a hint of apricot and mandarin, while older vintages have a complex hint of saffron, marmalade, stewed fruit, and licorice.