The page offers a complete history of the Bordeaux wine region along with a detailed description of the style and character of its wines. The history covers its days when vines were first planted by the Romans through the 1855 Bordeaux classification of the Medoc up through today. This page also takes a look at the soil, wine making, the effect of Robert Parker, futures and more.
The birth of the Bordeaux Wine Region
If you want to read about other Bordeaux wine producers in different Bordeaux appellations: Links to all Bordeaux Wine Producer Profiles If you are interested in learning more about Bordeaux wine, we offer numerous articles on everything about Bordeaux wine, from a history of the Bordeaux region and the famous 1855 Classification, the grapes used to produce Bordeaux wine and even vintage summaries, covering Bordeaux wine from 1900 to today: All About Bordeaux Wine Guide
On the left side of the page, you have links to every important Bordeaux wine producing appellation, which bring to profiles on all the top Bordeaux chateaux in the region.
The history of the Bordeaux wine region dates back to the ancient Romans who were the first people to cultivate, plant vineyards and produce Bordeaux wine. The Romans took over the area in about 60 BC. They referred to the area as Burdigala. For history buffs, the most complete ruins remaining in Bordeaux from the days of the ancient Romans are the remnants of the Palais Gallien amphitheater. Today, ruins can be found scattered over the entire region in both banks and in Graves. Bordeaux was already starting to earn fame for its wines as far back as the 1st century AD. In his writings, Pliny the Elder mentions plantings in Bordeaux. In Pompeii, fragments of Amphorae have been discovered that mention Bordeaux wine. Numerous estates in St. Emilion have scattered, ancient Roman ruins in their vineyards. Chateau Ausone in Saint Emilion takes its name from Ausonius, the Roman poet who might have lived in a villa at that location.
The Bordeaux appellation was perfect for cultivating grapes for wine. It offered the unique combination of the right soil for growing grapes used in the production of wine coupled with easy access to the Garonne river, which was needed to help ship the wines. The first Bordeaux wines were probably based on vines transported from Spain, in particular, Rioja. Aside from the perfect combination of the right soils and marine climate for growing wine grapes, Bordeaux had one other main advantage, it was located next to the Gironde river, which made transportation of their wines easy as the river meets the Atlantic ocean.
The next step in the history of creating the Bordeaux wine region took place in 1152, when the heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine, known as Eleanor of Aquitaine, married the future king of England, Henry Plantagenet. Plantagenet would late come to be known as King Henry II. By the late 1300’s, Bordeaux had become a large city. In fact it was so big, after London, it was the second most populous city under control of the British Monarchy. The Bordeaux wine trade began exporting to England in 1302 from St. Emilion for the pleasure of King Edward 1. St. Emilion was the first Bordeaux wine exported. It’s important to remember, at the time, there was no active wine trade in the Medoc yet and the wines of Saint Emilion had already developed a reputation for quality. As you will discover, the connection between Bordeaux wine, England and royalty plays a major part in the history of Bordeaux.
The marriage between King Henry and Eleanor made sure Aquitaine, which included Bordeaux was owned by England for over 300 years, coinciding with the conclusion of the hundred years war, (which really lasted 116 years) in October 1453.
So, by the time the Hundred Years War had finally concluded, Bordeaux wine had already been discovered by the British wine lovers! In fact, Richard the Lionheart, the son of Eleanor and Henry II made Bordeaux wine his everyday beverage. The Bordeaux wine buying public agreed saying, if Bordeaux was good enough for the King, it was good enough for all loyal British wine lovers. From that moment forward, the Bordeaux wine trade began expanding.
The next major event for the Bordeaux wine trade took place when the Dutch needed to build roads to make it easier to transport goods throughout the region. The Dutch, along with the British were major purchasers of Bordeaux wine. While British consumers, along with the royal families of Europe sought the best wines of Bordeaux, the Dutch buyers were more concerned with the best value wines of the Bordeaux appellation. This presented a problem for the Dutch, because they needed their Bordeaux wine to be delivered quickly, before it spoiled. Speed was an issue because they were seeking the wines for the lowest price and those wines would not keep. Dutch merchants came up the idea to burn sulfur in barrels, which aided the wines ability to last and age. The Dutch are also credited with another even more important piece in the evolution of the Bordeaux wine trade. In fact, the next contribution by the Dutch changed the landscape of the Bordeaux wine region forever.
By the 1600’s, numerous Bordeaux vineyards were already planted, cultivated and producing wine. However, much of the region still consisted of unusable, swamp land and marshes. Dutch engineers came up with the idea to drain the marshes and swamps. This allowed for quicker transportation of their Bordeaux wine and all of a sudden, there was a lot more vineyard land that was perfect for growing grapes to make more Bordeaux wine.
The Dutch engineer who was placed in charge of creating the plan to drain Bordeaux’s swamps was Jan Adriaasz Leeghwater, (1575-1650). It was Leeghwater who changed the Bordeaux landscape forever when he removed the swamp water. This had two effects. It allowed for easier transportation of goods and people. More importantly, previously unusable land became perfect for agriculture and eventually many of the now famous Bordeaux vineyards were created from what was previously nothing more than a swamp.
Interestingly, the same methods employed to drain Bordeaux of swamp water are still in use today for the same purpose. To accomplish this, dikes are erected and pumping stations are installed to drain the water from the land. After the water has been removed, the now muddy surface area is planted with reeds. In time, the remaining water evaporates. At the same time, new water channels are created. This helps improve the drainage, so that the previously swamp like conditions do not develop again. Many of the original water channels are still in existence all over the Medoc.
The Dutch were indispensable in the creation of Bordeaux. Aside from draining the swamps, it was due to their efforts as some of the first negociants that led to the increase in production and exportation of Bordeaux wine. When the 18th century was drawing to a close, due to the Spanish Succession War, it became difficult to export Bordeaux wine because ships were in danger while sailing across the English channel. At this time, trade was halted between France and England. At least with official trade. Unofficial trade soon took over. We know this because the best Bordeaux wine still managed to find its way to the London auction houses for wealthy, thirsty consumers. Much of that Bordeaux wine was confiscated by pirates. On the other hand, it was quite possible that private arrangements were made between pirates and the Bordeaux chateaux owners.
At first, Bordeaux wines were sold with only the name Bordeaux on the bottles. By the late 1600’s specific regions and brands began developing, allowing discerning consumers to chose which Bordeaux vineyard, or appellation they preferred. Haut Brion, Margaux, Lafite and Latour were the first brands to develop name recognition. Slowly, buyers started to look for wines from specific communes. Once they began to recognize, or appreciate the differences, what we know of today as the Second Growths were the next brands to gain a following.
For all this commerce to thrive in a market driven by export, the need for negociants and courtiers, was born. The earliest mention of this step in the Bordeaux wine trade dates back to 1620, with the Dutch firm, Beyerman. This quickly expanded in the early 1700’s with the founding of firms that remain in business today, Nathaniel Johnston, Schroder and Schyler and the Lawtons are examples of the first negociant firms. At the time, the chateaux tended the vineyard, made the wine and placed it in barrel. From that point forward, the negociants handled the rest of the job from bottling, to sales and distribution. Keep in mind, the chateau owners were all wealthy and many were members of the royal family.
The involvement of actually selling their production could have been viewed as unseemly at the time by the nobility that owned most of the estates. Hiring someone to take care of the mundane commercial aspect of a wine producing chateau was exactly what they needed. Also, making wine, keeping the chateau and vineyards in good shape was an expensive task for the chateaux owners. The system where the negociants agreed to buy the wine in advance of bottling and sales, proved to be the perfect method for keeping these massive chateau, vineyards and wine making operations going.
The most powerful negociants soon became the unofficial bank for the chateau owners. The Bordeaux system remains unique. Due to the fact that the properties sell all their wine to the negociants, Bordeaux became the only wine production region where customers never had direct interaction with the chateau and the owners. There was no wine to buy, so it was never important. That is another reason the negociant system flourished. The royalty found a way to own a commercial enterprise and yet, avoid contact with ordinary people.
1725 was the year that specific appellation boundaries were first drawn up. The cumulative areas were known as the Vignoble de Bordeaux. At this point in time, wines began to be sold listing the region and area where the wine was produced. Consumers soon began to purchase wines from their favorite appellations and started to understand the differences between the wines and wineries in each commune.
Several wealthy Bordeaux land owners and members of the royal family began rapidly building breath taking chateau and planting vineyards including: Nicolas Alexandre and Marquis de Segur who counted numerous chateaux among their holdings in the Medoc. Pierre de Rauzan laid the foundation for Château Rauzan Segla, Château Rauzan Gassies, Château Pichon Longueville Baron and Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.
During the French Revolution, Bordeaux estates were confiscated from the wealthy, members of the Royal Family, those with noble titles and the Church. The estates were often broken up into smaller pieces and sold at auction. In the early 1800’s the Napoleonic code of succession law, requiring residents to leave their property, in this case chateau and vineyards, demanded that the holdings be equally divided among their children. In Burgundy and other French wine regions, this practice continually reduced the size of each generations holdings and the vineyards perforce, became smaller and smaller. In Bordeaux, that is not what took place. To avoid the loss in size and scope of the vineyards, the owners began developing a system of share holders for their estates instead of single owners. The shareholders were not subject to the Napoleonic code of succession law. This allowed many of the Bordeaux estates to retain their massive size and scale and even increase their vineyards.
It can easily be said that the Medoc has always been a land of wealth and privilege at the top end. The region was created as a refuge for the wealthy along with those of noble birth, with royal blood coursing through their veins. They had the vision and the money to create what we know of as Bordeaux today. Due to their ties with others in the royal community, it was not long before Bordeaux wine was popular with royalty all over the world.
1855 remains one of the key years in Bordeaux history. That was the year of the official classification. The classification ranked what was considered the top wines from the Medoc. By this time, Bordeaux wine from the Medoc, especially Pauillac, was prized by consumers all over the world. The purpose of the classification was to promote Bordeaux wine and inform consumers which wines were the best to buy, and guide them as to how much to pay. To do this, something simple needed to be created. Thus, the 1855 Classification was born! Since 1855, the classification of Bordeaux wines has only allowed one major modification in over 150 years! Most significantly, Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted from Second Growth to First Growth status. That took place on June 21, 1973.
How did the 1855 Classification come about? Similar to the World Fair’s we hold today, The Exposition Universelle de Paris was the perfect opportunity for France to place on display the best it had to offer for the entire world to see. This was what Napoléon III wanted to accomplish in 1855.
What happened next was, the Gironde Chamber of Commerce ordered an official classification to promote the now famous wines of the Bordeaux appellation. They allowed the Wine Brokers Union of Bordeaux to develop the classification. By putting together a group of known negociants and brokers, their efforts morphed into what we now refer to as the official 1855 Classification. For more detailed information on the official 1855 Bordeaux wine classification: List of 1855 Classifications
Bordeaux came up with a ranking of the wines in five, unique classes for the red wines. The wines included were all from Medoc, except for the already legendary Château Haut-Brion from Graves, which had to be included, due to its world wide fame. In Sauternes and Barsac, the sweet wines were also included, but with only two classes.
The classification of the wines of Bordeaux proved to be an instant, international, marketing success. It was the first of its kind and quickly increased demand and prices for the best classified Bordeaux wines. Just like today, the wealthiest wine buyers were willing to pay the most money for the best wines. And now, due to the official classification, not only the buyers would know they were purchasing the best wines, but their friends were aware they were being treated to the best wines, when they were brought to the table. The 1855 classification proved to be worth its weight in diamonds!
It was not only the 1855 classification that quickly thrust Bordeaux into the position of the world’s most collectible wine, it was also the negociants, along with their unique system of selling the wines on the place that created the market for Bordeaux wine. In time, due to the negociants acting as the bank for many Bordeaux estates, they soon came to own several of the most prominent chateaux as well.
The 1855 classification could not have come at a better time for Bordeaux wine. Many of the most famous vintages from the 19th century were produced shortly after, 1865, 1870 and other vintages are among the most sought after today. This was pre Phylloxera and before odium and other diseases struck the vines. Bordeaux enjoyed a stunning period of unparalleled prosperity which began to attract bankers and other business people to the business of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux is also the home to the world’s finest, sweet, white wines. Sauternes and Barsac, led by Chateau d’Yquem produce sweet wines of stunning quality that are sought all over the world.
Following the success of the 1855 Classification came an event that devastated most of the vineyards in Europe, Phylloxera. Interestingly it was America that saved the European wine industry. It was discovered that American rootstock was resistant to Phylloxera. Phylloxera, a tiny insect related to the aphid fed on and destroyed a large portion of the grape vines not planted in very sandy soils. Part of the credit for discovering the solution goes to Albert Macquin, the owner of Chateau Pavie Macquin. He helped develop and promote the solution of grafting American rootstock that was discovered to be pest resistant onto European vines. Select varietal’s responded better to the grafting, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the three main grapes used in the production of red Bordeaux wine. Those varieties are now the dominant varieties planted in Bordeaux. They have replaced Malbec, Carmenere and even Petit Verdot in the vineyards. This change in the Bordeaux vineyards was a major steppingstone to quality. From that point forward, most of the top estates began planting the right grapes in the proper soil. Cabernet Sauvignon was perfect for the gravel based terroir in the Medoc and Merlot, along with Cabernet Franc was equally responsive in the clay and limestone terroir of the Right Bank.
For white Bordeaux wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle worked perfectly with the American rootstock that was taking root in Bordeaux wine vineyards. Another cure discovered by Pierre Marie Alexis Millardet and Ernest David of Chateau Duzac was the development of what is still known as the Bordeaux mixture, a blend of copper and sulphate, which also worked.
The first half of the 20th century was difficult for Bordeaux. Following the back to back stunning, Bordeaux vintages 1899 and 1990, Bordeaux had to wait 20 years before another great vintage arrived. When you add World War 2 to that era, things were truly, quite bleak. Owners were running out of money. Customers were not buying wine. Properties were put up for sale, but no one was buying.
The 1920’s was successful for Bordeaux. 1921, 1926, 1928 and 1929 were all sublime vintages that remain in high demand for wealthy consumers today. The next years were not kind to Bordeaux. Following on the heels of the 1929, the string of poor vintages the 1930’s, (only 1934 proved to be of quality) coupled with the depression of the 1930’s forced chateau owners to stop taking care of the vineyards, as it was cheaper to allow their vines to die. World War 2, with the German occupation was as you would expect, disastrous for Bordeaux and the rest of the world. Wine was still being made. Commerce interestingly enough was still taking place, although most of it was with the Germans. It must have been a difficult choice, because as you can imagine, if you refused to sell to the Germans, you were shot or sent to the camps. If you were too friendly, you were rightfully called a collaborator. The negociants Louis Eschenauer and Rene Descas served time in prison for their collaborations. Jewish owners like the Rothschild’s quickly fled the region. Due to years, if not decades of neglect, many vineyards had become severely dilapidated by the end of World War 2.
The poor condition of the vineyards were in part, a reason why 1945 turned out to be such a stunning Bordeaux vintage. The perfect weather coupled with extremely low yields was the first vintage that allowed for a new generation of prosperity in Bordeaux. Great wines were produced in 1945, 1947, 1948 and 1949. The decades of the 1950’s was equally profitable with sublime wines being produced in 1950, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1959. The 1960’s were moderate with the legendary 1961 carrying the decade. However, during the decade of the 1950’s, a devastating frost decimated countless vineyards all over Bordeaux in 1956. Similar to what took place following the Phylloxera outbreak, vineyard owners were forced to reassess their plantings and were better equipped to plant grapes more appropriate to their soils.
This period of prosperity led to the next chapter in the boom and bust cycle of Bordeaux. Thanks to the vastly over priced 1972 vintage, the entire Bordeaux market crashed! Prices plummeted to new lows. Consumers stopped buying Bordeaux wine even though prices were slashed by more than 50%. This was much worse than what took place in 2008. It took a new decade, plus a new Bordeaux wine writer and critic to breathe life back into the Bordeaux wine region.
Bordeaux wine had its ups and downs over the years with the quality of its wines and its prices. But it was the American wine writer, Robert Parker that gave Bordeaux wine its biggest boost in the world market. Prior to Robert Parker, and even today, Bordeaux has always been the most dominant wine in the world market and in auction houses. But there was never an urgency to purchase wines as a future, or En Primeur. That all changed with the 1982 vintage. With that change came much higher prices, followed by sales to new customers in markets that until recently, did not purchase Bordeaux wine. Much of the credit for the change is due to Robert Parker’s enthusiastic praise of that vintage, and future vintages of Bordeaux wine.
After the 1982 vintage, an entirely new game was in play.
For this to happen, things had to change with not only how consumers perceived Bordeaux wine, but changes were about to take place with how the chateau sold futures and how the negociants bought and sold Bordeaux wine. Of course all of this is not due to Robert Parker. But all these changes took place at the same time consumer demand was starting to grow and the fame and influence of Robert Parker grew right along with it.
Taking a step back again, the relationship between the trade and the chateau was different before Robert Parker. Prior to 1982, the negociants held all the power. They paid for the wines. They bottled the wines. They sold the wines and for all intents and purposes, they were able to dictate the prices they would pay the chateaux. The negociants were more than brokers, they were the bankers for the chateaux. In essence, that is still the role they play today.
It might seem difficult to fathom today, but prior to 1982, futures were not important to consumers. In fact, they were difficult to purchase, as many of the top British Merchants did not offer them. For example, Berry Brothers bought futures from the negociants, but they did not offer the wines for sale until they were bottled and available for delivery. They might even wait a year or two after that!
In fact, it was the stubborn refusal to meet the customers demand to purchase futures that gave birth to numerous famous British Merchants like Farr Vintners and Bordeaux Index. These are some of the world’s biggest sellers of Bordeaux wine today.
The tranche system changed after Robert Parker as well. Previously, while the First Growths sold in tranches, (A tranche is a percentage of their available wine) the tranches were much larger than they are today. Very little Bordeaux wine is actually sold in the early tranches. However, it’s important to note, few chateau sell much of their wine in tranches. Tranches are usually only used by The First Growths. The seemingly urgent need to buy early tranches from the chateaux today, was nonexistent prior to Robert Parker. British merchants were offered the wine for sale in April or May and they had several months to decide if they wanted to purchase it or not. The lag time was due to annual vacation schedules. Today, they are lucky if they have an hour or two to decide to buy millions of dollars worth of wine!
Part of the change in allocations is due to the fact that today, less Bordeaux wine than ever is being produced. Since 1982, and then again in 1990, the trend has been for the all the top estates to relegate less of their crop to their top wines, their Grand Vin. A larger portion of their harvests is now placed in second wines, third wines, or sold off in bulk. This means that a famous estate that previously made 30,000 cases of wine per vintage, prior to 1982, is perhaps making 18,000 to 20,000 cases of the same wine. While that means the wines are better, as they are only made from the top grapes, there is less wine available for consumers.
Robert Parker and the 1982 vintage was not the only game changer to the Bordeaux landscape. Inheritance taxes on property more than doubled for French chateau owners in 1981. This made it extremely expensive to pass your vineyard down to your children. Because of these new tax policies, more chateau were being sold to large corporations as families could no longer afford to retain their property. In many ways that is a good thing as it allowed for massive amounts of money needed for reinvestment into new wine making facilities. But it removed the personal touch from Bordeaux. Such is progress.
But that type of progress was sorely needed for Bordeaux. The massive influx of cash allowed chateau to invest and reinvest in new cellars, vineyard management techniques and chateau. A look at the pictures in The Wine Cellar Insider, or a visit to any of the numerous estates show even casual observers that money is being spent in pursuit of making better wine.
Numerous trends have sprouted from Bordeaux. Low yields and picking fruit and full phenolic ripeness is the goal of most estates. More wine is being placed into second wines than at any time in the past. As a rough guess, if an estate in 1982 produced 15 thousand cases of their Grand Vin, by 2012, they were producing between 8,000 and 10,000 cases. Selection in the vineyards and with the barrels is paramount. Only the best grapes are used to make the Grand Vin. Most estates with the funds are are to vinify on a parcel by parcel basis as they now have an equal amount of perfectly sized vats to ferment everything as needed. Satellite imagery showing the development of the vines, optical sorting machines that remove anything but perfectly ripe fruit are just some of the tools used by the top estates today.
It was not just in the cellars that progress has been made. Vineyard management techniques are better than ever. The knowledge of the vines and soils, coupled with trends to organic farming and even biodynamic farming techniques have allowed Bordeaux to producer, fresher, cleaner, more concentrated, richer, elegant wines with a better purity of fruit. In my opinion, the wines of Bordeaux have never better! Sadly, they have never been more expensive either at the top end. Perhaps the progress of Bordeaux is most notable with the smaller wines from lesser terroirs. The wines coming out of less heralded terroir these days is better than many of the classified growths from the 1970’s and 1980’s!
Today, Bordeaux wine remains the world’s most popular and sought after wine. It is the number one wine purchased by collectors for cellaring all over the world. Bordeaux wine dominates the auction sales market. The success or failure of a Bordeaux futures campaign dictates what happens in every other wine region in the world with their pricing.
What is the future for Bordeaux wine? Your guess is as good as mine. However, this is my guess. Bordeaux produces a lot of wine at a myriad of price points. The way the wines are allocated will change. Countries that currently count on a supply of Bordeaux every year will see those supplies dwindle with time. They will never evaporate, but they will be less. New markets with eager buyers who have never had the opportunity to purchase wine before will want to buy the wines. The top chateaux cannot produce more wine. In order to satisfy growing demand from new markets, established markets will naturally receive less Bordeaux wine.
At the moment, new markets are being developed all over the world. However, the key market as of 2010 is Asia, and most importantly, China.
Currently, very few brands are sold in China today. China remains a very specific brand focused marketplace. Chateau Lafite Rothschild remains at the top of the pyramid. The remaining First Growths lag behind, but they are rapidly picking up steam. The wines from the Medoc are the top sellers. Aside from the First Growths, a few select other wines are also popular in China. For example, Lynch Bages , Beychevelle and Grand Puy Lacoste are sought after for various reasons that have as much to do with the quality of their wines as they do with luck and branding.
While most wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion have yet to take hold, Valandraud is popular in Asia. So is Angelus and a few others. As of today, the majority of the wines being purchased and consumed are the top classified growths from the Left Bank and Graves/Pessac Leognan . For China to be considered a true, wine buying and consuming nation, they will need to discover that Bordeaux is not just the First Growths. Sooner or later this is going to happen. Regardless of all the bluster you read and hear that this is just around the corner, it has not happened and this will not happen overnight. But in time, 5-10 or 15 years from now, China is on the path to becoming the world’s most important market for Bordeaux wine.
One major problem remains before China begins to demand and receive serious allocations of Bordeaux wine. They will need to buy Bordeaux wine futures. The hard truth is, as of today, very little wines are bought as futures in China. The concept of paying for wine 2-3 years before it’s delivered remains stubbornly difficult to overcome. Another setback for serious wine buying in China came when the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping made it a problem for individuals to flaunt ostentatious displays of wealth. Expensive wine, for example the First Growths were not longer consumed in public in wine bars and restaurants, which severely reduced the demand for high end wine, and other luxury products. all that being said, due to the massive amount of wealth, the desire for the best western, luxury products and the sheer numbers of potential consumers, a firm market is going to develop in China at some point. That new market will wreak havoc on the allocations many other markets currently receive.
It is going to take time. But the Bordelais are patient. Keep in mind, they wait 25 years to begin producing wine from some young vines. They can take decades to develop new markets without a problem. Bordeaux wine merchants have been plying their trade for hundreds of years. They are the best in the world at developing new markets and finding new customers. It remains to be seen what will happen to allocations of the top Bordeaux wines, once China, or other new markets become major Bordeaux wine buying nations. It might not be tomorrow. It might not be in a year. But sooner or later, things are going to change.