Bordeaux - the Wine and the Wineries
The vine, known in Latin as vitis vinifera, has been brought to Europe by Phoenicians more than 3000 years ago. It spread from the commercial ports of Greece, Italy and Spain all over the continent.
The culture of vine flourished in the Gaul especially after a new variety, known as "Biturica" after the name of the population living at the time north of the Pyrenean Mountains "the Bituriges Vivisques", variety more resistant to cold temperature and that is the ancestor of the nowadays Cabernet was introduced.
During the Roman occupation, Emperor Domitian issued in 92 AD an edict that ordered the destruction of all the vines in the Roman provinces and their replacement with corn cultures. This restriction lasted until 280 AD when Emperor Probus invalidated the edict.
Apparently the restriction was not taken too strictly by the locals and the vine growing continued.
During the Middle Ages the marriage of Eleanor d'Aquitaine to Henri Plantagenet future King Henri II of England in 1152 makes Aquitaine, at the latter's ascension to the throne, part of the English kingdom and marks the beginning of an intensive trade between the British Isles and Aquitaine.
The history tells us that Richard the Lionheart, their son, praises especially the famous Sauternes white wines. The English nobility follows and becomes later an appreciative consumer of Bordeaux wines, chiefly of the clear colored Claret.
In the 17th century Bordeaux develops new trade links with the Dutch and the cities of the Hanseatic League. The Dutch were mainly interested in bargain priced wine for their colonies. To transport it long distances they normalize the process of burning the sulfur in the interior of the barrels - the so called "Dutch matchsticks" - before filling them, this way destroying the bacteria responsible for wine deterioration! This process of sulfurization has been known since Middle Ages and even an edict dating from 1487 was authorizing the usage of sulfur for wine preservation.
The 17th century brings also another revolution in Bordeaux with the wine dealers becoming the real makers of wine by buying it in big quantities from the Graves and Medoc areas and making its assemblage and maturing in the barrels of their cellars. (In the 18th century the council of Bordeaux - "Les Jurats" - establishes the norm of 225 liters of wine per barrel a norm that is respected to this day in Bordeaux). As a little historic anecdote: the women were forbidden to work in the cellars, their presence turning the wine into vinegar! This trend of the dealers making the wine is reversed only in the beginning of the 20th century when Philippe de Rothschild, owner the famous Mouton Rothschild winery decides to bring the wine making process back to the "chateau" in order to make sure that his excellent wine is not mixed with other ones and sold under his name… but we are jumping ahead of the story… (Rothschild has also the brilliant idea of asking the biggest artists like Picasso, Dali and Warhol to design the Mouton wine bottle labels)
In the same time with the British customers becoming more and more knowledgeable the 17th century marks the beginning of the separation of different wineries from the blanket name of Bordeaux wine.
The first wineries to be singled out for their quality are Haut-Brion in the Graves region and Margaux, Latour and Lafite in Medoc region.
These were to be considered for commercial purposes as "premiers crus" or "first grows". Due to the success of the classification more wineries followed and by 1850 there were 5 levels of grows ("crus") forming a hierarchy - with the "first grow" on top for price and quality - consisting of 60 wineries.
In 1787 Thomas Jefferson the then American ambassador to France visited Bordeaux and its region and created his own classification. Jefferson, a wine connoisseur, is credited with the introduction of the Bordeaux wines to the White House. According to Forbes Magazine one of the most expensive bottles of wine ever to be sold is a 1787 Chateau Lafite that belonged to Thomas Jefferson (the bottle has the initials TJ etched on it). The bottle was sold in 1985 at a Christie's auction for $160.000 as a Jefferson memorabilia since the wine is not drinkable anymore!
Grand Cru Classé en 1855
In 1855 with the occasion of the Universal Exhibition in Paris the Emperor Napoleon III asks the Bordeaux brokers council to establish a complete list of all the classified grows ("crus") with the name of their domains and their geographical location. The list that was compiled in April 1855 went into the wine history as the "1855 classification". The list is still a valuable indicator of the quality (and price!) of a bottle of wine. "Grand cru classé en 1855" which means that the domain was included in the 1855 list is to this day, after more than 150 years, a mark of quality.
We need to add that the list was compiled based on the constant quality of the wine from a specific domain during many years. Also the ranking included only the vineyards from the left bank of the Garonne from the region Medoc, Graves and Sauternes
The list was changed 2 times with the introduction in September 1855 of the Cantemerle domain and in 1973 with the promotion of Mouton Rothschild. For more information on Grand Crus and the list visit: www.grand-cru-classe.com
The Bad Times
Starting in late 1850s a mysterious disease hit the French vineyards. The vines were mysteriously succumbing to an unknown parasite. In 15 years the disease hit 40% of the vines and hit hardly the wine industry.
Only in the late 1860s the parasite was identified as Phylloxera an insect - native to the Mississippi River - that injects venom in the root and is feeding itself with vine sap. The story of how Phylloxera arrived in France is still foggy but it is thought to have been brought from America on steam ships when the trip across the ocean was shortened enough for the parasite to survive.
Without pesticides able to kill the bug the solution found was to graft the French vines with the American pest resisting variety that had thicker root bark.
The Phylloxera crisis had yet another undesirable effect on the wine industry. While the good vineyards were destroyed, to compensate for the lack of supply - the average annual wine production barely reaches 30 millions of Hectoliters while the demand is above 40 millions -, the commerce of counterfeit cheap wine flourished. Everything goes: the wine is made even from glycerin and …sulfuric acid or more often from sugar and raisins*. The situation became so critical that in 1889 a law (called Griffe Law) is passed stipulating that THE wine is made only from fresh grapes or fresh grape juice and later in 1911 a new law requires the merchants to disclose the origin of their wine.
As a continuation of this law in 1936 the system of "Appellations d'Origine Controle" and Institut National de Appellations d'Origine was established. Buying a bottle that has the inscription "Appellations d'Origine Controle" means that the wine was really produced in the specified geographical area, following specific methods of culture and fabrication
The Bordeaux wine appellations belong are of 3 types:
Generic: Bordeaux,Bordeaux clairet, Bordeaux rosé, Bordeaux sec, Bordeaux supérieur, Crémant-de-Bordeaux. Almost any wine (97%) produced in the Bordeaux region is entitled to this appellation, but of course the ones entitled to the more prestigious regional or communal appellations will use that one!
Regional: like Haut-Medoc, Blaye, Sauternes, Graves etc. etc. This appellation is given to wines that are produced in the specific well-known vine growing
Communal: like Barsac, Margaux, Paulliac, Saint Emilion etc.
In 1955 the wines of Saint Emilion part of the Bordeaux wine-growing region were classified as well. However this classification that initially included 13 "Premiers Grands Crus classés" and 46 "Grands Crus classes" and some "Grands Crus" is revisited every 10 years. The last reclassification of the Saint Emillion wines took place in 2006 and it was followed by 4 years of commotion mainly from the part of the vineyards demoted or not maintained in the ranking. The conflict was settled finally at the end of 2010. The newest classification includes 72 classified estates, covering 880 hectares, or 16% of Saint Emilion’s 5,500 hectares of vines.
Nowadays Bordeaux vineyards cover more than 120000 hectares divided into around 9.900 properties (the domains are somehow confusingly called "chateaux" due to the 18th centuries rich vine growers who were building on their estates magnificent manors!) and produce every year around 850 million bottles** with around 3/4 of red wine and 1/4 or white wine. Bordeaux wineries also represent according to the site www.bordeaux.fr 1.5% of the vine growing surface of the planet!
The main varieties of grapes grown are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenère for red wines and Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle for white wines. The grape growing region is divided into 5 main areas: Medoc on the North of Bordeaux, Les Graves and L'Entre-deux-Mers on the South East and East of Bordeaux respectively, Le Blayais et le Bourgeais at the border between the department of Gironde and Charente-Maritime and Le Libournais that includes the Saint Emilion region. For more information check the Bordeaux Wine Map on the left.
Besides the domain a wine is coming from another criteria of quality is the vintage or in French "Le millésime" or the year the grape was harvested. Due to climate variations each year gives its wine a different character.
Every year the Préfet of the department - in collaboration with oenologists - establishes a starting datecfrom which each domain can begin the grape harvesting. By law the grape harvesting is forbidden before this date but it can start any time after. In the Sauternes and Barsac region the grapes are picked at a later date after a fungus called "Botrytis cinerea" known in French as "pourriture noble" or "noble rot" develops and feeds itself with the water of the berry rendering it sweeter. These grapes are the source of the so called "botrytised" sweet wines.
Due to the fungus affecting differently each berry the harvest is done by selective picking and the grape pickers must pass several times through the rows of vine and pick only the ripest most "rotten" fruit! The number of times the pickers go through the same place - usually between four and six - goes to up to ten in certain years at Château d'Yquem!
In Saint Emilion region the time of the grape harvest is announced by the Jurade - that ancient council of the town reinstated in 1948 as a wine promoting brotherhood - from the top of the King's Tower. In June the Jurade announces also its opinion about the new wine.
Wine Tasting Notes
The wine should always be tasted from a …glass wine meaning a glass that has a bowl, a stem and a foot. The reason is that the glass should be held by the stem as not to warm up the content of the bowl.
The simplest way to taste the wine takes 4 steps:
1. The appearance. Bring the glass to the eye level and sitting in front of a light source observe the color and the intensity of the wine. Then tilt the glass and observe the clarity of the wine.
2. The smell. Smell the wine before and after stirring it. Try to discern the aromas of the wine and to place each of them in one of the 12 groups: herbal, fruity, spicy, floral, microbiological, oxidized, pungent, chemical, earthy, woody, caramel, nutty.
3. The taste. Take a sip of wine and make it circulate in the mouth to impregnate the taste buds. Try to distinguish all the flavors that belong to any of the 4 groups: sugary, salty, sourly and bitterly.
4. The texture. Discover the sensations in each of the 3 zones of the mouth: the tip, the middle and back of the tongue. Spit the wine and with the mouth closed expire through the nose and try to distinguish its aroma in the retro-nasal part of the mouth.
Each spring the grand wine chateaux of Bordeaux - grand crus but not only - stage an event called "Les Primeurs".
During this event the "chateaux" release limited quantities of the previous year wine to professional buyers (brokers) who are willing to "bet" on the evolution
of the wine, its quality and hence its price, at its release in bottle time 12 to 18 months later.
Based on the taste of the wine after only several months after the harvest, these connoisseurs buy the wine at a certain price hoping that at its final release the price of the vintage is higher. The system - set up centuries ago - gives the wine producing chateaux an opportunity to increase their cash flow.
Obviously in no need of cash, the famous Chateau Latour - Premier Grand Cru 1855 - announced in 2012 that it is not going to participate at the "Primeurs" anymore.
The Most Expensive Bottles
And is a Saint Emilion Cheval Blanc 1947 bottle of wine that is recorded so far as the most expensive bottle ever sold. It went for US $304,375 in 2010 at a Christie's auction in Geneva.
And there is also the story of the most expensive BROKEN wine bottle. According to Forbes magazine in 1989 a New York wine merchant called William Sokolin was asking for a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1787 with Thomas Jefferson's initials as much as US $500,000! Nobody bought it, but he managed to insure it for US $225,000. After the auction Sokolin took his bottle with him to a restaurant dinner, where a waiter carrying a coffee tray bumped the bottle breaking it...
* Le Point - L'Histoire insolite du Vin 2012
**Aquitaine Michelin guide.