The region of Bordeaux, which means ‘on the edge of the water’ (au bord de l’eau), is situated in Aquitaine around the confluence of the rivers Garonne and Dordogne. This confluence gives rise to the Gironde estuary, the largest estuary in Europe, which stretches northwest for some 65km before spending itself into the Atlantic Ocean.
Here the Romans cultivated the vine, as attested by the 1st century naturalist Pliny the Elder and the 4th century poet and consul Ausonius who is remembered by Château Ausone in St Emilion.
In 1152, Henry II married the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine: the region came under English rule and ‘claret’ under great demand. By the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, France had regained control of the Bordelais; but despite heavy export duties, the British Isles remained an important market for claret.
In the course of the 17th century, Dutch traders drained the marshland around the Médoc, which soon outclassed the Graves as the pre-eminent area of the Vignoble de Bordeaux. Nicolas Alexandre, marquis de Ségur (1695-1755) acquired the epithet Prince des Vignes after coming into possession of the Médoc properties of Château Lafite, Latour, Mouton, and Calon-Ségur. He turned some pebbles of Pauillac into buttons for his coat, which Louis XV once mistook for diamonds. Pierre de Rauzan, a grand bourgeois and manager of Château Latour until his death in 1692, accumulated the land that later became Châteaux Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pichon Longueville Baron, Rauzan-Ségla, and Rauzan-Gassie.
In 1855, Napoleon III ordered a classification of the top châteaux of Bordeaux for the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Bordeaux brokers ranked 61 châteaux into five crus or ‘growths’ based on a savant mélange of price and reputation. All these 61 châteaux are in the Médoc bar one—Haut Brion in the Graves. The 1855 Classification also includes a chapter on the sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac, with 26 châteaux divided into first and second growths and Château Yquem standing apart and alone as a Premier Cru Supérieur. The classifications of the Graves and of St Emilion are relatively recent, dating back, respectively, to 1953 and 1955, with Pomerol continuing to resist and defy classification.
Starting in the late 19th century the Vignoble de Bordeaux began to suffer from a succession of American imports, first oidium (powdery mildew), second phylloxera. As a result of phylloxera, the vineyards had to be replanted onto American rootstock, and the grape varieties that tolerated this best such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot rose to pre-eminence. Then came downy mildew and black rot, followed by war, economic depression, more war, and an oil crisis. Many châteaux came out the other end in a state of utter disrepair and dilapidation, and in dire need of the restoration and regeneration that is still under way.
Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting