A (Very) Brief History of Bordeaux Wine
Wines have been made and shipped from Bordeaux for nearly 1,000 years, and vines have been planted there since Roman times. The wine trade has survived several disasters, including the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, and the two World Wars. Perhaps most devastating to the wine trade was Phylloxera vastatrix, a root-eating parasite of American origin. Between the 1860s and 1890, virtually every vine in France was destroyed. The dead vines were replaced with immune American rootstocks, but the industry didn’t fully recover until the outbreak of the First World War.
The Quality Pyramid
In Bordeaux, as in most of France, wines are labelled not by grape variety but by appellation, based on a delineated area of production. (For example: it’s not a Merlot, it’s a Pomerol…)
Overall, relative quality in Bordeaux can be expressed in pyramid form. At its base are dry white Bordeaux and Entre-Deux-Mers, red Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, which together represent about two-thirds of total production. Above these are the red and white wines from the Côtes. Next come the regional appellations (e.g., Graves, St-Émilion, Pomerol, Médoc and Sauternes). Above these regional wines are the châteaux that have been classified, beginning with the classification of the Médoc, Graves and Sauternes in 1855 and ending with the reclassification of St-Émilion in 2006. The Grand Crus and Crus Bourgeois are one notch higher, followed by the Crus Classé. Finally, at the top, are the Premiers Crus Classé.
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The Art of Blending
The most copied and perhaps the most mysterious element of winemaking in Bordeaux is the practice (or art) of blending.
Each variety, or cépage, has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as its own distinct character. These differences can complement each other when wines are skilfully blended, making a whole that is better than the sum of its parts… especially considering that the quality of the various cépages will vary according to the weather conditions during the growing season. Blending is thus a major contributor to the stable quality of Bordeaux wines: the blend can be changed each year to take advantage of the conditions of that vintage.
A typical red Bordeaux blend will be dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, for its structure, finesse, aromatic complexity and ability to age, and Merlot, for its full, rich and friendly character.
There are six red grape varieties in Bordeaux. Normally, the softer merlot is the first picked, followed by the cabernet franc, the cabernet sauvignon and then the petit verdot. Traditional Malbec and the lesser-known Carmenère are getting more and more difficult to find.
White varieties include Sauvignon Blanc for freshness and aromatics, Semillon for richness and body, and smaller quantities of Muscadelle, also used to provide aromatic complexity.
Some wine regions, like some crus, are simply too grand for a single blog post. We continue our exploration or Bordeaux wine in Vines 102: Bordeaux, where we examine Bordeaux’s most renowned wines, along with appellations from the neighbouring Dordogne.
About the Author
Born and bred among the vines of Burgundy, veteran B&R Guide, Trip Planner and oenophile Olivier Maillard distills his passions—for France, for wine, for Morocco, for life—into columns for The Slow Road.