Vines and winemaking were first introduced to modern day France by the Ancient Greeks but the massive growth of the Bordeaux wine industry can be attributed to a combination of medieval politics and the influence of a remarkable woman.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was originally married to the King of France, however after the union failed to produce an heir, the match was annulled and she remarried Henry of Anjou, the future king of England. This game of romantic musical chairs involved Eleanor in multiple intrigues, two attempted kidnappings and even a failed attempt to overthrow her husband and seize the throne in the name of her son!
Her story has provided great inspiration for Hollywood moviemakers (Katharine Hepburn even won an Oscar playing Eleanor) but, more importantly, it also provided Bordeaux’s wine exporters with a monopoly for lucrative exports to England. The wine trade from Eleanor’s native Aquitaine thrived and there was a large expansion in the number of vineyards in the Gironde area. This explosion was temporary however, with the transfer of Aquitaine to French control after the 100 years’ war, trade with England declined.
Despite this set back, Bordeaux wines still found ways to prosper. The following centuries saw the setting up of new trade links with the Netherlands and the merchant cities of the Baltic. Today, Bordeaux wines are exported to over 150 countries worldwide.
Guarantees of quality have played a big role in developing the international reputation of Bordeaux wines. In 1855, France hosted the ‘Exposition Universelle’, attracting over 5,000,000 visitors from across the world. In order to protect the reputation of wines from Gironde during this enormous exhibition, Napoleon III requested a new classification system to attest to the excellence of wines from the Gironde. This system continues to this day, and in 1973 this was complemented by the award of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status to Bordeaux wines. This helps to further protect the international reputation of Bordeaux and recognises its unique features and local significance.
The Bordeaux wine industry is all based around the estuary of the Gironde and Dordogne rivers, stretching from the Atlantic coast to around 100km inland. The gravely, sandy soils provide perfect conditions for vines, and the warm temperatures encourage strong growth. This environment (also known as terroir) gives Bordeaux wines their variety as it allows for the growth of a disparate range of grapes. Protected Bordeaux wines are available in red, white and rosé varieties and use a broad selection of grapes types, though Merlot is the most common for the production of reds and white is commonly produced with either Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon.
Work on the vineyard of the Gironde takes place year round, with the season starting in October. Beginning with ploughing in the autumn, the winemaker then carefully prunes the vines throughout the winter months to ensure a consistently high quality harvest.
With the arrival of spring, the vines come to life, new buds appear and fresh leaves grow. However, it is during late spring and summer that the acquired knowledge of the generations begins to show. Winegrowers carefully select the branches that will produce quality grapes, harvesting unripe examples in a so-called ‘green harvest’ to ensure the high quality of the remaining crop and testing the grapes to find the ideal time to harvest. When the grapes are ripe, they will be picked, crushed and fermented into wine.