Bordeaux & Burgundy

French Wine Facts

History Of Bordeaux

Early Beginnings

Bordeaux, for the past two thousand years, has been a prevalent force in the production of highly praised wines. Winemaking in the region can be dated back to 60 BC when the Romans first landed on the right bank of the Dordogne River, in the now acclaimed St Emilion region. Bordeaux at this time was known as Burdigala, a name of Celtic origins but under Roman rule and the years after, it changed to Bordiaus.

When digging up chalk to build their houses, the Romans made the deduction that the soil and temperature or ‘terroir’ of the region would be perfect for grape growing. They imported vines from Italy, and planted them in the previously uncultivated land of the river banks and henceforth began the birth of Bordeaux wine production. For hundreds of years after, the Romans produced wines, shipping to all the corners of their vast empire. This built a solid foundation for the years to come and cemented Bordeaux wines as a highly sought-after product.

End of Roman Occupation

The end of Roman rule led to a series of occupations in the Bordeaux region. Whilst its wine production never slowed, the region evolved immensely, with its name even changing and developing into the Basque word Bordeu which stemmed from ‘bord de l’eau’ meaning along the water.

Bordeaux & Britain

It wasn’t until the 12th century that England’s relationship with Bordeaux began to flourish. The year 1152, marked the union of Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet, who later became King Henry II of England. This Marriage drew Bordeaux under English rule and became the basis for a long and intertwined relationship between the two nations for hundreds of years to come.

During this period of occupation, Bordeaux grew in both size and standing. With royal ties, Bordeaux wines were making a name for themselves in the highest echelons of society whilst the city of Bordeaux itself became a prominent trade hub. In the years after, the city of Bordeaux even grew to be the 2nd most populated city under the rule of the English monarchy, putting it in a prominent position for distribution and trade in Europe.

Dutch Influence

The 1600s brought around yet another external influence in the trade of Bordeaux wines, with the introduction of the Dutch market to the region. During the 17th century, the Dutch were the most prevalent trading power in Europe and they arrived on French soil with the sole aim of capitalizing on the Bordeaux wine market. Whilst Bordeaux had been successfully producing wines for centuries, there were still vast amounts of the region which were unused marshland. With the introduction of Dutch engineers, a draining method was created to salvage some of the land and repurpose it for grape growing. Unsurprisingly it worked perfectly, and the Dutch had unknowingly carved the way for what we now know to be the Médoc region, on Bordeaux’s left bank.

The 1855 Classification Of The Médoc

The year 1855 prompted what could be considered as the best marketing scheme for Bordeaux wines that has been seen throughout its history. It marked the introduction of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification of the Médoc. Created by Napoleon III, the classification system was a way to rank the chateau’s wines into five levels, referred to as growths. The system included 61 red wines, from chateaux situated on the left bank, and ranked them according to quality.

Napoleon requested its creation as he wanted a way to showcase Bordeaux’s best offerings however it did much more than that. The 1855 classification was the first of its kind, and quickly catapulted Bordeaux’s already celebrated wines, into the stratosphere. The lack of supply and production coupled with a huge increase in demand, led to bottles of Bordeaux being some of the most sought-after in the world. Not only did it allow buyers to visibly see what wines were best on the market, but it allowed the affluent to flaunt their wealth amongst their peers, supplying them with only the highest-ranked bottles available. To this day the classification system is still held in high esteem amongst collectors, consumers and connoisseurs alike.

Phylloxera 1869

The most notable tragedy in the history of Bordeaux wine production took place in 1869 when an aphid infestation named Phylloxera swept through Europe, decimating the French “Vitis Vinifera’ vines. This was catastrophic for French winemakers as it wiped out over 80% of their crops, leaving them to rely on imported vines, shipped across from America. As it turned out the American vines were immune to Phylloxera, making it a means of survival for the Chateaux production. This wasn't the first disease that French winemakers had fought; however, it was definitely the most detrimental and shaped Bordeaux wines for many years to come.

History Of Burgundy

Ancient Beginnings

Whilst the Romans were responsible for popularizing wine production across Europe its thought that winemaking in burgundy can date back all the way to 1500 bc when Celtic settlers introduced their very rudimentary wine-making practices to the region. The Land in Burgundy has always offered grape growers a unique terroir which is perfect for vines. This is due to the region's limestone and clay-based soil, which are remnants from when the region was seabed over 200 million years ago.

Romans In Burgundy

Burgundy, A region which plays host to over 2000 years of colourful history has resounding significance to the wine market. Geographically it is one of the smaller wine-producing regions in France but is home to some of the most highly regarded wines in the world. The region’s more traceable history is recorded from 53 BC at the beginning of the Roman conquest of Gaul, which we now know as France. During that period, the roman empire was sweeping through Europe, bringing the art of wine-making with them. The grape variety first introduced to Burgundy, is native to Italy and goes by the name of Vitis Vinifera.

End of Roman Occupation

Hundreds of years later, after the downfall of the Roman empire, the rise of ecclesiastical orders brought new life to wine production in Burgundy. Many of the great vineyards were taken over by the church, notably by Benedictine and Cistercian monks, who spent further centuries being custodians of the land, honing the craft of magnificent winemaking. The monks played a pivotal part in the advancement of wine-making practices, as they meticulously studied the terroir of the region, and identified the best-suited land to plant further vineyards. To this day Terroir is a fundamental principle in winemaking in Burgundy, as all the wine labels are named after the land from which the grapes were grown. The oldest official winery in Burgundy was established in 1339, named Clos De Vougeot, created by the Cistercian monks of the site of the Citeaux Abby.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance brought about a massive leap in popularity for Burgundy wines, affluence and wealth flooded France in this era, making the demand for fine wines higher than it had been in the years previous. The nobility residing in the Burgundy region focused heavily on becoming patrons of the region, adding to the wine's prestige and recognition across France.

Burgundy In Europe

It was during the 18th century that Burgundy’s reputation for outstanding wines began to spread across Europe. It was especially well-loved in the British and Dutch markets, which had previously found favor with Bordeaux. At this time the Dutch and British held a heavy presence in European trade markets, which allowed Burgundy wines to increase their global standing.

The French Revolution & Napoleonic Laws Of Inheritance

The French Revolution was a period of turmoil for the whole country, however, it did undoubtedly have several very specific impacts on the burgundy wine market. Since the middle ages the vineyards had been owned and run by the church, but the revolution saw the seizing of this land, and selling it off to pay off the centuries of debt incurred by the French Monarchy.

Around this time was also the introduction of the Napoleonic Laws of Inheritance. Prior to Napoleon the laws in France, known as the laws of ‘Primogeniture’, were as such; Any inheritance would be left solely to the eldest son. Napoleon, however, had a much more liberal approach and decreed that any land should be distributed equally amongst all children. After a number of years, this has resulted in Burgundy becoming a patchwork of extremely small vineyards, as each year the inheritance would be left smaller and smaller. This has led to vineyards in Burgundy that are split up into rows or even in some cases, individual vines.

Rise Of The Negociants

Post the reforms regarding inheritance laws, the rise of the Negociants took place within the marketplace. Negociants were individuals who dealt directly with the farmers and grape growers of the region, they would purchase the wine, barrell it, age it, bottle it and then sell and distribute the finished product, without ever owning the vineyards themselves. For over a century until the 1970’s this was the principal business model for wine production in Burgundy.

Phylloxera Crisis

When the Phylloxera crisis hit Burgundy, like many other wine-producing regions in France, there was massive devastation. The aphid infestation, known as phylloxera, targeted the roots of the vines, causing them to die almost overnight. It took nearly 10 years of searching for solutions for the French winemakers to adopt the American vine species known as rootstock, a variety of vine which was subsequently impervious to the Phylloxera plague.

Introduction Of AOC

In 1936, Burgundy was one of the first adopters of the Appellation d'origine contrôlée classification system, which was designed to protect Burgundy’s production and reputation in the market. The AOC system plays a pivotal role in the regulation of quality and authenticity in the wines of the region as it ensures that each wine is a true reflection of the Terroir and Climat in the area of its origin. This brought about Burgundy’s classifications of Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Village Cru which was instrumental in creating the hierarchy of the region's wines.