1st century: it all began with a grape variety
Vine growing began to develop around the city of Bordeaux thanks to the discovery of a grape variety named Biturica which could withstand severe winter conditions. It draws its name from the Bituriges Vivisques, inhabitants of Burdigala, the ancient Roman name for Bordeaux. Here was a source of initial prosperity under Roman occupation which established “Pax Romana” and paved the way for trade. The local economy took advantage of Rome’s craze for Bordeaux’s first wines, whose qualities were celebrated by the poet Ausone. With trade privileges and tax exemptions granted to vine growers, large Gallic domains were divided up by the Romans and transformed into a mosaic of medium-sized properties and Gallo-Roman villas surrounded by vines. The winegrowing area gradually took over the suburbs of Burdigala and hillsides of the right bank.
After the fall of the Roman Empire (476), five centuries of invasions almost got the better of Bordeaux’s winegrowing area, but by keeping a few plots of vines around churches and abbeys, monks were the people responsible for saving the Biturica’s gene pool.
12th century: Bordeaux, so British
Bordeaux began to retrieve its prestigious image of ancient times with the line of descent of the Dukes of Aquitaine, all named William, of whom “William the Troubador” is the most illustrious representative, since he enjoyed such a sophisticated lifestyle and was the first medieval poet. His grand-daughter, Eleanor, initially married Louis VII, King of France, but then divorced and unsettled alliances by marrying Henry II, Duke of Anjou, who later became Duke of Normandy and was subsequently named King of England in 1154.
This was the start of a profitable period of trade: English textiles for Bordeaux wines.
Bordeaux merchants were exempted from taxes by the King. These royal privileges enabled them to provide England with a generous supply of “Claret”, a wine highly esteemed by the Anglo-Saxons (a type of dark coloured rosé wine, ancestor of our red Bordeaux). Twice a year, before Christmas and Easter, literally a fleet of up to 200 ships would leave England to go and “collect wine” , in exchange for textiles, food and metal. In this way, Bordeaux established itself as a monopoly for the production, sale and distribution of wine to Great Britain. Vines gained ground and spread to the outlying areas of Fronsac, Saint-Emilion, Barsac, Langon… For three centuries, Aquitaine remained an English province and clearly displayed its flourishing prosperity.
15th century: the end of the golden age
The extraordinary flow of trade between the two countries was brought to a sudden halt by the bloody Hundred Years War which opposed France and England. In 1453, the legendary Battle of Castillon returned Aquitaine to France and Bordeaux was suddenly deprived of a market for sales of wine to England.
It was not until the reign of Louis XI that wine trade picked up again and foreigners were able to return to Bordeaux. A district outside the city was granted to them: the Chartreux (Chatrons) district. Wine trade for export was dealt with by this community thanks to their fleet of ships which dominated the seas for almost two centuries.
17th century: long live Holland!
With greater political and economic stability, business picked up once again in Bordeaux, with some new customers appearing on the scene: they were from Holland, the Hanseatic League and Brittany.
The Dutch, in fact launched sales pratices that differed greatly from their English predecessors’, and developed trade in brandy, eau-de-vie. So, in addition to customary Clarets, Bordeaux wine producers began supplying dry white wines and semi-sweet white wines which would be used for distillation.
Excellent retailers and buyers, the Dutch set the direction of production for the very first fine wines such as the acclaimed, “Ho-Bryan”, future Haut-Brion. They also introduced many new innovations, such as sterilising barrels using sulphur to make wine storage and transport easier. They settled in the Chartrons district, just a stone’s throw from the docks. Wines were exported in barrels, handled on the city’s docks and stored in this district inhabited by wine merchants where even today wine storehouses and export companies still remain.
18th century: the period of Englightenment
The American islands, the archipelago of isles in the southern Caribbean region, ensured the development of Bordeaux wine exports during the 18th century. At this time, Bordeaux had at its disposal a fleet of ships inherited from Colbert and thanks to this colonial trading, enjoyed extraordinary prosperity and became the leading port in France.
England, however, represented no more than 10% of Bordeaux wine exports. Greatly sought-after by London’s “high society”, Bordeaux’s fine wines gained recognition here for their excellent quality. The Bordeaux region became famous for the quality of its terroirs. During a trip he made to Bordeaux in 1787, Thomas Jefferson, future President of the United States, mentioned a classification of wines established by wine brokers and merchants. The concept of growths gained ground. At this point in history, the first stoppered and sealed bottles appeared, gradually replacing transport casks.
The architecture of Bordeaux and its embankments clearly displayed the city’s affluence. The largest collection of buildings in Europe was built in Bordeaux during the 18th century. We can still admire the city’s magnificent classic style of architecture and its beautiful, pale sandstone facades. This period of expansion would last until the French Revolution in 1789.
19th century: prosperity and blight
With the dawn of a new century began the golden age. In a few decades, production doubled and exports tripled. Northern Europe was taken over by exporters and the English once again became the most important buyers. The industrial revolution, as well as wine merchants’ and estate owners’ spirit of free trade largely contributed to this newfound prosperity. It was accompanied by a heightened quest for ensuring fine quality which became a reality with the legendary Classification of 1855 requested by Napoleon III at the occasion of the Universal Exhibition.
But trade, particularly with the United States, did not just have positive aspects. It also encouraged the proliferation of diseases and parasites that attacked vines:
- the spread of powdery mildew was abated by the invention of sulphur-based treatments (1857).
- phylloxera practically destroyed the winegrowing area between 1875 and 1892, but salvation eventually came by grafting Bordeaux grape varieties onto American vine stocks resistant to this disease.
- mildew was treated with “Bordeaux mixture”, a copper-based preparation invented to allow vines to fight off this new disease imported from the United States. “Bordeaux mixture” is still used nowadays all over the world.
20th century: marked by quality
Once vine diseases were curbed, a rapid expansion of areas under vine was accompanied by a fall in prices. Several events combined causing this collapse of prices: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, Prohibition in the United States…
To resolve these problems, at the end of the 1914-1918 War, winegrowers and wine merchants established the Union de la Propriété et du Commerce, an association regrouping leading figures working in wine sales and viticulture. These were the initial stages of a wine trade organiziation which provided itself with real means by creating the Comité Interprofessionnel d’Entente et d’Etudes du Vin de Bordeaux, established by regional administration in 1943.
Wishing to promote their wines by ensuring improved quality, the Bordeaux wine industry made an active contribution by establishing in 1936 the INAO (National Institute for Appellations of Origin).
Today, 97% of Bordeaux’s production is sold as AOC wines, with a success that is well-known. This pursuit for achieving increasingly higher quality is also emphasized by the classification of Saint-Emilion wines in 1955 or the creation of a new AOC Pessac-Léognan in 1987.
The 20th century is also one of a swift adjustment to the modern world:
- Development of logistical constraints: wine shipped in bottles and less in bulk
- Concentration of companies: the number of companies fell from 1 000 to 300
- Specificity of professions: wine merchants specialize in certain fields, depending on products and markets, particularly to deal with developments in distribution channels (the appearance of Mass Retail for example – supermarkets, hypermarkets).
The process of winning back markets during the 1980s and 1990s boosted exports which now represent 32% of total sales. The end of the 20th century saw spectacular advances in technical knowledge about agronomy, viticulture and oenology. It also saw foreign competitors (from California, Australia, South Africa, etc) arriving at the forefront, and this forced Bordeaux to reconsider its position whilst “winning back” market share it had lost.
21st century: the challenge of finding a new position in world wine supply
The challenge in the years to come is to win back traditional markets and win over new ones by improving the quality of Bordeaux wines even further.