City of Wine: A History of the Bordeaux Wine Trade

Bordeaux. Mention the name and it conjures up images of fine French wines, a port city dominated by the wine trade, and tens of thousands of acres in the surrounding region covered in vineyards. And this impression is not incorrect. Over a quarter of a million acres of land around Bordeaux and within the wider estuary of the River Garonne and the Gironde département are under grape cultivation. The region produces over five million hectolitres of wine every year, emerging from approximately 9,000 different chateaus. The Bordeaux region is also responsible for the production of more top-quality wine than any other geographical area in the whole world. Bordeaux’s reputation as amongst the foremost centers of wine production globally is well earned. Here we explore its past and present.

The Early History of Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux has been settled since around the fourth or third centuries BC when a Celtic tribe called the Bituriges Vivisci settled here and named the town Burdigala. By the start of the first century BC, the tribes here were in communication with the Romans, but it was not until the early 50s BC that the settlement came under Roman rule during Julius Caesar’s blistering conquest of Gaul and the Low Countries.

Roman Burdigala quickly emerged as a center of viticulture in eastern France under Roman rule. By the second half of the first century AD Pliny the Elder refers obliquely to wine being produced here in his Natural History. The first clear references to Bordeaux as a wine-producing region in western Gaul come from the Latin poet Ausonius, who in the fourth century AD wrote several poems about his own estate near the River Garonne, where he had approximately 25 hectares under grape cultivation, while also praising the wines of the wider Bordeaux region. Thus, the roots of Bordeaux wine lie firmly in the Roman period.

The Geography, Climate, and Grape Varieties of Bordeaux and the Gironde

Bordeaux and the wider geography and climate of the Gironde are ideally suited to grape cultivation and wine production. It benefits from a warm Mediterranean-like climate, while also enjoying winds and a micro-climate wrought by the cooler winds coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. This cools the vineyards in the summer and prevents excessive winter freeze during the colder months. In spring ample supplies of water are provided for the growing season.

The Bordeaux region has become most acclaimed for its cabernet sauvignons, merlots, and sémillons. Red wines are consequently dominant in the region, though sauvignon blanc is also widely grown for the more niche white Bordeaux. Because of the micro-climates, some other grape varieties are grown plentifully in specific areas, notably cabernet francs on the right bank of the River Garonne.

The Medieval Trade

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the kingdoms of the Franks, Burgundians and others in Gaul led to a clear decline in the French wine trade. Bordeaux was no exception, but eventually owing to the expansion of European monasticism and the general emergence of Europe from the Dark Ages which followed the collapse of Roman rule in Western Europe, the wine trade began to emerge in full vigour again from the ninth century onwards.

The High Middle Ages, the period roughly from 1000 AD to 1300 AD, saw a considerable rise in the prestige of Bordeaux wine. Much of this was owing to the region’s connections to England. The wider Gascony and Gironde regions were ruled for hundreds of years by the English crown and the city of Bordeaux served as the administrative capital of the English county here. Consequently, large amounts of Gascon or Bordeaux wine were being exported to England and Wales, while a vast trade with Ireland also developed. This trade was damaged by the Hundred Year’s War between England and France from 1337 to 1453 but soon recovered.

Bordeaux Wine in Early Modern Europe

Bordeaux’s modern reputation for fine wine and the volume of its production really began to emerge in the seventeenth century owing to a number of developments. Firstly, the marshy Médoc region was drained by skilled Dutch land reclamationists, making tens of thousands of acres of extra land available for grape cultivation. Secondly, the Bordeaux mercantile community began aiming their wine at a more sophisticated clientele. Consequently claret emerged as the wine of choice amongst the nobility and upper middle classes of Britain and other parts of Northern and Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. New storage methods using glass bottles and cork stoppers, as opposed to barrels, also ensured that Bordeaux vintage wines burst onto the European market, where previously the rather thin wines of Gascony and the Gironde did not age well. All of this was facilitated by leading wine merchants and producers such as the Marquis de Ségur, Nicolas-Alexandre.

An extraordinary element of the Bordeaux wine trade during these years was the degree to which it started to become dominated by foreign merchants and growers. In particular, a cohort of Irish merchants and growers became prominent here during the eighteenth century. This was not wholly incongruous. At this time tens of thousands of Irishmen and women, who came to be known as the Wild Geese, left Ireland, where they could no longer worship peacefully as Roman Catholics, and settled in countries like France, Spain, and Austria.

Some of these moved in on the Bordeaux wine trade, an industry in which Irish traders already played a significant part owing to the large volume of wine being traded to Ireland in return for Irish salmon and other fish. Thus, in the course of the eighteenth-century Irish wine merchants such as Abraham Lawton became key figures in the wine trade in the city of Bordeaux itself, while the Lynch family of merchants, who originally hailed from the city of Galway in western Ireland, established chateaus in the Gironde which still bear their name three centuries later.

The Nineteenth Century and the Rothschilds

The nineteenth century was a period of mixed fortunes for the Bordeaux wine trade. On the one hand, the industry, as with many other famed wine-producing areas in Europe, was ravaged by several diseases which struck the grape vineyards of Gascony one after another. Powdery mildew arrived in the 1850s, followed by phylloxera in the 1860s and 1870s, and then downy mildew in the 1880s.

As devastating as these outbreaks were, though, they were all combated effectively over time, while they were offset by the development of numerous chateaus which became world famous. In particular, the arrival of the Rothschilds, one of Europe’s most successful mercantile and banking families, transformed the trade here. Beginning with James Mayer de Rothschild, who relocated to France from Germany to extend the family’s business interests into Paris, the capital of Napoleon Bonaparte’s European empire, in the early 1810s, the Rothschilds took over and vastly expanded many of Bordeaux and the wider Gascony region’s most acclaimed wineries, including Chateau Lafite and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. In tandem with this growth in the Burgundy chateaus, a new classification system was introduced in 1855 which ranked the top chateaus of the Bordeaux-Gascony-Gironde region according to their quality.

The Modern Bordeaux Wine Trade

By the early twentieth century, owing to the massive expansion in the wine trade by mercantile families like the Rothschilds, the de Ségurs, and Lynches, two-thirds of all French wine being exported to countries like Britain was coming from Bordeaux and the Gironde. This dominance of the export market aside, there is no doubt that there were many problems in the methods being used by a cross-section of the foremost chateaus, including Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, and Lafour by the 1960s and a new generation of chateau owners, advised by leading oenologists such as Émile Peynaud, found it necessary to invest heavily in new production methods involving modern fermentation vessels made of stainless steel.

Bordeaux wines have continued to flourish and gain in reputation internationally since the 1960s and 1970s. Prices have continued to expand owing to the opening up of new markets such as those in China, facilitated in part by initiatives such as Vinexpo which had sought to promote the region’s products internationally since the early 1980s.  Owing to the riches generated by the wine trade Bordeaux stands as the only wine-producing region in the world where chateaus can afford to employ helicopters to try to agitate cold air during spring frost.

A by-product of the fame of the region’s wines has been an ever-increased specialization in red wines and today just 10% of the wines emerging from Bordeaux are white or sweet wines. However, in a world of ever-emerging producers in countries like Mexico, Poland, Denmark, and even Canada, and one in which climate change is resulting in ever more precarious conditions for French wine producers, it remains to be seen where the future of Bordeaux wines will lie 100 years from now.

This Day in Wine History

15 November 1868 – On in this day in 1868 James Mayer de Rothschild, Baron de Rothschild, died in Paris at the age of 76. Rothschild hailed from the Rothschild family of Jewish German bankers and businesspeople, who had an established wealth going back centuries, but who rose to become arguably the wealthiest family in world history in relative terms during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the early 1810s, when he was just in his early twenties, James had relocated to France from Germany to extend the family’s business interests into Paris, the capital of Napoleon Bonaparte’s European empire. The Napoleonic Empire was gone within a few years, but the Rothschilds’ business dealings in France have lasted ever since. The most evident aspect of this was in James’s acquisition of several major wineries and wine estates in and around the city of Bordeaux, including Chateau Lafite. Other family members continued this tradition and the Rothschilds remain one of the most significant families involved in the French wine trade down to the present day.

5 December 1985 – On this day in 1985 a new record price for the sale at auction of a single bottle of wine was set when Christie’s sold a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite for $156,000. The bottle was believed to have been owned by Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the third president of the US from 1801 to 1809. Jefferson served as the American ambassador to France in the mid-1780s and developed extensive trade connections there, particularly amongst the wine merchants of the city of Bordeaux. As such it makes sense that the bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite would have been provided to him, but nevertheless many have questioned the authenticity of the bottle sold by Christie’s in 1985.

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References

[1] https://www.bordeaux-negoce.com/en/bordeaux-negoce/the-wine-trade/ [accessed 9/10/22]; ‘Bordeaux’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [2] https://www.romanports.org/en/the-ports/116-burdigala.html [accessed 9/10/22]; ‘Bordeaux’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [3] Edmund Penning-Rowsell, The Wines of Bordeaux (Sixth Edition, London, 1989); ‘Bordeaux’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [4] Marjery K. James, ‘The Fluctuations of the Anglo-Gascon Wine Trade During the Fourteenth Century’, in The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1951), pp. 170–196; ‘Bordeaux’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [5] ‘Bordeaux’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [6] Stephen McGarry, Irish Brigades Abroad: From the Wild Geese to the Napoleonic Wars (Dublin, 2013). [7] Nathan Mannion, ‘The Wine Geese: Irish exiles who started new lives in French vineyards’, The Irish Times, 2 April 2020; Raymond Blake, ‘French Grapes, Irish Heart: The Irish wine families who made their mark in Bordeaux’, The Irish Times, 11 October 2020.

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