The Burgeoning White Wines of the Médoc, Bordeaux

Only 10% of Bordeaux’s entire production is white wine; of that, only 2% are sweet. Bordeaux is well-known for its red wines. White wine accounted for over half of the region’s overall production only three hundred years ago. Located southwest of Paris, Bordeaux’s Médoc area encompasses the southernmost section of the wider Médoc district. This region covers nearly two-thirds of the peninsula known as the Médoc. Both red and white wines might be given the same appellation in the same area.

Bordeaux, White Wine, Red Wine Article

Figure 1. Modern-day Médoc Area Map. Source:

Even if white wine was wiped out in other regions, the Médoc region was able to thrive and continue producing white wine, which raises the question of how this happened.

The Historical Concept: It all started in the 1700s

The first Médoc wines came to Britain in the 1700s thanks to the Methuen contract, which made it easier for Portuguese wine to be exported to the United Kingdom. Phylloxera was identified in 1850, about the same time the Médoc wine classification system was established. The “Australian gold rush” began in the year 1850, as well[1].

In addition to the production method, changes were made to the vines. A wine from the Médoc region was unknown in England until 1708, and Claret was primarily produced in Bordeaux’ Gravels district to the south. In 1680, the Dutch were able to drain the land north of the city so that grapes could be grown there, making the region more productive. Consequently, one of the world’s most renowned wine regions was born[2].

Because of growing prosperity, higher quality wine, and more efficient distribution, its value has risen. Due to this, there was an increase in the categorization of wines to bring attention to those of exceptional quality and make them simpler to discover. When the Bordeaux merchants gathered together in 1855 to identify their city’s wines, they found 59 distinct white wine varietals in the Médoc and the adjacent regions of Sauternes (26 red wine varieties). After that, they rated them according to their market value. Claret’s reputation benefited from this, even though it was a small part of the region’s total production. Bordeaux continues to attract drinkers despite their inability to buy classified growths because of the cachet that comes with being associated with the area[3].

An approach to winemaking that kept tradition took root in the Médoc region during this period, making it one of the most famous in France. Since most of the country was drained in the eighteenth century, the word “Médoc” was coined to describe a good land area for grapes in the vicinity. For grapes to thrive in this environment, they had to be emptied of their water[4].

Médoc wines were first sold to Europe in the mid-eighteenth century after their vines were removed in the 1850s. As a result, the dawn of the industrial revolution was also heralded simultaneously. In 1855, Bordeaux negociants had established themselves as the most potent arm of their wine industry. A sizable percentage was actually of German, English, or Irish heritage (reflecting the markets to which they were exporting). The négociants, not the chateaux, established the famous Médoc classification in 1855[5].

As a result of the Great Exhibition held in Paris in 1855, Bordeaux wines were utilized to demonstrate French winemaking tradition. Therefore the classification of the Médoc is possibly the most well-known in the world. It was impossible to make an exception for one of the four excellent wines, which originated from an area outside of the Médoc and south of Bordeaux, since the chateau produced high quality.

This system of classification is still in use today. Chateaux with privileged status still prominently display their status as a classified growth on their labels for consumers to recognize. Changing this longstanding tradition would be impossible since it is so entrenched in the region’s cultural fabric[6].

The Developments in the Modern World

Additional categories have been introduced in Bordeaux based on the Médoc region’s system. In 1855, a new classification for Sauternes was developed that is less well-known today. In 1959, Graves created a new classification system for red and white wines. Both red and white wines might be found at certain chateaux. In contrast, whereas Médoc wines are classified by price, Burgundy wines are classified by location. This is inevitable since vineyards might be held by various grape growers in the same area[7].

Not long after the war, things changed.

The Catastrophic Frost in Bordeaux in 1956.

An intense frost severely damaged Bordeaux in 1956. Many of the vines died due to the considerable damage, and new ones had to be planted in their place. Following a lengthy period of abandonment of land, fresh grapes had to wait for at least three years before they could be harvested. It takes a long time and costs both in terms of money and time[8].

Red grapes, namely Merlot, have taken the place of the white vines killed in the Entre Deux Mers region’s more excellent soils. Red vines were also transplanted as part of the project. In time, Cabernet Sauvignon was replaced by Merlot, a grape that thrives in better soils, and Bordeaux is today recognized for its Merlot[9].

Red vines are better able to withstand the cold than white ones. Thus, the impact should have been more minor. The decision to replant with red was also made in response to market demands. A shift from dry whites to sweet ones began as early as the middle of the 1800s. Late in the ’50s, a transition from semi-sweet wines to reds started in the 1980s[10].

There was a dearth of interest in the off-dry white wines, most of which were probably rather good. In the early days of temperature control in the winemaking process, sulfur-laden white wines were a common concern.

For the first time, red manufacturing overtook white output in 1973[11].

Does Modern Science support the Great Renaissance?

In the 1990s, Denis Dubourdieu and his team at Bordeaux University were instrumental in reviving white Bordeaux wine[12].

They could isolate the chemicals that give white wine, particularly Sauvignon Blanc, its distinctive fragrance. As a consequence of their research, they now have a better understanding of how various agricultural techniques and terroir might boost the concentration of certain chemicals in grapes. While making wine, they also learned how to preserve it by controlling procedures such as pressing, maintaining temperature, preventing oxidation, and maintaining skin contact (battonage)[13].

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Bordeaux’s white wines, as a result, have never been more delicious or affordable than they are right now. Despite this, white Bordeaux production is restricted and has been steadily decreasing over the last several years. Intriguingly, more white wines are now being produced outside the traditional areas typically identified with their origin.


July 26, 1992: Denis Dubourdieu, a winemaker and a lecturer at the University of Bordeaux, published research on “white wine,” a massive comeback in the French wine industry[14]. A French villa was chosen for his study because he owned many properties there. Furthermore, due to his work with vines, white wine production in Bordeaux, France, has risen to new heights in the Médoc region.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Bordeaux Chateaux- A History of the Grands Crus Classes 1855-2005 Bordeaux Grands Crus Classés 1855- Wine Châteaux of the Médoc and Sauternes


[1] Williams, A. (1995). Flying Winemakers: The New World of Wine. Adelaide: Winetitles.

[2] Williams, D. (2004). Blasons de Bordeaux. Harpers, 16th July, 21–23.

[3] Williams, P. (2001). Positioning wine tourism destinations: an image analysis. International Journal of Wine Marketing, 13(3), 42-58

[4] Wilson, J. (1998). Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines. London: Mitchell Beazley

[5] Unwin, T. (2001). From Montpellier to New England: John Locke on wine. In R. A. Butlin & I. Black (Eds.), Place, Culture and Identity: Essays in Historical Geography in Honour of Dr. Alan R.H. Baker (pp. 69–90). Quebec: Laval University Press.

[6] Tustin, M., & Lockshin, L. (2001). Region of origin: does it really count? Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, 16(5), 139–143.

[7] Tustin, M., & Lockshin, L. (2001). Region of origin: does it really count? Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, 16(5), 139–143.

[8] Travers, D. (Ed.). (1999). Vintage: The Wine Industry Yearbook. Adelaide: Winetitles.

[9] Kym Anderson, The World’s Wine Markets : Globalization at Work (Cheltenham, Uk ; Northampton, Ma: Edward Elgar Pub, 2004).

[10] LoubèreLeo A, The Red and the White : A History of Wine in France and Italy in the Nineteenth Century (Albany: State University Of New York Press, 1978).

[11] Abhijit V. Banerjee et al., “Long Run Health Impacts of Income Shocks: Wine and Phylloxera in 19th Century France,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007

[12] “Annual Burgundy Tasting, 2002 Vintage,” Journal of Wine Research 16, no. 1 (April 2005): 71–80

[13] This, P.; Lacombe, T.; Thomas, M.R. Historical origins and genetic diversity of wine grapes. Trends Genet. 2006, 22, 511–519.

[14] De Almeida Costa, A.I.; Marano-Marcolini, C.; Malfeito-Ferreira, M.; Loureiro, V. Historical wines of Portugal: The classification, consumer associations and marketing implications. Foods 2021, 10, 979.

Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine RegionsTags: , , By Published On: October 31, 2022Last Updated: February 27, 2024

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