With its rich history of making and exporting fine wines for over 800 years, not to mention the presence of vineyards in the region for over two thousand more, the mere word “Bordeaux” conjures up beauty, elegance and quality. In short, it truly remains the most established and respected wine-producing region in the world.
Bordeaux as we know it today has its origins in the marriage of France’s Eleanor of Aquitaine to England’s King Henry Plantagenet, or Henry II, in 1152. Given its ideal location as a natural port (its name is derived from the French, “au bord de l’eau,” meaning “along the waters”), it was only natural that commercial opportunities came knocking after the region came under England’s rule as part of the marriage contract. Trade links with England were quickly established, which yielded a swift, dramatic increase in the popularity of the grape from this special place. Initially an insular product, Bordeaux wine became an important export commodity, with the classic Saint-Émilion being the first wine in history to be exported to royals – in this case, King Edward I – and earning an unprecedented reputation as a prestige item.
With the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the export of Bordeaux wines abruptly stopped. Luckily for the world, wine production did not, and the area’s vineyards survived the long, arduous conflict between England and France. Its bottled gems continued to be smuggled around much of Europe.
Fast forward to the 17th century: German and Dutch merchant traders established a relationship with France, opening up trade routes to the New World. The Dutch in particular were enamored of the wines, and drove its introduction to markets far beyond bordering countries, introducing such elements as adding sulfur to barrels to preserve wine quality, and draining marshlands in the area to increase both vineyard numbers and regional access.
With market growth came client curiosity. While wines from the region had previously been marketed as “Bordeaux,” the 18th century brought about the establishment of specific wine origin and appellation. The first brands to embrace this practice are still recognized today: Margaux, Latour, Haut Brion, and the incomparable Lafite. New appellation regulations, known as Vignoble de Bordeaux, were imposed in 1725, paving the way for the start of lavish, wealthy wine chateaus and estates.
1855: Bordeaux is Classified
Emperor Napoleon prepared for the Great Exhibition in Paris – an international showcase of products from industry, the arts and agriculture drawing a global audience of over 5 million visitors – 1855 also marks a turning point in the history of Bordeaux, as this was the year it was classified.
Judged by merchants of the time, the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, driven by the imminent Exhibition, tiered wines into five categories, according to their terroir (or environmental conditions), price and quality—from First Growths, or Crus, for the top ranking wines, down to Fifth Growths. This historical ranking system is still used today and remains unchanged, with one notable exception: Château Mouton Rothschild was given first-growth status in 1973, following a fifty-year campaign by its owner, Baron Philippe de Rothschild. It was widely believed that Mouton Rothschild’s original exclusion from the First Growth category was due to the purchase of the Mouton Rothschild vineyard by an Englishman just prior to the Great Exhibition. The market price of Château Mouton Rothschild had in fact been equal to that of Château Lafite Rothschild—which had been included in the original selection of First Growth wines.
Many wine critics have argued that the 1855 classification is now outdated, and should not be considered the barometer for accuracy regarding the quality of wines being produced on Bordeaux estates. The quality of certain chateaux has certainly evolved since the time of Napoleon III – a fact that is reflected in the prices of Bordeaux wines, and is independent of individual growth status.
Appellation Origine Controlle – The Highest Quality Control Standards
The Appellation d’Origine Controlle (or AOC) Certification was introduced in France during the 1930s. The AOC guarantees the geographical origin of over 300 French wines, including many Bordeaux. Its issue is dependent on strict regulations designed to standardize the winemaking process so that it is always carried out in a traditional and consistent manner. The rules forbid the grafting of vines from other regions, as well as restricting the varieties of grape that can be used.
The AOC also prevents any increase in the size of the original vineyards, resulting in a limit on the amount of wine that any one château can produce. The limited supply of Bordeaux’s most popular wines is crucial to their success as investment vehicles. Coupled with the rise in global demand, it’s a major reason why prices for the top Bordeaux have risen so consistently over the last few decades.
The AOC protects the winemaking traditions of Bordeaux, and ensures that the renowned quality of the region’s wines is maintained. In doing so, it safeguards their immense popularity into the future.