With its rich history of making and exporting fine wines for over 800 years, not to mention thepresence 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 andrespected wine-producing region in the world.
Bordeaux as we know it today has its origins in the marriage of France’s Eleanor of Aquitaine toEngland’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 onlynatural that commercial opportunities came knocking after the region came under England’s ruleas part of the marriage contract. Trade links with England were quickly established, which yieldeda swift, dramatic increase in the popularity of the grape from this special place. Initially an insularproduct, Bordeaux wine became an important export commodity, with the classic Saint-Émilionbeing the first wine in history to be exported to royals – in this case, King Edward I – and earningan unprecedented reputation as a prestige item.
With the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the export of Bordeaux wines abruptlystopped. Luckily for the world, wine production did not, and the area’s vineyards survived thelong, arduous conflict between England and France. Its bottled gems continued to be smuggledaround much of Europe.
Fast forward to the 17th century: German and Dutch merchant traders established a relationshipwith France, opening up trade routes to the New World. The Dutch in particular were enamoredof the wines, and drove its introduction to markets far beyond bordering countries, introducingsuch elements as adding sulfur to barrels to preserve wine quality, and draining marshlands inthe area to increase both vineyard numbers and regional access. With market growth came client curiosity. While wines fromthe region had previously been marketed as “Bordeaux,” the18thcentury brought about the establishment of specific wineorigin and appellation. The first brands to embrace thispractice are still recognized today: Margaux, Latour, HautBrion, and the incomparable Lafite. New appellationregulations, known asVignoble de Bordeaux,were imposed in1725, paving the way for the start of lavish, wealthy winechateaus and estates.
1855: Bordeaux is Classified As Emperor Napoleon prepared for the Great Exhibition inParis – an international showcase of products from industry,the arts and agriculture drawing a global audience of over 5million visitors – 1855 also marks a turning point in thehistory of Bordeaux, as this was the year it was classified.
Judged by merchants of the time, the Bordeaux Wine OfficialClassification of 1855, driven by the imminent Exhibition,tiered wines into five categories, according to their terroir (orenvironmental conditions), price and quality—from FirstGrowths, orCrus,for the top ranking wines, down to Fifth Growths.This historical ranking system is still used today and remainsunchanged, with one notable exception: Château Mouton Rothschildwas given first-growth status in 1973, following a fifty-year campaignby its owner, Baron Philippe de Rothschild. It was widely believedthat Mouton Rothschild’s original exclusion from the First Growthcategory was due to the purchase of the Mouton Rothschild vineyardby an Englishman just prior to the Great Exhibition. The market priceof Château Mouton Rothschild had in fact been equal to that ofChâteau Lafite Rothschild—which had been included in the originalselection of First Growth wines.
Many wine critics have argued that the 1855 classification is nowoutdated, and should not be considered the barometer for accuracyregarding the quality of wines being produced on Bordeaux estates.The quality of certain chateaux has certainly evolved since the timeof Napoleon III – a fact that is reflected in the prices of Bordeauxwines, and is independent of individual growth status.
Appellation Origine Controlee – The Highest Quality Control Standards The Appellation d’Origine Controlle (or AOC) Certification was introducedin France during the 1930s. The AOC guarantees the geographical originof over 300 French wines, including many Bordeaux. Its issue isdependent on strict regulations designed to standardize the winemakingprocess so that it is always carried out in a traditional and consistentmanner. The rules forbid the grafting of vines from other regions, as wellas 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 canproduce. The limited supply of Bordeaux’s most popular wines is crucialto their success as investment vehicles. Coupled with the rise in globaldemand, it’s a major reason why prices for the top Bordeaux have risenso consistently over the last few decades.
The AOC protects the winemaking traditions of Bordeaux, and ensuresthat the renowned quality of the region’s wines is maintained. In doingso, it safeguards their immense popularity into the future.
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