The region of Bordeaux in Aquitaine lies around the confluence of the Rivers Garonne and Dordogne. This confluence gives rise to the Gironde estuary, the largest estuary in Europe, which flows northwest for some 65km (40m) before merging into the Bay of Biscay.
The Romans first carried the vine to Bordeaux, as attested by the 1st century naturalist Pliny the Elder and the 4th century rhetorician Ausonius, who is still remembered by Château Ausone in Saint- Emilion. In 1152, Henry II of England married the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine: the region came under English rule and ‘claret’ (Bordeaux red wine) under great demand. By the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, France had regained control of the Bordelais; but, despite heavy export duties, the British Isles remained an important market for claret.
In the course of the 17th century, Dutch traders drained the marshland around the Médoc, which soon outclassed the Graves as the pre-eminent viticultural area of the Bordelais. Pierre de Rauzan, a grand bourgeois and manager of Château Latour until his death in 1692, accumulated the land that later became Châteaux Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pichon Longueville Baron, Rauzan-Ségla, and Rauzan-Gassies. Later, Nicolas Alexandre, marquis de Ségur acquired the epithet Prince des Vignes after coming into possession of the Médoc properties of Châteaux Lafite, Latour, Mouton, and Calon-Ségur. He turned some pebbles of Pauillac into buttons for his coat, which Louis XV once mistook for diamonds.
In 1855, Napoleon III ordered a classification of the top châteaux of Bordeaux for the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Bordeaux brokers ranked 61 châteaux into five crus or ‘growths’ based on a savant mélange of price and reputation. All of the 61 châteaux that made it into their classification are in the Haut Médoc, bar one—Haut Brion in the Graves.
Starting in the late 19th century, the Bordelais began to suffer from a succession of American imports, first oidium (powdery mildew) and then phylloxera. In the wake of phylloxera, the vineyards had to be replanted onto American rootstock, and the grape varieties that tolerated this best such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot became dominant. But then came downy mildew and black rot, followed by war, economic depression, more war, the severe frost of 1956, and an oil crisis. In the late 20th century, many châteaux found themselves in a state of utter disrepair and in dire need of the restoration and regeneration that is still under way.
Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.