From Wa­ter to Wine

The ad­van­tage of Bordeaux’s lo­ca­tion along the Garonne River is two-fold, pro­vid­ing fa­vor­able con­di­tions to pro­duce world-class wines and a strate­gic lo­ca­tion from which to trade them

Bordeaux J'Adore - - Contents - CARO­LINE MATTHEWS

although its vineyards are not alone in their prox­im­ity to the ga

ronne, this river which rises south of Toulouse and flows North West to­wards the At­lantic has ben­e­fit­ted the com­merce of Bordeaux wine more than oth­ers. Hugely in­stru­men­tal in their de­vel­op­ment of trade routes from the port, the Ro­mans, English and Dutch also left their mark on the viti­cul­tural prac­tices of the re­gion, which still con­trib­ute to the style of wines pro­duced to this day. Through­out the city there are signs of homage to the Garonne River. The ar­chi­tec­ture of the 18th-cen­tury build­ing which houses Le Bar à Vin is rem­i­nis­cent of the prow of a ship, while a stained­glass win­dow in­side de­picts an al­le­gory of the river. An­other strik­ing de­sign - La Cité du Vin, was in­spired in part by the swirling ed­dies of the Garonne, whilst the fluid move­ment of visi­tors in­side the build­ing is said to mimic the ebb and flow of wa­ter. The lo­ca­tion of the mu­seum along the water­front also al­lows it to wel­come boats to its pon­toon for ex­cur­sions to dis­cover Bordeaux’s moon­shaped port. On­board tast­ings are part of the fun!

Bur­di­gala be­fore Bordeaux

The Garonne had al­ready been es­tab­lished as an im­por­tant trade route be­fore the Ro­man Bi­turiges ar­rived in Bordeaux in the 1st-cen­tury, a fac­tor in their de­ci­sion to set­tle there. Given how deeply em­bed­ded wine con­sump­tion was in their cul­ture, it is likely that the tribe planted vines as was the prac­tice by Ital­ian set­tlers in other parts of Gaul. The lo­ca­tion of these vineyards on the right bank of the river in ar­eas such as Lou­piac or Blaye was no ac­ci­dent. Be­ing a Mediter­ranean plant, the vines needed sunny, south-fac­ing slopes with good drainage.

The dis­cov­ery of Ro­man am­phorae in the re­gion at­tests to the pro­duc­tion of wine, as do the works of po­ets such as Au­so­nius, who him­self had vineyards (prob­a­bly near Bazas) dur­ing the 4th-cen­tury, and whose most fa­mous writ­ings in­cluded ref­er­ences to wa­ter. Although lit­tle is known about Bordeaux and its wine trade in the cen­turies fol­low­ing the fall of the Ro­man Em­pire, the mid­dle of the 9th-cen­tury saw the vineyards on the banks of both the Garonne and Dor­dogne rivers de­stroyed dur­ing Vik­ing at­tacks.

Clairet to Claret

The wed­ding in 1152 of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plan­ta­genet, which re­sulted in Gas­cony be­ing ruled by Eng­land, was the cat­a­lyst for Bordeaux’s as­cent to pre-em­i­nence in the wine trade. Due to nu­mer­ous priv­i­leges and pref­er­en­tial taxes, Bordeaux wine, which mostly con­sisted of clairet (a mix of red and white grapes), was cheaper for the English than any other im­ported wine at the time. In­creased de­mand re­sulted in more vineyards be­ing planted in Blaye and Bourg, but Graves to the south was the largest pro­duc­ing area, due in part to its prox­im­ity to the port. Not all Gas­con wine was cheaper, how­ever. De­spite a more re­li­able cli­mate for ripen­ing grapes, those from ar­eas such as Gail­lac and Berg­erac, also lo­cated along the Garonne and its trib­u­taries, were con­sid­ered ri­vals and there­fore sub­jected to ex­tra taxes when shipped out of Bordeaux. Ad­di­tion­ally, these Haut Pays wines were not al­lowed into the port un­til af­ter Christ­mas, mean­ing that lo­cal Bordeaux wines dom­i­nated the stock traded when the fleet ar­rived in au­tumn, to bring back wine to Eng­land, Scot­land and Ire­land. The flotilla which ar­rived in spring came mainly to pur­chase these other wines.

The ves­sels would ar­rive at the open­ing of the Gironde es­tu­ary around the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber, of­ten in a con­voy of 200-300 so as to dis­suade pi­rates from at­tack­ing. Once the tides and winds were right, the race to reach the port of Bordeaux would be­gin, those who ar­rived first were sold the best wine. Ships would stay in the port up to 8 weeks, be­ing loaded with wine and mer­chan­dise from flat-bot­tomed boats known as gabar­res, as the quays were in­ac­ces­si­ble. Be­fore de­part­ing, the ship’s cap­tain was obliged to at­tach a branch from a cy­press tree to the prow of the boat, to prove that the wine orig­i­nated in Bordeaux. By the 14th-cen­tury, a quar­ter of all Bordeaux’s wine ex­ports went to Eng­land and were re­ceived in ports such as Bristol. Trade re­sumed again in the 15th-cen­tury, fol­low­ing the slump at the end of the Hun­dred Years War, when France re­gained con­trol of Gas­cony. The port of Bordeaux by now ex­isted pre­dom­i­nantly for the wine trade, as mer­chants who were keen to profit from the re­gion’s chief ex­port, switched from pro­duc­ing grain to wine.

Garon­naise Ge­og­ra­phy


Viewed from the quay­side in Bordeaux, the Garonne is of­ten per­ceived to be

dirty or tur­bu­lent, due to the café au lait color of the wa­ter. In re­al­ity, the large quan­tity of sed­i­ment which flows from its source in the Pyre­nees is re­spon­si­ble for the color. As it jour­neys to­wards the At­lantic Ocean, it joins the Dor­dogne river be­tween Mar­gaux and Bourg (on op­pos­ing banks) to form the Gironde es­tu­ary, the largest in West­ern Europe. Dur­ing the Ice Age, glaciers from the moun­tains fol­lowed this flu­vial course, push­ing back the banks of the river and de­posit­ing gravel stones.

“The best vineyards are those from which you can see the wa­ter, but where the roots of the vines do not get wet”, so goes an old Mé­doc say­ing. Here some of the most highly-prized sites are on small hillocks or tertre, over­look­ing the es­tu­ary. This prox­im­ity to the wa­ter has the added at­trac­tion of reg­u­lat­ing tem­per­a­tures amongst the vines, pro­tect­ing them against frost in spring and cool­ing them with sum­mer breezes in the heat. These vine­yard lo­ca­tions have an im­por­tant, pos­i­tive ef­fect on wine qual­ity and, cou­pled with the stony and rocky soils, which limit wa­ter-hold­ing ca­pac­ity and have the abil­ity to re­tain heat, con­trib­ute to the pro­duc­tion of the world’s great­est red wines.

Fur­ther south, the con­flu­ence of the Garonne with the smaller Ciron River, causes a unique meso­cli­mate, pro­vid­ing the ideal hu­mid con­di­tions for ‘no­ble rot’. The au­tumn even­ing mists which en­velop the vineyards are the re­sult of the cooler wa­ter of the trib­u­tary flow­ing into the warmer, tidal Garonne, mean­ing that here too, the river is in­stru­men­tal in the cre­ation of top-class wines, no­tably sweet white wine from ar­eas such as Sauternes.

Go­ing Dutch

Even be­fore their en­gi­neers were tasked to drain the marshy Mé­doc re­gion, the Dutch had al­ready be­come the most in­flu­en­tial na­tion in the in­ter­na­tional trade of wine and spir­its. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of Eng­land’s loss of Gas­cony in 1453, their mer­chants as­sumed con­trol of the di­rect trade from Bordeaux, ship­ping mostly in­ex­pen­sive white wine to north­ern Europe, although no­ble Dutch house­holds were spend­ing up to a third of their ex­pen­di­ture on fine wines at that time. Records from 1678 show that the Dutch con­ducted more trade through Bordeaux than the English, man­aged by mer­chant houses such as Bey­er­man, founded ear­lier in the cen­tury and still around to­day.

Ar­guably, they left a greater legacy on the viti­cul­ture and vini­fi­ca­tion of Bordeaux’s wines. The Mé­doc was an in­hos­pitable marsh­land un­til they ap­plied their drainage tech­nol­ogy in the mid-17th cen­tury, ren­der­ing the rocky land suit­able for grow­ing grapes. The Chartrons area of the city also ben­e­fit­ted from their skills, al­low­ing wine mer­chants to es­tab­lish vast ware­houses along the quays and ships to dock along­side them. This also marked the ar­rival of coop­ers in the district, some of whom had pre­vi­ously been en­gaged in ship build­ing and who num­bered over 500 by the early 18th-cen­tury. When Dutch mer­chants dis­cov­ered that the ad­di­tion of burn­ing sul­phur to bar­rels meant wine could be pre­served dur­ing ship­ping, wine-mak­ers be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with longer bar­rel-aging pro­cesses. The re­sul­tant wine was deeper in color, bet­ter qual­ity and had the po­ten­tial to age.

The Golden Age to The Mod­ern Age

The suc­cess of New French Clarets, as this wine be­came known, saw the

es­tab­lish­ment of more mer­chant houses, of­ten by im­mi­grants ar­riv­ing by boat from Bri­tain and Ire­land who were ship­ping the wine back to their home­land. With their in­creased wealth, the Bordeaux bour­geois class could bet­ter main­tain their vineyards and the size of the area un­der vine grew. So too did the num­ber of châteaux in the Mé­doc, their im­pres­sive façades fac­ing the es­tu­ary, as the water­ways re­mained the main method of trans­port to the city. These grand ar­chi­tec­tural de­signs were no help to the own­ers how­ever, when phyl­lox­era dev­as­tated their vineyards in the 1870s, although those with vines planted on flat­ter land close to the Garonne were able to flood these ar­eas, killing the aphid. For­tu­nately for Bordeaux wine, the so­lu­tion of graft­ing Amer­i­can root­stocks was iden­ti­fied by the late 19th-cen­tury. Fast for­ward to the late 20th-cen­tury and Bordeaux city was in full re­gen­er­a­tion mode, due in no small part to the ef­forts of mayor, Alain Juppé. The old mer­chant ware­houses, long empty of wine and block­ing ac­cess to the river were razed, mak­ing way for a water­front promenade which re­con­nected the city with the Garonne. Although the boats which dock along­side the Chartrons to­day are no longer trans­port­ing bar­rels, Bordeaux wine is still part of the lure for the 30,000 or so cruise pas­sen­gers who dis­em­bark in the city each year.

The re­ju­ve­nated quays are also the lo­ca­tion for the bi­en­nial Fête le Vin, wine fes­ti­val which is held in June and show­cases wine from over 80 ap­pel­la­tions, with bar­rel rolling com­pe­ti­tions, con­certs and fire­works along the quay­side pro­vid­ing a break from tast­ing wine. The 2018 edi­tion, which will take place in June, 14th to 18th, coin­cid­ing with the ar­rival of the Tall Ships Re­gatta and some other tall ships, will fea­ture a fit­ting ex­hi­bi­tion on Bordeaux wine and the his­tory of its sea­far­ing trade.

And it is not just the city that is re­con­nect­ing with the water­ways. Bordeaux River Cruise, one of the many com­pa­nies who have in­vested in this tourist ac­tiv­ity in re­cent years, or­ga­nize ex­cur­sions fol­low­ing the Garonne into the es­tu­ary, stop­ping off at the small is­lands of Île Mar­gaux with its vineyards and Île de Pati­ras, home to mi­grat­ing birds and a light­house. Fur­ther along the Gironde, the côte ar­eas of Bourg and Blaye take ad­van­tage of their pic­turesque lo­ca­tions and his­toric mon­u­ments to at­tract visi­tors to their wine es­tates.


The CIVB Bar à Vin, Bordeaux.


The pont Cha­ban-delmas and the Cité du vin. Bar­rel rolling com­pe­ti­tion dur­ing Bordeaux Fête le Vin.


A view of part of the quays and port of Bordeaux, known as Chartrons and Ba­calan (1804-1806) by Pierre La­cour.

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