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
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.
“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.
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.
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.