Introducing the Bordeaux wine region
For thousands of years the history of mankind has been intertwined with that of the grapevine, making wine a fundamental symbol of our civilisation and a part of daily life. The art of fermenting grapes had been around for centuries by the time it first reached the South-West of France, near Bordeaux, almost 2000 years ago. The works of the poet Ausonius attest to the presence of viticulture in Bordeaux during the Roman period. Winegrowing swiftly became one of the cornerstones of Bordeaux's identity, shaping the course of the city's future. Over the course of two millennia wine has come to define Bordeaux and its people, becoming a source of pride and prestige for the whole region.
With approximately 120,500 hectares of vineyards (as of 2012), Bordeaux remains France's largest winegrowing region. One of the key Bordeaux appellations in terms of its geographical stretch is the Haut-Médoc, with its 5,523 hectares of vines. The surface area of the neighbouring Médoc appellation is slightly lower, covering 4,572 hectares. Moulis accounts for 596 ha, the prestigious Margaux 1,494 ha, Saint Julien 913 ha, Pauillac 1,220 ha and Saint Estèphe 1,214 ha. The Graves appellation covers a total of 3,939 ha, of which 1,434 fall within the famous Pessac-Léognan appellation.
On the other side of the river, east of Bordeaux in the area around Libourne, the Saint-Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac appellations account for some 12,339 hectares of vines: Saint Emilion 5,405 ha, Pomerol 794 ha, Lalande-de-Pomerol 1,136 ha and Fronsac and Canon Fronsac 1,066 ha.
Throughout the Bordeaux region approximately 9,303 hectares of vines are used to produce dry white wines, with around 3,516 ha dedicated to sweet whites.
Classification of Bordeaux wines
1855 was a watershed year for Bordeaux's great Châteaux, with the the first ever official classification. In preparation for the Universal Exhibition to be held in Paris, Napoleon III asked the merchants of the Place de Bordeaux wine market to draw up a classification system for the "red and white wines of the region." Châteaux were ranked by general reputation, but also based on the price at which their wines were currently traded.
This classification is at the origin of the Grands Cru Classés ranking system, divided into 5 grades. This classification dealt exclusively with the finest wines of the "left bank" (Médoc and Graves), ranging from Premiers to Cinquièmes Grands Crus Classés. Twenty-seven sweet white wines were also cited, divided into three categories: Premier Cru Supérieur for Château d'Yquem, and Premiers and Seconds Crus for the 26 others.
Considered as the birthplace of Bordeaux wine, and the place where some of the most enduring winegrowing traditions and techniques were first developed, the Graves region is characterised by its gravelly soil and the exceptional elegance of the wines it produces. They are rightly considered to be the first 'Grands Vins de Bordeaux', highly prized by the British nobility during the Middle Ages. 14 Graves wines were left out of the 1855 classification, with only Château Haut-Brion included. These omissions were finally rectified in 1952 following a procedure initiated by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine. This classification was further expanded to include 16 estates in 1959. All of the classified Crus from Graves are found within the Pessac-Léognan appellation.
In 1954, realising the enduring international prestige and importance afforded to the 1855 classification system, the Saint Emilion Winemakers' Union decided to establish a classification system of their own. They created the categories Grand Cru Classé, Premier Grand Cru Classé A and Premier Grand Cru Classé B. This classification is revised every ten years, obliging winegrowers to continue producing the best possible wine year after year in order to retain their distinction. Each application to join the classification is carefully examined by a jury of independent experts, and assessed on the basis of some very specific criteria. The 2012 classification recognised 18 Premiers Grands Cru Classés and 64 Grands Crus Classés.
The Cru Bourgeois du Médoc classification dates back to the middle ages and was first used by the rich townsfolk (bourgeois) of Bordeaux, owners of the best land in the region. The French Revolution overturned this long-established system, however the reputation of the 'Cru Bourgeois' endured. In 1855 the classification was refined further still, dividing the wines into three new categories: 'Bourgeois Supérieurs', 'Bons Bourgeois' and 'Bourgeois Ordinaires', thus distinguishing them from the Crus Artisans and Paysans. Despite these changes, the Crus Bourgeois du Médoc distinction (247 châteaux) is still in use today. A list has been published every September since 2010. The quality criteria for the selection of the Crus Bourgeois are demanding, ensuring that consumers receive excellent wines that are also superb value for money.