Every year, over 2 million people from all over the world flock to Pauillac’s famous wine châteaux. It is easy to see and taste why. The wines that the top châteaux produce are the best of the best. However, it is more than that. Come and experience the beautiful architecture, the peace and tranquillity amongst the vines, and learn from the winemakers about the equal parts of nature, science and art that go into producing a great bottle of wine.
Bordeaux Wines - The Basics and the Numbers
Bordeaux is the most prestigious wine-producing region in the world. Bordeaux produces red wine (often called claret in the U.K.), white wine (both dry and sweet), rosé and clairet (a dark pink wine, often produced in wet years). It has:
About 287,000 acres (116, 160 hectares) under vine;
10,000 wine producing châteaux;
960 million bottles per year;
Great wines from great vintages, stored well, may only reach their peak after 25+ years;
Pauillac (The Best of the Best)
If Bordeaux is the best wine-producing region in the world, then Pauillac – which has three of the five Premier Cru châteaux – is its top appellation. The most expensive standard bottle of wine ever sold was from our village. It was an 1869 Château Lafite, and it was sold in Hong Kong in 2010 for $230,000.
However, you’ll be relieved to hear that not all Pauillac wines are so expensive. A total of 115 châteaux maintain vineyards in Pauillac, ranging from the Classified Growths to some that sell their harvest to cooperatives.
Horses at Work in the Organic Vineyards of the Iconic Château Latour
Organising Tours and Tastings
It is possible to organise tours and tastings (in a variety of languages, including English) at all of the Pauillac châteaux (although Château Latour and Château Lafite-Rothschild can be a little more difficult to arrange). The itineraries vary, but most will include a tour of the vineyard, their chais (including where they ferment and blend the wines, their barrel houses and their bottle stores), and all will let you taste their wine (usually covering their first and second red wines, perhaps a white, and occasionally a vertical tasting – across different vintages).
Some of the tours and tastings are free, and some of the châteaux have a small charge. However, this is usually recoverable from the price of any wine that you purchase from them. The tours are great fun, and really informative. They can be booked through the Office du Tourisme et du Vin in Pauillac, or directly with the châteaux. We would be very happy to help with recommendations.
Wine Tasting in the Chai of Château Mouton-Rothschild
There are a number of ways to buy wine in Pauillac and the Médoc:
Buy direct from the châteaux (usually at the lowest retail price, and with a discount for bulk and/ or en primeur – wine futures, bought whilst it is still in barrels);
Buy from the Office du Tourisme et du Vin (for example, in Pauillac, there is a good selection from across the Médoc);
Local caves (wine shops/ off-licences);
Local supermarkets have seasonal deals on local wines;
A More Detailed History
Vines were first planted in Bordeaux (or Burdigala, as it was then known) in around 60 B.C., and the wine started to find fame as early as the 1st Century A.D. It was distributed to Roman soldiers and citizens in Gaul and Britain, and was mentioned in the writings of Pliny the Elder. In Pompeii, fragments of jars have been discovered that mention Bordeaux wine. As today, the area benefitted from the right soil for growing grapes, and the proximity of the Garonne river and Gironde estuary made distribution easy.
Links to England:
Close ties with England have played a large part in shaping Bordeaux’s history. These date back to 1152, when the heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine (Eleanor of Aquitaine) married Henry Plantagenet, who would later become King Henry II of England. Bordeaux wine was served at their wedding, an event that marked the beginning of a 300-year period when Aquitaine (including Bordeaux) was owned by England. Henry and Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionheart, made Bordeaux wine his everyday beverage. By 1302, the Bordelaise wine trade had started exporting to England, and by the time the French reclaimed the region in 1453, Bordeaux wine was the favourite with all English connoisseurs. Twice a year, prior to Christmas and Easter, several hundred British merchant ships would sail to Bordeaux to exchange British goods for wine.
The Dutch Legacy:
The Dutch, too, played a key part in the development of the region’s wine trade. They were also big purchasers of Bordeaux wine, but faced several problems. The first was the need to transport it to Holland before it spoiled. The second was that the wine was in short supply. To solve those problems, Dutch merchants burnt sulphur in barrels, which helped the wine to last and age. And Dutch engineers built roads and drained the marshes and the swamps of the Médoc, which allowed more land to be cultivated, and the produce to be transported more quickly. Many of the most famous Bordeaux vineyards emerged from the water during this period, and many of the drainage ditches that surround their vines are the original ones, cut by Dutch workers. You’ll see these, for example, at the perimeter of the vineyards of Manoir Saussus’ prestigious neighbour, Château Latour.
The Emergence of the Premier Cru Super-Brands:
Initially, Bordeaux wines were sold only with the name “Bordeaux” on the bottles. However, by the late 1600s, specific regions and brands started to emerge. Haut Brion (Pessac), Margaux (Margaux), Lafite and Latour (Pauillac) were the first brands to develop name recognition. What are known today as the Second Growths (more of this later) were the next to follow.
The Negociants – Bordeaux’s Bankers:
It was about this time that the negociant system (which is unique to Bordeaux) began to come into being, with companies such as Nathaniel Johnston, Schroder & Schyler and Lawtons that were founded in the early 1700s still in business today. In those days, the châteaux owners were primarily wealthy members of the aristocracy and royal family. They tended to the vineyards, made the wine, and placed it in barrels. The unseemly and mundane commercial aspects of bottling and selling the wine to ordinary people could be left to someone else. It also had another advantage – the châteaux were huge and costly operations and an arrangement where the wine was purchased in advance of bottling and sales helped with their cashflow.
The Creation of Appellations & the 1855 Classification:
In 1725, the modern appellation boundaries were drawn-up. This allowed consumers to start differentiating between the wines and vineyards from each appellation, and to buy wine from their favourites.
1855 is another key date in the history of Bordeaux wines. This was the year of the official classification, unveiled by the Gironde Chamber of Commerce at Napoleon III’s brain-child, the Exposition Universelle de Paris. By this time, Bordeaux wine from the Médoc, especially Pauillac, was prized by consumers all over the world. The purpose of the classification was to promote Bordeaux wine and inform consumers regarding which wines were the best to buy, and to guide them as to how much to pay. The classification ranked just over 60 Médoc wines (plus the already legendary Château Haut-Brion from Graves) into 5 divisions (or “Crus” – Growths). Only 4 châteaux were awarded Premier Cru status in 1855 (Château Haut-Brion in Graves, Château Margaux, and Châteaux Latour and Lafite-Rothschild from Pauillac), with a fifth (Château Mouton-Rothschild, again from Pauillac) being promoted to the top division in 1973 after some relentless lobbying by Baron Philippe de Rothschild. This is the only change (excepting the addition of Château Cantemerle, a Fifth Growth, in 1856) to the list in its history.
To a certain extent, the 1855 classification is a little arbitrary. It doesn’t include some great Right Bank (so-called because they are located on the right bank of the Garonne/ Gironde, as opposed to the Médoc on the Left Bank) wines from Pomerol and Saint-Émilion (famous names like Petrus and Cheval Blanc). This is because they were either not producing wine at this time, or because they were still considered simple fare. Also, the wines produced in the Médoc in 1855 were very different from those bottled today. Many were based around entirely different grape varieties, such as Malbec, and most of the top Bordeaux wines were often aged in French oak casks for 3-5 years before bottling. Few wines matured long enough to provide secondary characteristics and were drunk at a comparatively young age. In addition, the land holdings of many of the châteaux have changed quite radically during the last 160 years. However, despite all of this, the list still influences drinkers’ perceptions, and the price tags of these wines.
The Phylloxera Attack:
Over the years, Bordeaux has dealt with a myriad of diseases affecting its vineyards (such as powdery mildew and downy mildew). The worst was phylloxera, a tiny insect that fed on (and destroyed) a large portion of the grape vines from 1869 to 1892. This attack has helped to shape the modern Médoc that visitors to Manoir Saussus will see today. It has influenced the pattern of the vineyards, as many estates suffered from considerable hardship during the effected years and had to sell plots in order to survive. It has also impacted the vines themselves. The solution to the phylloxera outbreak was to graft American pest-resistant rootstock to the Bordeaux vines. Some grape varietals (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) responded better to the grafting, and replaced the Malbec, Carmenere and Petit Verdot that had previously been heavily planted (although Cabernet Sauvignon has historically had predominance in the Médoc, where it is perfectly suited to the gravel soils). Seen from above, the patchwork of vineyard plots is mesmerising. In the late 19th-Century, the land was much more densely planted (with up to 25,000 vines per hectare). These days, the top estates will have densities of around 10,000 vines per hectare, with lesser estates around 8,500. With the advent of pesticides in the 1960s, yields have increased and become much more consistent from year to year.
The Influence of Robert Parker:
Robert Parker is an American critic, and writer of the newsletter The Wine Advocate. He developed the now iconic 50-100 ranking point scale in order to simplify the process of buying Bordeaux wine for the consumer, and to remove some of the obscurity caused by historical rankings such as the 1855 classification. In doing so, he helped to bring Bordeaux wines to even greater prominence across the globe.
Following the phylloxera outbreak, the first half of the 20th-Century was not kind to Bordeaux. It had relatively few great vintages, and suffered through two world wars. The latter saw some prominent negociants jailed for collaborating with the Nazis and eminent Jewish châteaux owners like the Rothschilds and Sichels flee the region. This set the scene for periods of boom and bust. In 1972, the vintage was vastly overpriced and the entire Bordeaux market crashed. It was Parker that re-established Bordeaux as the force that it is today. Once he established his reputation (following his enthusiastic praise for the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, tasted en primeur), the futures market in Bordeaux wines took off. Now, wine buyers often base their purchasers on the scores that he (and other critics that have followed suit) awarded to a wine in any given vintage. For example, retailers in North America often mark wines with Parker’s point scores, and high scores (including the rare 100-pointers) from Parker can multiply the price of a bottle fourfold. Small wonder that he has been offered the sexual favours of the daughters of two châteaux owners, and has also been subject to death threats, and attacks by vineyard managers’ dogs!
Bordeaux Wine Today:
Today, making wine in Bordeaux is both art and science. The first wines (or Grand Vins) of most châteaux are becoming better as their managers have become choosier and utilise only the grapes from the best vines. More estates are now offering second wines, and more proportionally grapes are being placed into them. Their chais have become like laboratories, and space-age technology (like satellite imagery showing the development of the vines and optical sorting machines that choose only perfectly ripe fruit) have become the norm.
Vineyard management techniques have also become better than ever. The knowledge of the vines and soils, coupled with trends to organic farming and even biodynamic farming techniques have allowed Bordeaux to produce fresher, cleaner, more concentrated, richer, more elegant wines with a better purity of fruit. The general consensus is that the wines of Bordeaux have never been better. The downside of this is that the top-end wines have never been more expensive. That means that us mere mortals must continue our search for other favourite clarets. The good news is that the progress of Bordeaux is most notable with the smaller wines from less-heralded terroirs. The wines coming out of these estates in the late 2010s is better than many of the classified growths from the 1970s and 1980s. What more motivation do you need to book a stay at Manoir Saussus, and a series of tours and tastings? Come and find your perfect wine!