Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Bordeaux and the birth of the new claret

Before visiting Bordeaux, I would have said it was a wine city/region. And I would have been right, but for all the wrong reasons – at least partly. Yes, they grow grapes here, and make wine – have done for centuries. But the business and history of wine and winemaking in this region are fascinating, and not what I expected.

Today we went to a wine merchants' museum in the Chartrons district of Bordeaux. The museum exists in the semi-subterranean cellars of a former wine merchant, and details the history of the Bordeaux wine business, which is intertwined with the history of winemaking in the region.

One of the reasons Bordeaux became so significant in wine is because it used to be a port town, and major centre of trade – the city has been the major distribution centre for many imported goods, including sugar. Wine has been made in the region for centuries, but it wasn't until the Dutch introduced the practice of sterilising the barrels with burnt sulphur that Bordeaux became one of the great centres of wine in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It turns out that the addition of sulphur is the key to producing an aged wine. Without sulphur (an ingredient not always regarded favourably) wines must be drunk when they are very young. Sulphur stops the fermentation process by killing the yeast, and therefore is an essential component of wines that are to be aged – which, as we all know, leads to vast improvement! Bordeaux wines are great, because of the quality of the grapes and soil etc that allow the wines to be aged for very long periods of time (40 years is not uncommon). But without Sulphur, no-one would ever have known about it.

The other thing I found incredibly fascinating was the role of the wine merchant. The wine chain in the golden age of Bordeaux was as follows: the Chateau, where the wine was made from locally grown grapes; the broker, who sold the young wine in bulk to...; the wine merchant, who took responsibility for aging and blending the wines; the consumer, who purchased the wine from the wine merchant. This meant the wine merchant was actually extremely important, and would ultimately create the final wine. Wines coming from the same chateau would be completely different, depending on the wine merchant.

There were evidently some 400 wine merchants in Bordeaux during the golden age – hailing from the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and even America. They would all have massive cellars where they aged the wine in casks, and bottled it for their customers and export. The Chartrons district was the centre for this activity, and had its own port area on the bank of the river. This is all gone now, and these days the wines are aged and bottled at the wine estates themselves, but today's glimpse into the history of Bordeaux winemaking and business has really been fascinating.

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