Homage to the
Past and Present
By W. Peter Hoyne
My introduction to French wine began decades ago when I was in college. As early as my sophomore year, I began reading the “New Signet Book of Wine” by Alexis Bespaloff. A prominent wine critic who had spent a brief time in Bordeaux, Bespaloff worked for an importer of Bordeaux wines before dedicating his time to writing a regular wine column in “New York Magazine” for over 20 years. I was fascinated by his writings and at the same time understood the dedication involved in farming and growing grapes as my grandfather toiled in the soil on his own farm. It was too early to study the wines of California as they were young and in their infancy. The wine culture in France was a way of life and appeared immortal. Steeped in history and tradition, it drew me closer. The Côte d'Azur in southern France was best known for rosé, Alsace was surely quaint and romantic but there were few reds. At the time, I thought Burgundy had much to offer, but perhaps was too complex given the sheer number of growers in each region and of course, Champagne had historic significance and bubbles, but again there were few red wines. Eventually, I would retrace my footsteps back to each of these distinguished wine-growing regions, but for now my mind and heart were immersed in Bordeaux. I followed with readings on Bordeaux by Hugh Johnson, Seely, Broadbent and others and took time to learn the pronunciation of each chateau. On weekends, I would explore local wine shops in search of Bordeaux in half bottles, which is all that I could afford at that time. Afterwards, I would engage the Jesuit advisors at college to discuss my selections and share in their travels experiences through France. At every chance, I would attend tastings of Bordeaux at local retailers and trade events. When I began my wine writing career, my travels frequently carried me through the countryside of France, crossing through most appellations. On these occasions, fate would inevitably carry me through Bordeaux. At the same time, I was also inquisitive about the families and owners of the chateau. As I began to understand the families, I easily understood their wines.
In order to fully absorb Bordeaux you need a general overview with a survey of the region. Southwest of Paris and in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, Bordeaux is a sprawling port city positioned on the Garonne River. The Romans occupied Bordeaux in 58 BC and afterwards cultivated the first vineyards. The city was bestowed the ancient name of Burdigala, referring to the Celtic tribes that first inhabited the land. A milestone occurred in 1152 when Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine married the future king of England, King Henry lll. Bordeaux remained under British sovereignty for over 300 years as the region thrived.
The wine-growing region itself was positioned outside the central city in wet marshlands. In the 17th century the Dutch, who also shared a fondness for wine, assigned their engineers the task of draining the swamps to make it suitable for agricultural purposes. Chateaus and vineyards expanded as the Bordeaux wine trade flourished. Owners sold their wine to negociants or brokers who would arrange for the commercial distribution. The Gironde estuary allowed wine to be shipped to international destinations by way of the Atlantic Ocean.
The quality of Bordeaux wine improved with the official Classification of 1855. It established a hierarchy of the top 58 estates from the Médoc and Graves regions, as well as the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Wines were ranked with a First to Fifth growth designation. Wines from Saint Emilion received their classification in 1955 with the most recent update occurring in 2006.
Then, in 1875 a plant aphid called phylloxera infested the vineyards decimating the roots of the vines. The problem was remediated when resistant American rootstock were grafted onto the French vines.
Bordeaux retains a commanding presence as one of the preeminent wine growing regions in the world with 60 different appellations (legal and protected geographic areas) spread across 290,000 acres with nearly 6,000 chateau owners.
A turning point in Bordeaux’s history occurred with the declaration of the 1982 vintage by a young attorney and wine critic Robert Parker Jr. In his publication, The Wine Advocate, Parker’s commentary brought critical acclaim to Bordeaux and the vintage. He configured a 100-point wine rating scale, which although controversial at the time, became the index on how wines were judged and assessed their value. Few others in the industry had such an authoritative voice. It was during this period that I began collecting recognized labels from Bordeaux. Robert Parker’s influence and writings continued to spread across the globe, impacting winemaking styles in Bordeaux and around the world. The post-Parker era is enduring and has remained influential.
Through the years I have seen Bordeaux wines stylistically evolve and in some ways redefine themselves. Their consistency and approachability may be associated with enhanced vineyard management, sustainable farming practices, and advanced approaches to winemaking. Continuing global climate change has also played a role in this transformation. Unlike many other winegrowing regions, these wines are revered as they represent the true terroir where they are grown. My respect and admiration for these wines have grown stronger through the years. As chateaux and their wines have continued to endure centuries of change, the wines of Bordeaux have remained the benchmark for the world.