Monday, February 28, 2011

Henry II, Zeus, and a Hermit: the history of Bordeaux (Young & Wyse 33 · 30 · 24 · 13)

Bordeaux, British Columbia, a hermit from the very distant past. I sit here sipping my wine enjoying the product of a long and storied history. The new world has feverishly tried to emulate the wines of Bordeaux since it was colonized by the old world. This is no surprise, many of the wine producing nations of the new world were colonized by the British: Canada, United States, Australia.

Bordeaux and Britain have a long history of close association. Back in the day, and I mean way back in the day circa. 1200, some royal marriages took place. One such marriage was between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet (Henry II). This unlikely coupling had a huge impact on the world of wine. Why do the top wines from Bordeaux command such ridiculously high prices? Well you have Mr. and Mrs. Plantagenet to thank for that.

Aquitaine is a region in France that just so happens to house the conveniently situated Gironde river; useful for such things as exporting Bordeaux wine, which is grown on its’ banks. Henry became king of England, his wife: a Bordelaise. In a bid to make nice with Bordeaux the region was given special tax exemptions which fueled the export of Bordeaux wine to England. Over centuries the bond between England and Bordeaux grew; the British developed a taste for the wine which they would later dub claret, the Bordelaise developed a taste for the money that came rolling in every time they sent out a ship filled with the delicious, powerful wine from the banks of the Gironde.

Imagine a hill, a very small hill, a hill roughly the same size as the one in the park near your house. Were I a hermit a hill would probably be the last place I would choose to build my secluded hut, it strikes me that a hut in a valley might be less noticeable and a such might attract less visitors. Were I a hermit I would probably be a little eccentric and less inclined to think logically so maybe I would build my hut on a hill. Enter Hermitage, an incredibly small district in northern Rhone known for producing extremely powerful and long lived wine made exclusively* from the native Syrah grape. As it happens the hermit, for whom the hill is named, chose to live on one of the best and most difficult hills in France to grow grapes. Hermitage is noted for producing some of the greatest and most powerful wine in the world, indeed were Hermitage a god it would be Zeus.

Bordeaux has three main varieties of grapes that are used in the production of red wine: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Many French regions are famous for producing single variety wine, many regions have a more reliable climate than Bordeaux. Different grape varieties impart different characteristic as well as ripening at different times in the fall. With Bordeaux’s marginal climate it seemed to most wine producers a good idea to hedge their bets. By making blended wine the Bordelaise didn’t need to worry about losing their entire grape crop should some unfortunate weather appear just before picking season; they probably already picked one of the earlier ripening varieties.

Sometimes you just can’t plan for the worst possible scenario. As Bordeaux became increasingly dependent on the Brits obsession with their claret it became increasingly terrible if a vintage failed to inspire the British palate. Can you really blame the poor suckers? In a terrible year what would you do? Ship your subpar wine and risk it being rejected next year? It became fashionable, sometime around the 17th century, to import the powerful Hermitage wine and adulter an uncharacteristically impotent Bordeaux to make sure the British remained satisfied. While the appellation laws of today (which forbid such things as importing wine and mixing it with the being made) were not in place in the 17th century I’m sure most producers were not going around announcing the fact that their wine couldn’t hold up on its own and needed a little help from the northern Rhone.

Strictly speaking a Bordeaux blend may contain Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot (I originally claimed Petit Sirah but as you can see from the comments below I was called out!), Malbec and a few others but not Syrah! While the wine I am currently sipping may not be called a true Bordeaux blend by most, I would argue it is a welcome blast from the past and a historic Bordeaux blend, although the fact that the bottle admits to containing Syrah might detract a little. I for one am happy to see someone carrying on the tradition of not only mixing grapes but mixing regions, so to speak...

Producer: Young & Wyse
Wine: 33 · 30 · 24 · 13
Grapes: Merlot, Syrah, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc in the proportions noted above.
Region: Okanagan, British Colombia, Canada
Price: $26
Alc: 14.3%

Notes: Mmmm this wine has delicious flavours and aromas of Blackberry, Coffee, Green Bell Pepper, Black Pepper, Leather and Tar. While the flavours and aromas are quite pleasing the structure of the wine was lacking, too little tannin and acid and the flavours were not bold enough. If you are just beginning to drink wine you will probably like this a lot, but the price tag is a little steep. I found this was a Nice wine.

*Pretty much you could harp on this issue if you wanted but then you’d just be being argumentative. 


  1. i just came across the blog and i'm liking it so far, but there's no petit sirah in bordeaux (or in france as far as i know). try petit verdot and carmenere

  2. Too true Wine Guru, thanks for pointing that out. From what I could find out Petit Sirah is the same a Durif and was grown in the south of France in the late 1880's because of its resistance to downy mildew. Since then it has become unpopular in France and is pretty much not grown at all. As far as I could find out Petit Sirah has never been cultivated in Bordeaux. Good eye, and thanks for reading!

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