When most people think of the great French wine region of  Bordeaux, a few images usually come to mind: magnificent estates with gloriously grand white stone mansions; wines of unattainable status with lofty prices to match; an intransigent 19th century classification system; and a seemingly impenetrable network of negociants who sell the wine en primeur when it is still in the barrel.

But take a closer look at Bordeaux and a more complex and fascinating picture begins to emerge. While the region has been shaped by centuries of tradition, it is also incredibly dynamic.

Decanter, for example, has reported on a string of Chinese purchases of prestige estates in Bordeaux over the last few years. To be alarmist about this development, however, would be to overlook how important foreign ownership has always been for Bordeaux. Indeed, the fortunes of many of the best estates were revived during the 20th century by farsighted Americans millionaires like Clarence Dillon, who bought Chateau Haut-Brion in 1935 at the height of the Depression.

Foreign consumption of Bordeaux wines has always been key to the region’s prosperity. In the 17th century, Francois-Auguste de Pontac of Chateau Haut-Brion created a buzz for ‘new French claret’ when he served his wine at his fashionable eating establishment, Pontack’s Head, in London. Soon shiploads of Bordeaux were travelling up the Gironde river to the British Isles. Apparently French excise taxes at the time also facilitated the export market, making it cheaper to send wine to London than to Paris!

Today, like Australia’s McLaren Vale and the Yarra Valley, for example, Bordeaux struggles with the effects of urban encroachment. Tourists often get lost in a maze of suburbs before finding their way to the different estates. Smaller vineyards owners are finding it hard to make ends meet in the face of lower prices – in part the result of international competition and the market dominance of France’s major supermarket chains. And the influence of Robert Parker, the esteemed but controversial American wine critic, is hotly debated. The New York Times reported that “Mr Parker’s unexpectedly positive reviews recently of the 2008 vintage – an average of 94.7 for the top 30 scores – bounced the trading price for 2008 Lafite [futures] by 75 percent overnight.” (Investing in Wine: Now May Be the Time by William L. Hamilton, The New York Times, 21 May 2009).  For keen observers of the Australian wine industry the challenges facing Bordeaux certainly sound familiar!

One thing that hasn’t changed for centuries at least in Bordeaux is the terroir. The Left Bank wines of the Medoc and Grave communes tend to feature cabernet sauvignon from gravelly terroirs. The Right Bank favours merlot and some cabernet franc, as limestone and clay (and sand) are more prominent in the soil.  Interestingly, Bordeaux’s unique terroir was created by Dutch engineers in the 17th century, who drained the flood plains on either side of the Gironde river.

As the above map from Terroir France illustrates, Bordeaux is divided into numerous appellations, each with their own micro-terroirs and climates that give the wines their special character.

Perhaps more than any other wine region in the world, Bordeaux is extremely sensitive to the vagaries of weather. While its maritime climate makes for warmer winters, it also sometimes brings too much rain and even hail.  Vintage variation is rife in Bordeaux, and the best vintages usually coincide with a long, hot and reasonably dry summer that allows the grapes to ripen fully and be free of mildew.

This week we’ll look at some of the great estates from the commune of Graves on the Left Bank – the oldest viticultural area in Bordeaux. Specifically, we’ll focus on the sub-region Pessac-Leognan. Chateau Haut-Brion, the only chateau outside of the Medoc to receive Premier Cru or First Growth status in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, is located here, and its neighbour, La Mission Haut-Brion, is also renowned for its wine.

Photo Credit: Terroir France