17 Kissing Cousins & Black Death

We left Biarritz with warm feelings of gratitude, and high hopes to return soon.  We knew what awaited us was the pinnacle of the wine world:  Bordeaux (pronounced Board – Doe).  As the train rolled into the historic station, I felt a mixture of excitement and intimidation sweep over me.  It was time to drink with the big boys, original gangsters, the grandfather of the wine world.

CiCi and I had been traveling Europe for the last month learning, tasting, and experiencing new wines.  Now it was time to take it up to the next level.  All we knew as we set foot on the world-class Bordeaux soil was that from this land came the world’s most extraordinary wines…at least according to every wine snob we’d come across.

The small city was shockingly quaint and modern.  Its brick streets and gorgeous fountains were surrounded by chic wine bars, classy boutiques, and buzzing socialites.  I  had a feeling that there was a lot of history behind this town, and where there is history, there are tour guides, so we engaged an expert to catch us up on Bordeaux 101.

Madaline, our tour guide, was a darling thin French student.  She had dirty blonde hair, and dressed in a dark and fashionable manner.  Her French accent was thick, but understandable, and with each sentence, she would confirm “Wi?,” assuring that we understood what she was talking about.

Madaline started at the beginning, telling us that the first vineyards were planted in Bordeaux by the Romans, nearly 2000 years ago, during Jesus’ time.  However, Bordeaux’s wines really earned their stripes when they made their first worldwide appearances during the Middle Ages.  You see, during the 12 Century, Henry Plantagenet (Henry II), the King of England, married Eleanor of Aquitaine, subjecting Bordeaux to English rule.

Eleanor was quite the babe, and one of the most eligible women in all of Europe.  Not only was she was the Duchess of Aquitaine, at one point she was also the Queen of France (during her short marriage to Louis VII), and later married her third cousin, Henry II, who was eleven years her minor, becoming Queen of England.  Can you imagine being the queen of France and England in one life time?  Respect.

With Henry II and Eleanor’s marriage, the English got a taste of the wines from the Bordeaux region and liked what they tasted.  Bordeaux traditionally grew six major grapes that make up its wines:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Carmenere.  A blend of any of these grapes today is known as a “Bordeaux Blend” in the United States.  However, the English call the same blend a “Claret,”  Why?  Because their English that’s why.

Henry and Eleanor’s union promoted the wines of Bordeaux around the world, as the all-powerful England touted their praises, and shipped them to London. The English laid claim to Bordeaux for many years.  They even withstood attacks from the French Nobles and King Louis VIII, who failed in his attempts to drive the English off of Bordeaux’s soil.

Wine flowed freely and easily between London and Bordeaux, in large part because Bordeaux is situated at the base of the large Gironde river, which forks into the Garonne and Dordogne rivers.  The town of Bordeaux is actually just to the left of the Garonne.  The vineyards and sub-regions of Bordeaux cross the Garonne and expand to the east of the Dordogne rivers.  The grapes that are grown on the west side of the Garonne, or “Left Bank” as wine snobs call it, are known more for producing Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wine sub-region on the right hand side of the Dordogne is called the “Right Bank” and it is known for its Merlot.  In the middle of the two rivers sits another sub region.  Conveniently, it is called “Entre Deux Mers,” meaning between to rivers, and even a Wine Blonde can remember that.

It was easy for the wines to travel out the two rivers (Dordogne and Garonne), up through the Gironde, and northward through the Atlantic Ocean to London and beyond.  It wasn’t until the 100 Year War, well actually the 113 Year War (from 1337 to 1453), between England and France that the wine stopped flowing like water.  The 100 Year War was actually a series of little wars between to Households: The French House of Valois, who claimed the title of King of France, and the House of Plantagenets (Henry II’s kin) from England claiming to be Kings of France and England.  The House of Valois ultimately won, restoring Bordeaux to French governance.

Although the French had regained Bordeaux, wine did not resume flowing world wide, due in large part to the effects of the Black Death which spanned from 1340’s to 1400.  Black Death was one of the deadliest plagues ever to infect Europe, killing more than 30-60% of the population, reducing the world population by over 100 million people.  Most historians said Black Death was a terrible outbreak of the bubonic plague, which was spread by fleas riding on the back of rats.  No wonder fleas and rats have such a nasty reputation.

It wasn’t until the 17th Century, when Dutch traders began to drain the marshlands between the two rivers (remember, Entre Deux Mers) that the wine trade began to flourish again in Bordeaux.  Vineyards were rapidly and vastly planted, and the French began to designate where the wine came from by vineyard and Châteaux, or wine house.  And that’s when the shit got confusing a/k/a the government got involved.  In 1855, the designations of certain “places” became official, and the French government started stringent wine laws to regulate their precious production.  These laws are still in effect today.

That night we stayed in a darling bed and breakfast that was as cute as Bordeaux.  As I tucked myself into bed, my mind began to race about Eleanor, Henry II, Black Death and Bordeaux wines.  A Place with such a rich history, and supposedly amazing wines… tomorrow would hold so many more stories, but the chances of me remembering them as well, were much less.