Bordeaux Wine Guide: A Brief History of Bordeaux

Examine the history of many of Europe’s wine regions and you will find a vinous story that stretches back centuries, in some cases millennia. There are wine press-houses on the banks of the Mosel, for example, that date from the time of the Roman Empire. Many of the vineyards there have been tended by monastic orders for well over a thousand years, and the same can be said of Burgundy, where some sites had been under the tenure of Cistercian and Benedictine orders for eight hundred years when they were confiscated during the Revolution, at the end of the 18th century.

Bordeaux, however, is often regarded differently; many that buy and drink its wines are aware that the Médoc was drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th century, thus opening up the famous gravel ridges of the peninsula to viticulture, and it is easy to assume that this was the beginning of Bordeaux as a wine region of note. In truth, Bordeaux has a much more ancient story to tell, one that stretches back just as far as it does in any other region of Europe. Despite this ancient origin, exact detail on the beginning of viticulture around the Gironde and its two major tributaries, the Dordogne and the Garonne, is hard to come by. Nevertheless, evidence from the writings of notable historical figures indicate that the Romans were just as ready to cultivate the vine here in Bordeaux as they were in Burgundy, Germany and elsewhere.

The Romans: Ausonius

Bordeaux HistoryOne such figure is Decimius Magnus Ausonius (pictured right, in a 16th-century interpretation by André Thévet), a Roman poet who is credited with the first mention of wine and the vine in Bordeaux. Ausonius was born in the region somewhere around AD 310; early on in his life he established a school of rhetoric and grammar here, where he taught Paulinus, who later became Bishop of Nola. Having established a credible academic reputation, Ausonius was then summoned to Rome where he tutored a young Gratian, many years before he became Emperor of the Roman Empire. The teaching appointment was one that brought great rewards for Ausonius, as he eventually took a seat in the Roman consulate. But with the passing of the years he returned to Bordeaux, where he continued writing, in particular penning many notable discourses on viticulture. He was well qualified to write on the subject, as he had invested his new-found wealth in the purchase of a good-sized estate, a proportion of which was planted to vines.

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