The regions of Graves and Pessac-Léognan are closely intertwined. The latter is an enclave of the former, and it was finally carved out from the Graves region in 1987, following years of campaigning by the leading châteaux of Graves, all of which were within this smaller subregion.
Thus the stories of Pessac-Léognan and Graves are essentially one and the same, at least up until this division. And even though the spawning of the Pessac-Léognan appellation represents a qualitative as well as a geographical distinction, the styles of wines produced in these two regions are remarkably similar. For this reason I have often considered them merely as two sides of the same coin, but in doing so I came to the conclusion that Graves soon begins to resemble something of an afterthought, tagging on behind the more famous Pessac-Léognan. This is despite the fact that Graves is a much larger wine region, with more than double the surface area available for viticulture than can be found in the smaller enclave.
For this reason I have now divided into two my examination of these Bordeaux wine regions, beginning here with the history of Graves, which inevitably refers to many of the châteaux today found in Pessac-Léognan, reflecting the shared origins of these two appellations. I continue with some detail on Graves today, by which I mean the modern Graves, excluding the vineyards of Pessac-Léognan. In the next instalment of this guide I will look at Pessac-Léognan, the famous enclave of Graves, in more detail.
Graves & Pessac-Léognan: A Shared History
In Graves and Pessac-Léognan we have a region steeped in history, a landscape of vines dotted with châteaux sometimes of feudal origins, some bearing crenellated battlements as testament to their former roles as fortresses built to defend lands and assets against marauding vagabonds. This is a region rich in ancient history, much more so than the Médoc to the north, which was only drained and made amenable to viticulture during the 17th century.
Viticulture was not a great concern in Graves during these early years; fortresses were built for defensive purposes, not winemaking. But as the region became more secure, the local people turned to cultivating the land rather than fighting over it. It is certain that arable crops came first, and probably a large degree of polyculture, with the lands round an estate dedicated to a mix of crops including wheat and similar staples, as well as orchards, the keeping of livestock and, of course, vineyards. Over time the latter came to dominate, especially in the regions very close to the city of Bordeaux, where a deep seam of Günzian gravel produced wines of incomparable quality. By the Middle Ages there was active and extensive viticulture here, at a time when the lands around St-Julien-Beychevelle, Pauillac and St Estèphe were still mosquito-infested marshlands.