Battle of the Banks

left right bank entre deux mers 350 years Specials Specials

Bordeaux’s standing as the bastion of the wine world owes much to its history. So how did the region first establish its trading routes? NICHOLAS FAITH looks back over the last 350 years and charts a rivalry between Left and Right Banks

IN THE BATTLE for Bordeaux’s wine trade between the two banks of the Gironde, the Médoc had a 200-year lead over the Libournais (Pomerol, St-Emilion and the Right Bank satellites).

The Left Bank’s triumph dates back to 1663 when Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary tasting ‘a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan that had as good and most particular taste as I ever met with.’ He sampled this remarkable tipple at Pontacs, a tavern, or early ‘wine bar’, named after the family which owned most of the best estates around Bordeaux and which had despatched one of its offspring to serve that promising market, Restoration London. By contrast, it was not until the third decade of the 19th century that the growers from St-Emilion got a look in.

For more than 200 years, wines from the Médoc, and, to a much lesser extent Graves, held sway in Britain. But by the time they arrived on the dining tables of London – and Edinburgh and Dublin, for the Scots and Irish were, if anything, even keener on their claret than English milords – they were no longer their natural self. For they had been subject to doctoring in the cellars under the Quai des Chartrons, just down river from the heart of Bordeaux. The changes involved strengthening wines that were almost invariably thin and weedy, not only because even the best are elegant rather than rich, but because in the days before chemical treatments, growers would harvest their grapes before they were truly ripe, for fear that rot would set in.

So to satisfy the taste of their almost exclusively British clients for beefy wines (port was, of course, their favourite drink), the merchants on the Quai stiffened their clarets with a dose of stronger wine – at their best from Hermitage, but later frequently from Spain or Algeria. This practice continued until the second half of the 20th century. From 1927 to 1949, the great scientist and oenophile Emile Peynaud worked for Calvet, one of the biggest merchants in Bordeaux. He once told me that not a drop of even the finest wine left the cellars without at least 10% of it having been supplemented from elsewhere.

The grip of the Bordeaux merchants was total and was confined to a handful of families known as the ‘Chartronnais’, who had pretensions to the airs and snobbery of their English aristocratic customers but were in fact from Ireland, Denmark, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. In serving their masters, they certainly never looked to Libourne on the Right Bank. Instead they were content to deal in a range of increasingly stratified wines, a rigidity reinforced by the famous 1855 classification of the wines of the Médoc.

But then, in the early 1860s, came the railway line from Paris to Bordeaux via Libourne. It changed everything. Before the railways, any wine destined to establish a reputation outside its own region had to be close to navigable water. While Bordeaux was open to ocean-going ships, St-Emilion was land-locked. Only through the rail link could local growers show the value of their wares.

They did so in style at the Universal Exhibition held in Paris in 1867. Having been absent from its predecessor in 1855, St-Emilion producers won prize after prize 12 years later. As a result, all France was theirs. Until now, French drinkers, almost totally ignored by the Chartronnais, had historically relied on local wines, beers or ciders, while the Parisians preferred Burgundian wine. Moreover, the Libournais could also use the magnificent Chemins de Fer du Nord to transport their wines north from Paris and on to Belgium, which, in vinous terms, forms a single – and highly appreciative – market.

CHALK AND CHEESE

The contrast between the two banks could not have been greater. The estates in the Médoc were large, up to 100ha (hectares) in the case of Lafite. They usually had châteaux of varying degrees of grandeur and architectural merit, and were owned by outsiders, or even bankers from Paris like the Rothschilds and the Pillet-Wills (owners of Margaux for a time). By contrast, the estates around Libourne were small. Cheval Blanc, one of the biggest, and virtually the only estate known to the outside world before the war, has only 40ha of vines. They were owned by local families.

Yet, whereas the Médoc is relatively homogenous – the differences between communes and individual estates depending mainly on the depth, nature and outlook of the region’s gravel slopes – both St-Emilion and Pomerol, though much smaller, are far more varied. St-Emilion consists of three zones: the slopes round the hill-town itself; the vineyards (Canon and Clos Fourtet) around the town; and, some kilometres down the road to Libourne, Cheval Blanc and the numerous estates involving the name of Figeac. Pomerol, which at first sight seems a series of suburban allotments, is just 800ha. Yet its terroir varies from the clay around Pomerol to a mix of gravel and clay as you descend the gentle slopes to the main road, ending in primarily sandy soils the other side of the RN89 running west from Libourne.

The differences between the wines were several. Firstly, wines from the Libournais were not tampered with. They were produced primarily from Merlot, while the Médoc and Graves were predominantly planted with Cabernet Sauvignon.

But perhaps the biggest contrast lay in the regions’ markets – domestic versus foreign – and the way their wines were marketed. While the Médocains erected an elaborate marketing system involving numerous intermediaries (brokers and merchants in Bordeaux, and importers and retailers in Britain), the Libournais sold their wines themselves. They were either sold direct to individual customers, door-to-door, or frequently – now as then – at the markets and fairs which are so notable a feature of life in rural France.

RISE OF THE RIGHT

Many of these initiatives were instigated by immigrants from the Corrèze, an impoverished department 160km up the Dordogne from Libourne. Tradition has it that the Corrèziens would float down in a boat which they then burnt – or used as firewood.

Whether this is true or not, they were certainly more entrepreneurial than the locals, and willing to venture throughout France and Belgium. None more so than members of the Moueix family. (Many of the families’ names ended with ‘eix’, meaning ‘coming from’. Moueix means ‘coming from the river bank’.) It was one member of the family, Jean-Pierre, who revolutionised the wine world’s attitude to the Libournais when he started selling wine door to door in the 1930s. He claimed never to have failed to convince a single customer. This is perfectly plausible, given his persuasive techniques, which included convincing the client that he was blessed to have secured some of Moueix’s precious liquid. Moueix died in 2002 at the age of 89.

Moueix’s influence first started to show itself in the 1950s. It was spearheaded by his marketing of Pétrus, situated on a unique double-clay hillock, and then less than 8ha. It was owned by Mme Loubat, a feisty lady who was determined to ensure that her wine was sold at the – seemingly ridiculously high – value she placed on it. Moueix was happy to oblige, and for the next 40 years the Moueix label, when attached to other estates in St-Emilion and Pomerol, like Magdelaine and Trotanoy – meant wines owned, controlled or merely stocked by the firm could be sold at a premium.

The 1950s were important for other reasons too. While the Pomerolais have never gone in for classification, in 1955 the St-Emilionnais launched their own listing. It was more elaborate than the 1855 classification of the Médoc, with 12 premiers grands crus classés – two of which, Ausone and Cheval Blanc, had their own super-class – and 62 other grands crus classés. Crucially, unlike that of 1855, the classification was not set in stone, but was to be revised every 10 years, thus providing a quality check not found in the Médoc. St-Emilion was also the first region in France to agree that all their wines should be tasted before being sold to ensure they were worthy of the name of the appellation.

In early 1956, the year after the classification, a terrible frost devastated the region, above all Pomerol. In the short term, the effect was disastrous. It takes at least five years for any young vine to produce fruit worthy of a great wine. But, by reducing the supply, it helped ensure that prices rose to the levels well above those of wines from the rest of the Gironde, a premium they – and above all those from Pomerol – have retained ever since. Moreover, in early 1960, Moueix – a life-long gambler – staked his fortune on the clarets from the 1959 vintage, a throw of the dice which proved so profitable that he became a major force in the trade, comparable with the Chartronnais.

The move also enabled him to survive the terrible crash of 1973–75 when the whole trade ground to a halt and he didn’t sell a single bottle of wine for six long months. The crisis destroyed the power of the Chartronnais’ under-capitalised family firms, and led to a well-publicised trial when members of the Cruse family – Bordeaux’s leading merchant – were found guilty of fraud. The upheaval led to far greater power for the major estates, now responsible for their own, unadulterated wines. Unfortunately, their greed, and lack of direct contact with drinkers, selling as they still do through brokers and the market (place de Bordeaux) has led to wild swings in prices. The Libournais, with less wine to offer and greater contact with customers, kept their head, their reputation and their profits.

THE PRESENT DAY

The gulf between the two regions has intensified in the past 20 years. Many of the Libournais’ wines have been given a boost by über-critic Robert Parker, who was introduced to them by oenologist Michel Rolland, owner of Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol. Rolland produces and Parker prefers rich, heavily extracted wines. Many of these come from the garagistes.

Probably the first, though atypical, such wine was Le Pin, one hectare spotted by the Flemish Thienpont family. Its fabled rise in price – up to £250 a bottle – started in the mid 1990s when one Singaporean collector starting buying every bottle that came onto the market.

Unfortunately, the whole region’s reputation is threatened by the more artificial, over-extracted wines concocted by rival, and less scrupulous, garagistes. But the Libournais are no fly-by-nights. Even though many estates have been bought by outsiders, the locals continue to go their own way, as they have done for 1,000 years.

Nicholas Faith is author of: Winemasters of Bordeaux: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Wines (£18.59, Prion Books).