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History of Bordeaux

There are no known paintings of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and mother of Richard the Lion Heart. This depiction is from the cover of ''Aliénor d'Aquitaine' by Régine Pernoud, Editons Albin Michel (Nouvelle Edition 1965).

Chateau Haut-Brion, the 'First' of the First Growths, 17th Century.

Chateau Margaux in the 18th century.

In quality and quantity, Bordeaux is the premier fine wine region of the world.

Story By Ch'ng Poh Tiong

Two thousand years ago, a Celtic tribe of warriors settled in Bordeaux.

These early immigrants, physically and mentally weary from restless fighting, felt that it was time to claim a permanent abode.

Bordeaux ’s temperate climate was considered a blessing. The region was also endowed with other natural advantages. Served by calm, flowing rivers that fed into a broad estuary which itself decanted into the wide sea, easy transportation, and therefore trade, was all but assured.

Indeed, Bordeaux was destined to be a great port-city, a fate, it still possesses today and which it shares with other great port cities such as Qingdao, Tianjin, Shanghai, Xiamen, Hong Kong, Kaoshiung and Singapore.

Except that then, Bordeaux was known by another name.

The tribe of Celtic warriors, the Bituriges Vivisques, named the town ‘Burdigala’.

It is believed that in the first century A.D., the Bituriges Vivisques decided to plant vines. The variety they sunk into the ground was called Biturica, which some people think is the ancestor of the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many, many vintages pass and we now leap a thousand and a hundred years into the 12th century. We find ourselves landing in a period which, more than any other, is going to set Bordeaux on a course to becoming the world’s predominant wine producing and wine exporting region.

This defining era, as befits any great epoch, is to be ushered in by nothing less than a marriage.


If it is true that matrimony represents the single most important event in a person’s life (apart from the birth itself), then that between Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine, and Henry Plantagenet, the future King of England, not only had a bearing on their own two lives, the union also influenced forever the fate of Bordeaux — the region, city and the wine.

Eleanor was born around A.D. 1120. She succeeded her father as the Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Saintonge on 9th April 1137. That same year, on 25th July, this remarkable woman married Louis VII, King of France, at Bordeaux Cathedral. They went on to have two daughters.

On 18th March 1152, after fifteen years of marriage, the King of France divorced Eleanor on the ground of consanguinity. Or was the real reason because she did not produce him an heir to the throne? After all, fifteen years seems an unusual long time to find out that your wife is too closely related to you to be married to you in the first place.  

Exactly two months after her divorce, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet on 18th May 1152, also at Bordeaux Cathedral.

(The name ‘Plantagenet’ comes from the broom flower that Henry’s father Geoffrey — the Count of Anjou and the Duke of Normandy — wore in his hat).

Eleanor was thirteen years older than her new husband, who was born on 5th March 1133. Indeed, when Eleanor first got married to Louis VII in 1137, her future husband was only four years old.

Not only did Henry Plantagenet acquired a mature, strong woman as a wife, Eleanor also brought into the marriage her possessions of Aquitaine (which included Bordeaux), Auvergne and Poitou.

By right of his marriage, Henry became Duke of Aquitaine (he had, earlier on 7th December 1151, succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou).

Henry and Eleanor’s crowning moment took place on 19th December 1154 when, succeeding his second cousin Stephen, he was crowned as Henry II  in Westminster Abbey, London, and Eleanor as Queen.

One of Henry’s immediate goals was to establish order in his kingdom which had seen years of internal warfare and constant civil strife. To this end, he promulgated a code of written laws, credited as forming the basis of the English legal system.

Henry himself frequently set in judgement over cases (perhaps the king was inspired by the wise Salomon of biblical times) and was only too aware that laws are only as effective as when they are also just. The king could not of course be everywhere at the same time and so, circuit judges representing and dispensing royal justice travelled the length and breadth of the country. Trial by local juries also gave the common people a sense of involvement with, indeed being a part of, the king’s justice.

Eleanor was a much more complex and tempestuous character.

The queen formented so much discourse between her sons that her husband held her prisoner for over fifteen years to control and contain her from scheming amongst their children.

Eleanor and Henry II had four sons and three daughters. Two of the sons became kings. Not many people know this, but Richard I  (1189 - 1199), better known as ‘The Lion Heart’, was born to them and spent most of his 10-year reign not in England (only ten months), but in captivity in the war of the crusades and in France.

 Henry II died on 6th July 1189 at Chinon Castle in the Loire. He was buried in Fontevrault Abbey, France.  Eleanor, who was already thirteen years older than him to start with, lived another fifteen years. She died on 1st April 1204 at Fontevrault Abbey where she was also buried.

Whatever the state of their domestic relations, the union of Henry and Eleanor had a most direct impact for the wines of Bordeaux.

Since the region was part of the dowry that Eleanor brought into the marriage and because Henry subsequently became king of England, the effect was that the wine trickled into England. Easy trade between various parts of the same kingdom, after all, was something to be encouraged.

Later, King John (1199 – 1216), son of Henry and Eleanor and younger brother of Richard I, in order to win the favour of the people of Bordeaux, exempted their wine from being taxed, effectively making Bordeaux wine cheaper than any other wine imported into England. Accordingly, Bordeaux wine not only found acceptance in England, it flourished there.

So well received was Bordeaux wine that the English gave it something of a nickname.

‘Claret’, to this day, is something of an ‘English’ wine in the sense that it refers to, historically, the relatively light and light-coloured red wine that came from Bordeaux. (Today of course, claret continues to be used by the English to refer to red wine from Bordeaux even if the wine is no longer so light in weight nor in colour).



All Rights Reserved · The Wine Review · 2013