A recent conversation with a wine collector led us down a fascinating rabbit hole that brought up history from the 12th century. Frankly, any conversation that can bring up one of my favorite women in English History, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is a win. For it to involve one of the most iconic wine regions of the world, Bordeaux, is a treat. He brought forth the question, why are the regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy so very different - not just in terms of grapes and climate – but also in terms of châteaux in Bordeaux and domaines in Burgundy? A complicated answer, but arguably the foundation can be traced back to this legendary woman born in 1122. The course that her life took helped to inform the foundations for this wine region. Indulge me with another historical rabbit hole of wine and royalty, last one for a bit – I promise.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, the daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, lived from 1122 - 1204. She was rare for her era in that her father ensured she was extremely well educated in history, languages, mathematics, astronomy, and more. The Duchy of Aquitaine was the one of the most valuable in all of France and the territory included Bordeaux. Through circumstance, she was left the heir of her father. Upon making her his heir, she was at risk of being kidnapped and forced into a marriage with the sole purpose of getting the Duchy. Eleanor’s father asked the King of France, Louis VI, to caretake both his daughter and the land. The King quickly married her off to his own son, but in a twist of fate, King Louis VI died shortly thereafter – leaving her husband the King and she the Queen of France. A key decision was made here - part of the wedding agreement stipulated that the Duchy would not be integrated with the Crown’s lands until her first male heir would ascend to the throne. Eleanor never bore a male heir with the King. In fact, the marriage would end up being annulled after many years with this as one of the main reasons. Once again, at risk of being kidnapped and forced into marriage for her Duchy, Eleanor sought out Henry II, Duke of Normandy, and told him that they should marry. He agreed and within eight weeks of her annulment, they marry. Some historians say that she stayed at Chateau Lafite before the wedding and some say that Chateau d’Issan was served at the wedding. In fact, Chateau d’Issan hosted a series of dinners in Royal residences in London recently to honor their connection with Eleanor. With this wedding, Aquitaine became part of the English realm of influence and within two years, Henry ascends to the throne and Aquitaine becomes a Duchy of the English Crown.
With Eleanor’s influence, Bordeaux was the wine to drink at Court and seeped into British culture - the rise of the “claret” – as the English would call Bordeaux. This commercial link also influenced the rise of the châteaux in Bordeaux. The owners created more of a corporation structure to handle the business of the châteaux - whereas vineyards in Burgundy were often controlled by the Church. When the French Revolution occurred – those lands were confiscated, many eventually landing in the hands of local families. Post Revolution saw the Napoleonic Code in effect which decreed that each son would get an equal share of the land upon the passing of the father – thus making the estates in Burgundy more fractured and smaller with each passing generation. This is why you will have wine producers in Burgundy with very small production numbers or the Negotiants – those who buy grapes from various growers and make the wine themselves. The châteaux in Bordeaux weren’t as impacted by the Napoleonic Code as it wasn’t common for them to be broken apart with the passing of a generation.
One extraordinary woman and the course of her life, from nearly a thousand years ago, helped set the political and commercial framework for one of the most important regions in the world of wine. There are numerous books about her and if interested, I highly recommend reading them. What is noted here is merely the beginning; her life was cinematic in scope and depth – her extraordinary education, court scandals, an annulment granted by the Pope, the Crusades, the rise of the Plantagenet Kings, and her imprisonment for being too powerful make for rich material for literature. If movies are up your alley, The Lion in Winter, with Katherine Hepburn (also a distant relative of Eleanor) as Eleanor and Peter O’Toole as Henry II, is an outstanding Oscar award winning film – best paired with a Bordeaux. As it’s summer, make it a beautifully chilled white Bordeaux and enjoy.