An Urban Vineyard

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This post, submitted by Wendy Narby, is a participant in the 2015 Great Wine Capitals Bloggers' Competition.

(All photo credits:  Wendy Narby)

Pessac Léognan is at once one of the oldest and one of the youngest of the Bordeaux appellations.

One of the youngest as it was officially created in 1987 and yet the oldest as it encompasses what was known as ‘Les Graves de Bordeaux’ the ‘cradle ‘ of fine Bordeaux wine making as we know it today. Vine cultivation here dates back to about the 1st century and, unsurprisingly, it has seen a series of booms and busts during its history. Looking at the architecture of some of the properties (Chateau Olivier for example) you can see they enjoyed huge prosperity in the Middle Ages thanks to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet (soon to be Henry II) of England who brought the region under the English crown in her dowry.

Pessac-Léognan is to the North of the Graves and the two appellations together (as they were pre 1987) cover almost 4 000ha running 60 kilometres from Bordeaux in the North to south of Langon surrounding the Sauternes and Barsac appellations. 240 wine makers produce about 20 million bottles in Graves and about 9 million in Pessac Léognan. The classification of Graves in the 1950’s predates creation of the Pessac Léognan appellation, which is now where all 16 classified Chateau are situated. These represent in white and red about 20% of the volume of production of the appellation.

Well established since the middle ages the Graves made their claim to fame in the 17th century notably thanks to the dynamism of Arnaud de Pontac, (The third of that name) and owner of Chateau Haut Brion. The only red 1st growth of 1855 not to be from the Medoc, although 12 Sauternes 1 Barsacs were also classed 1er. In what was probably the first act of direct wine marketing, he sent his son to London after the great fire in 1666 to open the first French wine bar (well tavern) ‘the Pontac’s Head’. Who said that Bordeaux was behind the marketing curve?

Chateau Haut Brion and its park, hidden in the suburbs of Bordeaux

Racking the barrels of wine during aging

London was the market leader for Bordeaux wines then (and remained so until the Chinese over took them in 2010). By selling their wines directly to the great and the good of the city they established the popularity of The New French Claret with this wealthy and influential clientele. It was a new style of wine; using longer on-skin fermentation in larger barrels, topping up to prevent oxidation and protection from fungal and micro bacterial contamination by the use of sulphur, a practise introduced by the Dutch (the Bordelais still use a ‘Dutch match’ of sulphur in the barrels today between rackings to ‘disinfect’ them). This created a style of wine that has more in common with what we know as Bordeaux today rather than the ‘Clairet’ previously sold out of Bordeaux. This lighter wine would go off rapidly in the summer heat despite its high acidity. These wines were so popular with Northern Europe that in the 14th century this light Clairet (or rosé) dominated representing about 80% of the production in the region.

This period of boom lead to the ‘Vins de Graves’ dominating the English market for quality wines until the end of the 18th century. Being so close to, and in some cases in, the city of Bordeaux, these vines were on hand for the great and the good of Bordeaux. The vines were planted on outcrops of gravelly soils that were unsuitable for any other agriculture but gave strength to the wine. They reached the very walls of the city up until the 19th century. A law that prevented wine being imported from further up river until all the local stocks had been sold also helped their success. This success, unsurprisingly lead to increased planting away from the city walls further south as far as Langon.

However in more recent times the locality has proved a challenge; the proximity of the city and its urban sprawl has seen competition for the Vineyards. In the crisis after WW1 and again in the 50’s and the 70’s, crises related to both global economic factors (post war depression, exodus from the land) as well as local conditions (frosts of 1956) meant that urban pressure from the city resulted in many properties being sold for redevelopment rather than remaining under vines.

Happily some survived and have become urban vineyards, it is surprising now to see the green oasis of vines amongst the suburbs of the city that are Chateau Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion, Pape Clement and Haut Brana in Pessac – along side the university buildings and Chateau Luchey Halde and Pique Caillou in Merignac (better known to international visitors for the Bordeaux airport). See the map here

The history of one of these properties, Chateau Luchey Halde, reflects that of the region, just like the appellation it is one of the oldest and the newest at the same time. Although the history of vines at the property dates back to roman times the property was completely replanted by the current owners, ENITA de Bordeaux (a government agricultural agency) in 1999. It was saved from the urban sprawl having been a military training ground close to the airport for 80 years. Being reinstated as a vineyard, it is now also an agricultural school and as such benefits from the latest research and technology in vine growing and wine making on it’s 22 ha of the 29ha that are under vine.

This urban pressure, along with a desire to re-establish an idea of ancient Northern Graves terroir was one of the reasons for the creation of the Pessac Léognan appellation. Despite it being a bit of a mouthful, named after 2 of the 9 communes or villages in the appellation, it seems to be working. Since it’s creation on 9th September 1987 over 1 000 ha of vines have been replanted in Pessac Léognan. Also encouraging was the launch earlier this year of the ‘Schéma de cohérence territoriale (Scot) which officially ‘designated’ almost 50 000 hectares in 93 ‘communes’ in and around the city, including 25 000 ha of vines, as protected from urban development, both commercial and residential. When you consider that the total vineyard of the 62 Bordeaux appellations covers just over 113 000ha – it’s reassuring.

The current terroir of Pessac Leognan

But it’s not all bad, the proximately to Bordeaux is also helpful, creating a warmer microclimate encouraging early ripening; these vines are usually the first to be harvested. It’s also an advantage for visitors – no need to worry about drinking and driving if you want to visit and taste, several chateaux are within walking distance of Bordeaux’s new tramway. This could be useful on the weekend 6/7 December, the Pessac Léognan open days. However I encourage you to venture out further than the city limits if you can. Use the Route des Vins de Graves that includes all the Graves appellations and covers not just the Chateau but also other activities including accommodation in the region.

I would also recommend a visit to Chateau Haut Bailly in Léognan during the weekend. As well as a cellar visit and wine tasting you can sample the excellent burgers from the West Coast food truck and enjoy live jazz music on Saturday afternoon.

Chateau Haut Bailly

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