There are many different stories and beliefs as to why the Bordeaux blend became such an important wine over the last several centuries. The story we like the best is the one we were told when we were traveling in France and visited Bordeaux last summer. (Disclaimer: I’m not a certified wine historian but this should be pretty close to factually accurate events)
France, and Bordeaux, in particular, was the largest supplier of wine to England in the 1800s. One major reason was that the English people were suffering from unclean water at the time and wine was inexpensive. Another key was the ability for merchants to easily ship wine from Bordeaux because of the two main rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne, which feed into the greater Gironde river basin. These rivers allowed the vessels to travel up and down the river buying wine and shipping it quickly to England. It's not Amazon prime but at the time it was pretty quick. The French winemakers were making the finest single varietal wines in the world and many of whom were not experimenting in blending yet, that is until the late 1800’s when something catastrophic happened and changed the course of winemaking forever.
Around that time, aspiring American winemakers were traveling to France to try to improve their craft and take clones of many of the Bordeaux varietals. They also brought with them some American varietals that they wanted to share with their French colleagues. Unbeknown to anyone at the time those American clones were infected with a microscopic plant louse called Phylloxera. Phylloxera is dangerous because it feeds on the actual water within the vine itself, dehydrating and damaging the vine from the inside out. At the time, French vines had never had issues with the plant louse so no one knew what to look for to identify issues or why it was happening but most vineyards in Bordeaux and all over France began to die.
Once the problem was identified it was too late and a majority of the infected vineyards all over France had to be taken out. If that wasn’t devastating enough, the demand for wine was still booming back in England and the winemakers still had to make ends meet. So what did they do? All their vines are dead or have been removed and are being replanted on Phylloxera resistant rootstocks (more to come on this topic in future articles).
Enter, the Bordeaux blend. The winemakers needed to fulfill their contracts to the wine merchants and didn’t have enough wine to continue making single varietal wines so out of necessity they began to experiment with blending. The result was the birth of some of the most revered and expensive wines we know today. All because an American brought a bug to France and ruined their way of life that had been the benchmark for winemaking since the Roman occupation. I can’t blame the French for having a bit of resentment towards American winemakers (especially after 1976!) but the way I see it with struggle comes enlightenment and the wine world and its infatuation with blending now is all the better for it.