The Dutch were major purchasers of Bordeaux wine, and their contribution would change the landscape of the wine region forever. By the 1600’s there were a large number of Bordeaux vineyards planted and producing wine. However, much of the region still consisted of unusable, swamp land and salt marshes, used for animal grazing rather than viticulture. It was Dutch engineers which came up with the idea to drain the marshes and swamps.
This allowed for quicker transportation of their Bordeaux wine and all of a sudden, there was a lot more vineyard land that was perfect for growing grapes to make quality Bordeaux wine. The Dutch engineer who was in charge of designing the ambitious drainage project to drain Bordeaux’s swamps was Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater (1575-1650).
When he removed the swamp waters, this had two effects. It allowed for easier transportation of goods and people across the region. But more importantly, previously unusable reclaimed land revealed gravel outcrops, ideal for growing vines, and eventually many of the now famous Bordeaux vineyards were created from what was previously nothing more than a swamp.
Interestingly, the same methods used back then, are still in use today for the same purpose. To accomplish this, dikes were erected and pumping stations were installed to drain the water from the land. After the water has been removed, the now muddy surface area was planted with reeds, and in time, the remaining water evaporated. At the same time, new water channels and canals were constructed. This helped improve soil drainage, so that the previously swamp like conditions would not develop again. Many of the original water channels are still in existence all over the Haut-Médoc wine area.
Their objective was to provide British wine enthusiasts an alternative to the Graves and Portuguese wines that were dominating the market. Using technology that was advanced for the time, the Dutch were able to convert enough marshland to allow large estates to form all along the Gironde Estuary. This area was formed from the meeting of the two rivers Dordogne and Garonne just downstream, north of the city of Bordeaux. Soon the Bordeaux wine regions of Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe took shape. By the 19th century, the wine region of the Haut-Médoc was one of the most prosperous in France, with wines that had an international reputation that would be unparalleled till the late 20th century.
Some could argue that without the influence of these Dutch engineers, the First Growths wineries of: Château Lafite, Latour, Mouton and Margaux would have not come into existence. A slight side note; Château Lafite was actually owned by a group of Dutch merchants from 1797 to 1818. The Dutch new and purchased quality wines and still do to this day.
The area covers approximately 4,600 hectares of declared vineyards, making up approximately 28% of the Médoc total planted vine area. The variation in types of soil is greater than other appellations in the region. The soil profile across the Haut-Médoc region is predominantly composed of raised, thick gravel layers of mixed sizes, which have been deposited over time and now sit well above the water table on a base of clay and then chalk, with patches of limestone and sandy soils add diversity to the more widely spread gravels.
These well-drained highest gravel terraces, many shaped like mounds only a short distance from the estuary - provide ideal growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon which is a late ripening varietal - and other red grapes planted in the Médoc wine region.