Bordeaux is France's biggest wine region, yet surprisingly its most prestigious part, the Médoc, is also the youngest. It wasn't until the Dutch drained this flat, gravelly, marsh in the mid-17th century that the merchants of Bordeaux, keen to compete with the burgeoning wine trade between Portugal and Britain (this was the time that port was 'discovered'), planted vines.
History, politics, commerce and engineering have all played their part in shaping the wine that has become synonymous with Bordeaux. However, there was something else. A starfish. Beneath the gravel of Bordeaux lies limestone bedrock made up of billions of tiny starfish. Encouraged by the quick-draining gravel, the vine's roots burrow deep into this calcitic graveyard, from where they absorb the minerals that will later, in the glass, help distinguish this unique terroir. The vines of Bordeaux truly do grow 'between the stars'.
The very fact that 'Bordeaux' has become a generic term used to describe a particular style of wine is of huge advantage to this region. There are 57 AOC areas (Appellations d'Origines Contrôlées), some of which produce wines of five-star quality - with astronomical prices to match. The trick in Bordeaux, more than in any other wine region in France, is to spot the up-and-coming areas within the region - the 'wannabe' stars - and, thankfully there are plenty of them. Since the early '80s improvements in viticulture, winemaking - and attitudes - have helped raise the overall level of quality in many of Bordeaux's AOCs and individual properties.
The Médoc is considered to be the 'classic' Bordeaux wine-producing area and anyone who has driven up the left bank of the Gironde estuary cannot fail to have been impressed by the architecture and the evocative names of the famous châteaux. But bargains from the Médoc are thin on the ground, which is one reason why it took us a long time to find Régis and Karin Bernaleau at Château Mongravey in Margaux.
When we selected our first vineyards in Bordeaux, we chose to concentrate on the prettier right bank of the Gironde in the appellations of Blaye and Bourg. These areas have a much longer history of wine production (there is evidence that the Romans planted vineyards here) but we didn't choose them for historical reasons: this is where the best quality and value for money can now be found.
Like every region in France there is still a lot of poor wine produced here, but properties owned and run by young, innovative, quality-conscious producers such as Vincent Lemaitre at Château Rousselle, Jean-Michel and Françoise Baudet at Château Monconseil-Gazin and Philippe and Valérie Bassereau at Château de la Grave are stars at the very top of the tree.