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Day 1 – Thomas Jefferson, A Primer
Day 2 – The First Wine of Record, Claret
Day 3 – Jefferson and Madeira
Day 4 – Jefferson’s Favorite Wines Available Today
Day 5 – Monticello Pictorial
Day 6 – Monticello Vineyards
Day 7 – The Monticello Cellar
Day 8 – Thomas Jefferson—Orchardist and Cidermaker (Part 1)
Day 9 – Quotable Jefferson
Day 10 – The Curious Philip Mazzei
Day 11 – Jefferson Vineyards
Day 12 – What Would Jefferson Think?
Day 13 – Thomas Jefferson—Cidermaker and Scientist-Farmer (Part 2)
Day 14 – Jefferson in Paris – A Pictorial of his Travels
Day 15 – Jefferson in Paris – Pictorial
Day 16 – Jefferson’s Wine Travels Through France and Italy
Day 17 – Jefferson’s Memorandum Notes on Journey Through France and Italy
Day 18 – Monticello Wine Festival

Day 19 – Jefferson in France, Thoughts on Bordeaux

In preparing for and writing this series, I have spent many hours reading/browsing Jefferson’s Papers maintained in the Library of Congress system. With each reading, I am amazed at how prescient Jefferson’s wine observations were.  For those with even a passing interest in the writings of a complex, enigmatic and great man, I HIGHLY recommend that you spend some time at the Library of Congress Jefferson Papers (original scanned versions available online).

During Jefferson’s travels through southern France and Northern Italy from February 28, 1787 to June 10, 1787, he spent several days in Bordeaux, and the subject of today’s post. Although Jefferson’s best known wine-related quotes about ordering wine involved the wines of Bordeaux, his purchasing habits did not necessarily follow.  After his famous 1787 wine trip, he only placed three orders for Bordeaux wines – one for Yquem, one for Haut-Brion, and one for Lafite.  Only in the case of Yquem did Jefferson receive what he ordered. (Hailman, p. 139).

The following was taken directly from John Hailman’s Thomas Jefferson on Wine book that was carefully excerpted from Jefferson’s Papers, which provide Jefferson’s initial notes on Bordeaux:

May 24. BORDEAUX. When we cross the Garonne at Langon we find the plains entirely of sand and gravel, and they continue so to Bordeaux. Where they are capable of any thing they are in vines.

Near Langon is Sauterne where the best white wines of Bordeaux are made.

May 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. BORDEAUX. The cantons in which the most celebrated wines of Bordeaux are made are MEDOC down the river, GRAVE adjoining the city and the parishes next above; all on the same side of the river.  In the first is made red wine principally, in the two last, white.

In the excerpt below from Jefferson’s Travelling Notes, I find his notes on grafting and vine age interesting:

The grafting of the vine, tho’ a critical operation, is practiced with success.  When the graft has taken, they bend it into the earth and let it take root above the scar.  They begin to yield an indifferent wine at 3. years old, but not a good on till 25. years, nor after 80, when they begin to yield less, and worse, and must be renewed.

To continue from the same entry, the excerpt below perfectly illustrates Jefferson’s amazing capacity for details [The notes below are referring to his observations of vineyard operations in Bordeaux.  Note the wage disparities between men and woman, little has changed in 220 years.]:

… They never hire labourers by the year. The day wages for a man are 30. sous, a woman’s 15. sous, feeding themselves. The women make the bundles of sarment (vine shoots), weed, pull of the snails, tie the vines, gather the grapes.  During the vintage they are paid high and fed well.

The excerpt below by Hailman, again from the same Travelling Notes entry provides Jefferson’s notes on vineyard rankings (as spelled by Jefferson):

Of RED WINES, there are 4. vineyards of first quality, viz.

  1. Hautbrion, belonging 2/3 to M. le comte de Fumelle, who has engaged to Barton a merchant, the other third to the Comte de Toulouse. The whole is 75. tonneaux.
  2. Chateau Margau, below to the Marquis d’Argicourt, who makes about 150. tonneaux of 1000 bottles each.  He has engaged to Jernon a merchant.
  3. [Chateau] La Tour de Segur, en Saint Lambert, belonging to Monsieur Mirosmenil, who makes 125. tonneaux.
  4. Chateau de la Fite, belonging to the President Pichard at Bordeaux, who makes 175 tonneaux.  The wines of the three first are not in perfection till 4 years old. Those (of) de la Fite being somewhat lighter, are good at 3 years, that is the crop of 1786 is good in the spring of 1789. These growths of the year 1783 sell now at 2000.# the tonneaux, those of 1784, on account of the superior quality of that vintage sell at 2400.# those of 1785 at 1800.#, those of 1786 at 1800.#, tho’ they sold at first only 1500.#.

In reading all of Jefferson’s notes on Bordeaux, it seems as if no level of detail is beyond his inquiry.  Fascinating.  In this same entry, Jefferson went on to note in considerable detail his thoughts on second and third quality vineyards.

To see how Jefferson’s observations during just a few days in Bordeaux compare to the official, outdated 1855 Classification, below is a comparative chart:

Jefferson's rankings versus the original 1855 Medoc Classification. Jefferson's rankings excerpted from Hailman's Thomas Jefferson on Wine. Astute observations from someone in Bordeaux just a short time.

Editorial Note:  I do not claim to be a Bordeaux expert here, but even a Bordeaux neophyte like me knows that the 1855 classification is an outdated relic that makes no sense today given the number of changes in Bordeaux (some estates no longer making wine, others have changed hands many times).

Day 20 – Jefferson’s Notes on Burgundy

Thomas Jefferson on Wine, Hailman, John


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