The proximity of the Bordeaux vineyards to the ocean keeps the Bordeaux climate both temperate and humid, a major influence on the style and quality of Bordeaux wines. This is especially true for the Medoc.
The 16 500 ha of the Medoc vineyards are on a narrow strip, just 80 Km long and up to 15 km wide, running along the eastern side of this peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is here on the Eastern edge that the famous gravel soils are found, but also some clay and limestone. Head west; towards the coastline it’s sand.
I want to take you further north, past the last vineyards of the Medoc appellation, past the salt marshes where wild horses still graze, to the sandy beaches. I have just spent a week here, at the very northern tip of the Peninsula and it has given me a different view of the region, compared to the one I am normally looking at through the bottom of a glass – which can distort your view in more ways than one!
Up until the 17th century this region was a series of marshy islands. Then, to help suck up some of the water and stabilise the sandy coastal soils, forests were planted. This didn’t go down too well with the locals who were used to shepherding their sheep on stilts across the marshy salt plains. They eventually turned toward forestry, harvesting the pine resin and seeds as well as the wood.
Then the Dutch came along with their expertise in polders and recuperating land from the sea; they built dykes along the estuary, introduced drainage ditches and started to dry out the land. It’s not a coincidence that the name ‘Moulin’ or windmill is found on a lot of wine labels. Even the name of the appellation Moulis comes from the presence of windmills on this higher area. This ‘new’ land allowed the planting of the vineyards we know today.
Despite the daily ferry that runs across to Royan, the Bordelais tend to think of the peninsula as a dead end, but the tip of the peninsula has always had a strategic role thanks to trade by sea. It seems to have been an important region as early as the Bronze Age. It’s possible there were foundries here, judging by the Bronze hammer heads that are often found washed up on the shore, most probably from bronze age villages engulfed by the ocean. There is neither copper nor tin here but it might have been a meeting place for these two raw materials from which bronze is made.
Soulac, at the northern tip, now a holiday town, was where the medieval pilgrims would disembark from Northern Europe to start their trek south to Saint Jacques de Compostella in Spain. In the 11th century Benedictine monks built a Monastery, Abbey and Basilica, to welcome them. The Basilica is called Notre-Dame-de-la-fin-des-Terres (Our lady of the end of the land) an evocative name. In the 18th century the whole village was engulfed by sand blown in on the Atlantic storms. Only the tip of the tower of the church remained, acting as a landmark. The Basilica was uncovered again in the mid 19th century when Soulac became fashionable thanks to the introduction of the railway. The train bought the great and the good from Bordeaux to bathe and breathe the fresh marine air and pine resin aromas that were thought to be restorative.
The coastline continues to move here, constantly putting water front properties at risk but it is this power of the Atlantic that attracts tourists to the area. The crashing waves and huge empty beaches are a haven for surfers and campers; there’s a real cool ‘Californian’ vibe along the coast in the summer.
Soulac has a particular and charming architectural style, known, unsurprisingly, as Soulacaise. The picturesque turn of the century cottages and villas are all built of a mix of limestone and local fired bricks.
Next time you are on a wine tour to the Medoc, take the time to go ‘off piste’ and head to the beach. A plate of oysters, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a paddle in the Atlantic is a great change of scene from the cellars of Medoc. Thanks to their restorative powers, you will return to the tasting rooms with renewed vigour.