Destinations Magazine

Wine-lover Thomas Jefferson’s Five Days in Bordeaux

By Invisiblebordeaux

Wine-lover Thomas Jefferson’s five days in BordeauxA plaque on the wall of the US Consulate in Bordeaux commemorates the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States (from 1801 to 1809) and a veritable “symbol of Franco-American friendship”. The plaque celebrates the efforts Jefferson made to promote French culture, values, heritage and cuisine once he had returned Stateside after time spent as Ambassador to France.  And during the four years he was based in Paris, he enjoyed a short but productive stay in Bordeaux!
Jefferson first arrived in Europe in 1784 to negotiate treaties alongside Benjamin Franklin who he replaced as Ambassador to France in May 1785 with the dual aim of developing trade between the two countries and restoring America’s image in France. He soon worked his way into Parisian society but also sought to travel, visiting England, the Netherlands, Italy and provincial France. 
It was during a tour that stretched from northern Italy to south-western France in 1787 that Jefferson visited Bordeaux. Travelling up from Toulouse through Langon and the Sauternes wine-growing area, Jefferson arrived in Bordeaux on Thursday May 24th 1787. He took up residence in what was then known as l’Hôtel de Richelieu and the following day was heading out to châteaux in Pessac (Haut-Brion) and Villenave d’Ornon (Pontac). On Saturday May 26th, after dealing with some correspondence, he attended a double-bill of performances at the recently-completed (1780) Grand-Théâtre: Voltaire’s tragedy "Sémiramis" and the Desfontaines and Dalayrac one-act opera "L’Amant statue". The highlight of Jefferson’s Sunday was withdrawing cash from his banker and settling his laundry bill. Then on Monday 18th he checked out of the hotel and boarded a boat heading downstream to Blaye.

Wine-lover Thomas Jefferson’s five days in Bordeaux

The building where Jefferson stayed. The "quality burger restaurant" on the ground floor is not referred to in his diaries.

Granted, with the benefit of hindsight, it probably doesn’t read as the most exciting long weekend stop-over ever. Ultimately though, it served as a fact-finding stay that was principally focused on Jefferson familiarising himself with the region’s vineyards and wine (it is acknowledged that Bordeaux wines became his favorite and remained so after his return to America), with learnings and observations being noted in a journal.
The entries written throughout his stay and when traveling through the surrounding wine-growing areas show that Jefferson was a well-informed and highly observant chronicler of his surroundings, meticulously describing the landscapes, the quality of the soils, and the vine-raising and wine-making process: “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 one till 25. years, nor after 80, when they begin to yield less, and worse, and must be renewed.”

Wine-lover Thomas Jefferson’s five days in Bordeaux

The US Consulate building which sports the Jefferson plaque.

Using approximate phonetic spelling (but spelling was a far more flexible science at the time), Jefferson rated four wines as standing out from the pack: the aforementioned "Hautbrion", "Chateau Margau", "La Tour de Segur" and "Chateau de la Fite", noting that “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.” However, during his stay, Jefferson only actually placed three orders for Bordeaux wines – one for Yquem (Sauternes), one for Haut-Brion (24 cases), and one for Lafite (250 bottles!).
Jefferson returned to America in November 1789 soon after the French Revolution.  It is reported (by the Bordeaux Wines blog) that Jefferson went on to order casks and bottles of wine at least once a year and his household consumed about 400 bottles annually (around 600 during his time as President). In case you're beginning to think Jefferson was permanently under the influence of wine, may it be reminded that he is quoted as saying that "wine brightens the life and thinking of anyone".
After the eight years he spent serving as President, he gained something of a reputation as an authoritative wine connoisseur, passing on much valuable wine-tasting and purchasing advice to the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe and paving the way to a long and fruitful relationship between US presidents and the wines of France!
Meanwhile, in 1790, George Washington had appointed the United States’ first overseas Consul, the Maryland dignitary Joseph Fenwick who set up shop in… Bordeaux. A quayside (Cours Xavier-Arnozan) mansion residence, now known as Hôtel Fenwick, was built and completed in 1795.

Wine-lover Thomas Jefferson’s five days in Bordeaux

Hôtel Fenwick and its decorative entrance.

The consulate later moved to Place de la Bourse and since 2010 has been based at number 89 Quai des Chartrons… which brings us full circle back to the Jefferson plaque, one of 45 positioned in towns visited by the statesman in France and the US by association Les Ponts du Cœur.

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