The Land of the Landes
October 27, 2015 4 Comments
All good wine students know about the Landes Forest – that region of tall pines bordering the Bay of Biscay to the south and west of the Bordeaux wine region. The Landes – now the most extensive forest in France at 5,400 square miles (14,000 square km) – helps to somewhat moderate the Atlantic Ocean’s cold, maritime influence on the vineyards of Bordeaux.
However, even the sharpest wine student might not know the history of the region, including how local sheep-herders used to wear stilts to navigate the land, and the fact that the forest is largely man-made.
The area we now know as the Landes forest was once covered by moors and marshlands. The area, basically a swamp surrounded by shifting sand dunes, was sometimes known as the “Moor of Bordeaux.” Not surprisingly, the area was sparsely populated. Another nickname given to the region was “the Sahara of France” due to the fact that it was notoriously difficult to travel across – as many pilgrims making their way from the north down to the Camino of Saint James needed to do.
Beginning in 1801, the marshes were drained via a vast system of canals, the land was cleared, and pine tree plantations were planted. This stabilized the sand dunes and created arable land suitable for farming. The local economy benefited through farming (mainly corn) as well as new opportunities in the timber, pine resin, and paper industries.
The benefits of the man-made Landes Forest went beyond the area’s new industrial prowess, as it was soon discovered that the near-by wine region of Bordeaux also benefited. This is due to the area of the Landes forest closest to the Médoc that shelters the vineyard regions from the bracing cold and howling breezes that blow in from the Atlantic. Thus, the vineyards of the Médoc are now able to fully ripen the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that form the basis of the region’s red wines.
The Landes forest is one of the largest man-made forests in all of Europe, as well as a unique example of a man-made landscape that continues to benefit its region and the surrounding areas. The timber, pine resin, and other related industries are still active in the area, although a good portion of the region is now given over to tourism.
The area is home to a large protected area of forests and coastlines which include the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park (Parc Naturel Régional des Landes de Gascogne). The park provides ample opportunities for hiking, cycling, and picnicking, and is home to both a bird sanctuary and a museum – L’Écomusée de la Grande Lande – which focuses on the history as well as the architectural and cultural heritage of the region –which of course, includes the vineyards and wines of Bordeaux.
The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… firstname.lastname@example.org
- “Inhabitants of the Landes” by Jean Louis Gintrac (1808–1886) is currently on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux (photograph of the work in the Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)