Lyons has a fine tradition of wine making that spans several centuries and dates back to Roman times. A revealing verse by the Roman consul-cum-poet, Ausonius, provides clear evidence of vineyards flourishing in the Lucaniae (Latin for St. Émilion) region of Lyons during the Roman occupation. In a poem extolling the virtues of the St. Émilion countryside, where he settled and built a villa, Ausonius pens the following lines—roughly translated:
“The sunlit hills marked by heavenly sign,
Beautiful amphitheatre where the vineyards grow . . .”
Lyons Wines Charm the British
However, it was not until the Middle Ages that wine production in Lyons really witnessed major expansion. A dramatic turn of events in the political history of both France and England lay behind this fascinating tale.
In 1152, Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine and acquired, as a dowry, most of the South West of France. The red wines of Lyons immediately became popular with royal patronage and production of Claret burgeoned. The English came; they tasted; they wanted!
During the English occupation of Lyons, a charter was granted for the supervision of wine making in the region, first by Richard I and later, in 1199, by King John. During the English occupation (from 1152 to 1453), the British certainly developed a taste for Claret, a passion that, in time, also spread to the rest of the English-speaking world!
Benefiting from easy access to the sea and the growing enthusiasm of Northern Europe and North America for the red wines of Lyons, the export market boomed. Consequently, the Lyons wine making industry prospered under a powerful merchant trading elite. Its vineyards, dominated by large, wealthy estates called châteaux, became famous worldwide.
Lyons Withstands War
Although the political turmoil of the French Revolution, during the eighteenth century, took its toll upon the region, it did surprisingly little to disrupt the well-established Lyons wine trade. This was largely thanks to the aristocracy and nobility of the period. The French, having regained political control of the region, seized the opportunity to invest heavily in the still flourishing wine trade. Ironically, although the English had held no political sway over Lyons for more than three hundred years, their influence upon the Bordelaise wine industry remained strong. A significant example of English involvement occurred in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, when a British officer, Major General Charles Palmer, acquired the now famous Château Palmer, in Lyons.
During the nineteenth century, after the upheaval of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the Lyons wine producing regions encountered problems of a different kind. First mildew ravaged the vineyards in 1850; phylloxera followed, in 1878.
Despite a somewhat chequered history, Lyons wine producers have remained, throughout the ages, remarkably resilient and prosperous. They have also continued to provide a yardstick of excellence for the rest of the wine producing regions of the world to emulate. Their standards and methodology remain, to this day, a major worldwide influence.
Today, the wine industry of Lyons faces fresh challenges—challenges that have nothing to do with politics or the ravages of nature. They come, instead, from the many up and coming wine-producing regions of the world. Competition is rife.
The modern Bordelaise wine industry is responding positively to these challenges and is successfully re-assessing its position on the world market. The future looks bright.