Why I'll always prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux.

Why I'll always prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux.

Why I'll always prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
April 12 2010 3:53 PM

I'm a Burgundy Man

Choosing sides in the great wine-world fight between Burgundy and Bordeaux.

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Burgundy has always been a world apart from Bordeaux. While the Bordelais classified their wines by price, the Burgundians did it on the basis of terroir—on what they believed to be the intrinsic quality of each vineyard, as revealed over the centuries. Burgundy's grand cru and premier cru designations, which were formally introduced in the 1930s, are aesthetic judgments, not commercial benchmarks. Bordeaux has historically been quite affluent and cosmopolitan, a magnet for rich outsiders—foreigners as well as people from other parts of France. In Burgundy, on the other hand, prosperity is a recent phenomenon; up until the 1980s, it was a fairly hardscrabble place (which could explain the lack of rapacious pricing: growers who remember the lean times may prefer to forgo a few extra euros than to risk losing customers). It has traditionally been a very insular one, composed almost entirely of small, multigenerational family farms. Jean-Robert Pitte summarizes the atmospheric distinctions:

Exaggerating only slightly, it is fair to say that in Bordeaux they have university degrees, speak English (and sometime another foreign language), read the daily financial news, travel frequently to Paris and abroad, dress in the style of English gentlemen farmers, and play tennis or even polo; in short, their manners are sophisticated. Most of their counterparts in Burgundy, by contrast, have no higher education, dress in a rustic or sporty way, in any case without any concern for fashion or affectation, and proudly display their peasant manners. The former spend their time mainly in the office and rely on employees to do the work of the vineyard and the cellar; the latter, even when they have assistance or hired staff, take pleasure in getting out of the office and rolling up their sleeves.


These differences seem more pronounced of late. While Bordeaux is increasingly corporate, its proprietors further removed than ever from the winemaking process, the overwhelming majority of Burgundy estates are still mom-and-pop operations, and the region's agrarian way of life has become even more entrenched. In Burgundy, the winery owners almost always do the winemaking themselves, and these days, the amount of time that a vintner spends in the fields is seen as a measure of his or her commitment to quality. The idea that great wines are made in the vineyard is now Burgundy's mantra, and its best producers work their vines with a fastidiousness that would put their fathers and grandfathers to shame. With Burgundy, you are not drinking a luxury label owned by a guy in a Brioni suit, but rather a wine made by a farmer dressed in boots, and for me, this authenticity is also part of Burgundy's attraction relative to Bordeaux.

It is often said that all roads lead to Burgundy—that oenophiles, as they get older, are invariably drawn to the finesse and subtlety of Burgundy. There certainly seem to be a lot more people heading that way these days. John Kapon, the president of Acker Merrall & Condit, a New York retailer and auction house, says he has seen a surge in demand for Burgundy. For the 2005 vintage, Acker sold nearly as many Burgundy futures as it did Bordeaux, which was unprecedented. "There is definitely a level of interest now that wasn't there a decade ago," Kapon told me. I think one reason for this is Burgundy's quality revolution. Although Parker, clearly nursing a grudge, never passes up a chance to disparage Burgundy as a qualitative minefield for consumers, the truth is that the wines have never been better or more consistently good. Burgundy's rise may also be tied to the popularity of pinot noir; if you're a pinot buff, there's a lot to like in Oregon, California, and New Zealand, but the notoriously ornery grape still reaches its apogee in the limestone-rich soils of east-central France.

I suspect, though, that Burgundy's growing allure is also a statement about what people value in their glass. Wine writer Matt Kramer recently wrote a piece in which he recalled waxing lyrical about Burgundy to French critic Michel Bettane, who replied, "Ah, Matt, you want to dream your wines." I think that's true for most of us: The wines we feel most passionate about are those that offer not only compelling aromas and flavors, but a little romance and soul, too. It is hard to discern these qualities in most Bordeaux nowadays; however good the wines may taste, they have become so bound up in prices, scores, and luxury marketing that the romance and soul have been drained out of them. For me, and I think for an increasing number of wine drinkers, what appeals about Burgundy is not only the excellence of the wines, but the charm and character of the place itself.