I’m a Burgundy Man

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

Burgundy wine

Hundreds of buyers and journalists were in Bordeaux the week before last tasting barrel samples of the 2009 vintage. The Bordelais are second to none when it comes to hyping their own wines, and long before the expectorating masses came to town, they had already declared 2009 to be a possible vintage of the century. Of course, they made the same lofty claim about 2005, and 2003, and 2000 before that; on the present trajectory, Bordeaux will have had 40 vintages of the century by the time the year 2100 arrives. But as ever, the buzz from Bordeaux prompted feverish speculation about the ratings that critics, namely Robert Parker, were likely to dole out and how much gouging the chateaux, who are also very adept at charging for their wines, would do. Indeed, as of last week, I literally had not seen a single Internet discussion regarding the 2009 vintage that hadn’t morphed into a thread about scores and prices. And each of these conversations left me with the exact same thought: Thank God for Burgundy.

Among oenophiles, there is perhaps no bigger divide than on the matter of Burgundy versus Bordeaux. They are the wine world’s most celebrated regions and its dueling colossi—very different places producing very different styles of wine. I’m partial to Burgundy mainly because I like pinot noir, its signature red grape, more than I like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which hold sway in Bordeaux. It’s a preference for elegance and earthiness over power and polish. I also agree with those who contend that Burgundy delivers more sensual pleasure. One unnamed aficionado, quoted in Jean-Robert Pitte’s book Bordeaux/Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry, is admirably direct: “Bordeaux makes you piss, Burgundy makes you fuck.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. But my fondness for Burgundy isn’t just about taste (or sex); it’s also about ideals. Burgundy, with its unpretentious farming culture, represents what I want wine to be; Bordeaux, ever more corporatized, commodified, and crass, represents what I don’t want it to become. In Burgundy, wine is still wine; in Bordeaux, it has been reduced to a number.

None of this is meant to suggest that Bordeaux doesn’t turn out great wines; it does. Although Burgundy is my touchstone, half the wines on my all-time top 10 list (yes, sadly, I have compiled such a thing) are Bordeaux, and if I had the money, I would squirrel away as much Haut-Brion, Trotanoy, Léoville-Barton, and Grand-Puy-Lacoste as my basement could hold. While it’s fashionable to say that the quality in Bordeaux ain’t what it used to be, I think the overall standard of winemaking has possibly never been higher. It’s also true that Bordeaux has always been the most commercial of wine regions. There has been a brisk international trade in its wines for centuries (being a port city has its advantages), and it’s worth recalling that the 1855 classifications, establishing the chateaux rankings that remain in place to this day, were drawn up on the basis of price.

However, Bordeaux’s commercialism has been ratcheted up dramatically in recent years. There are, I should acknowledge, lots of modest family-run wineries on the periphery of Bordeaux, but the limelight belongs to the big-name chateaux. The global wealth boom of the 1990s and early 2000s helped send demand and prices for the most sought-after wines spiraling and also brought an influx of new investors. In his aptly titled book What Price Bordeaux?, Benjamin Lewin notes that over the last two decades, wealthy industrialists and big companies have been the fastest-growing category of châteaux owner and today account for roughly one-third of all the classified growths. Lewin, a Master of Wine, says these individuals and entities generally view wine less as a beverage than a brand, less a source of pleasure than a source of revenue or long-term capital gains, and they have had a powerful influence in Bordeaux—everything is now geared to earning the points that drive prices higher and higher. In fact the Bordelais have sought to capitalize on the rising demand by implementing huge price increases whenever possible (107 percent for the five first growths in 2003, according to Liv-ex, and a whopping 261 percent in 2005) and by “creating the illusion of shortages” in order to goose sales, as Robert Parker put it in a withering rebuke a few years ago. The attitude in Bordeaux seems to be that the price should be the maximum the market will bear, even at the expense of alienating loyal customers. It is hardly surprising that so much of the conversation regarding Bordeaux these days is fueled by bitterness and cynicism.

Nothing better illustrates the extent to which Bordeaux has become a numbers racket than the just-concluded barrel tastings. The point of this annual rite of spring is to set opening prices for the wines, which are then sold as futures in order to generate cash flow for the châteaux. But the whole thing has turned into an orgy of carnival barking—by the producers, by the merchants who have to sell the wines, and by the journalists, who now compete to be the first to post their impressions and ratings (and whom the Bordelais naturally ply with lavish meals and great bottles). Almost everyone acknowledges that it’s insane to be slapping scores on wines that are so young and undeveloped, but doing right by the wines isn’t the objective; as an article in the Wall Street Journal correctly observed, it’s all about finance and speculation. In other words, all those Pomerols and Pauillacs could just as easily be pork bellies. This may be the reality of Bordeaux, circa 2010, but I find it pretty dispiriting.

They do barrel tastings in Burgundy, too, but a very different culture prevails. For one thing, there is not the same fixation with scores and prices. Sure, Burgundy is attuned to the bottom line, and the most acclaimed wines are now prohibitively expensive. But if anything, the Burgundians tend to undercharge relative to the quality and supply. (Burgundy’s output is minuscule compared with Bordeaux.) While the Bordeaux first growths raised prices on their 2005s by 261 percent, Burgundy producers increased theirs by just 10 percent to 25 percent—and the 2005 vintage was as exceptional in Burgundy as it was in Bordeaux. With Burgundy, the heftiest marking up is done by middlemen, and it is my impression that many vintners are uncomfortable, even embarrassed by what their wines now cost overseas. For them, a Musigny is a drink, not a trophy. (In fact, quite a few domaines continue to sell a significant portion of their wines directly to longtime clients at prices well below what they could get on the open market.) Nor do the Burgundians hawk their wines the way the Bordelais do—”vintage of the century” is not a phrase you are apt to hear in and around Beaune. They are also not nearly as solicitous of point-wielding critics. Parker was never much of a Burgundy enthusiast and so irritated the locals that he effectively became persona non grata and ended up hiring an assistant to cover the region.

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.