There are two wine regions in France which traditionally have had the upper-hand over all of the other wine producing areas, and those are Bordeaux and Burgundy. This little article focuses on the differences of the two regions: Burgundy located between Dijon and Lyon, in the eastern part of central France and Bordeaux- which is a much larger area in the south-western part of France, located alongside the Atlantic coast.
Burgundy is the ancestral home of two of the world’s most important vinferra grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir. They have been grown in these parts for over 1000 years, and as such the domaines know every small plot and every corner of every vineyard innately. The whole main area of Burgundy, also known as the Cote d’Or runs roughly in a north-south direction and is approximately 70 km in length, but only a few kilometers wide. The best vineyard sites are on the hills facing the east, and not the flatlands which make up the highest percentage of the total vineyard area. In turn the very best of the hillside sites are the ones located mid-slope…they are sheltered from the cold winds coming from the west, receive enough water running of the top slopes and are perfectly situated to get the most sunlight and heat in a kind of amphitheatre. These best sites are known to the burgundians as grand cru vineyards, the vineyards surrounding the grand cru vineyards up and down slope are known as premier cru sites. After that the hierarchy continues with village vineyards, and after that there is regular “Bourgogne” which is theoretically a blend of wine of various sites within the Cote d’Or.
The differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux are numerous; the winery owners in Bordeaux live in grand chateaux and spent half of the year in Paris.
They wear expensive suits and never get any dirt under their fingernails. They produce white, red and sweet wines. The reds are mostly blends made with the “Bordeaux” varieties- cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, but they can include carmenere, petit verdot and malbec. For the whites, who generally do not receive the same admiration, the wines are usually blends as well… the grapes are sauvignon blanc, semillion and muscadelle…and can include a little sauvignon gris. As an aside a little sweet wine is made as well, using the grapes mentioned above and a thing called botrytis, or noble rot. This is done primarily in the appellation of Sauternes in the southern part of Bordeaux, and is totally unfashionable… but can be very expensive to buy.
Most of the chateaux make two or three wines, usually two reds and maybe one white. The reds are “le grand vin”, so their best wine, and then their “second” wine, which are all the barrels which are not deemed good enough to go into their best wine. These are mostly from young vines, or depending on the growing season and the weather from grape varieties which were not as ripe as they needed to be. The vineyard plots are located surrounding the chateaux, mostly in one continuous piece. Depending on the size of the Chateaux they will make into the 10’s of thousands of cases of these wines…but they do not want you to know this as they want to create the image of these wines as exclusive and hard to get. You will not be able to purchase any of these wines at the chateaux itself, neither will you be able to visit and taste, unless you have great connections and/or are possibly in the wine trade
The best wines of Bordeaux used to be quite tannic and therefore required a considerable time in the purchaser’s cellar to soften. Today, because of the general trend to easier, more fruit driven wines worldwide, the Bordelais are using more merlot in their blends and they softened their extraction to produce softer, more generous wines which are accessible pretty much upon release. The great thing about these blended wines, is that each grape variety adds something to the total composition… cabernet sauvignon provides the frame of the wine, and with its tannin ensures age-ability, merlot fills the wine out with fruit and softens it and cabernet franc adds a lovely herbaceous touch. With bottle age the flavours meld and become one: that is why the best Bordeaux wines are absolutely stunning with 10 or more years in the cellar and become very expensive, into the 1000’s of dollars at auction.
In Burgundy the “Domaine” is housed within one of the small villages, with the vigneron’s apartment in the top of the building, and the cave or cellar stuffed with barrels. They have one or two employees (perhaps family members), but they themselves are the ones who are on the tractor during the year, tending their vines. Because the holdings have been passed down from generation to generation, their vineyards are scattered within their village and will probably include some plots in the adjacent villages. But these plots are tiny, a row of vines here and four rows here…that’s why the domaine will make a dozen wines or more, but they will have only a little to sell of each. For a lot of the vineyards there are numerous owners, who all make wine that for instance will be labeled Chambolle Musigny “Les Charmes”. But the quality of the pinot noir or chardonnay can be sublime in the case of the best producers, and horrible in the case of the worst. The problem is that the average consumer will not now who the good producers are and focus on the name of the village or the vineyard, i.e. there is great Chambolle Musigny and really mediocre Chambolle Musigny, depending on who made the wine. In addition the really great domaines will charge extremely high prices, as they do not have very much wine to sell and there is usually a waiting list from around the world.
If you are invited to taste in the cellar of a good burgundian producer, you will taste out of barrel- this is one of the most interesting things that a wine lover can do during their lifetime journey of wine exploration. Because one is tasting pinot noir (or chardonnay), out of the same type of barrels, from the same vintage made by the same method, by one winemaker( who is also the viticulturist), BUT from different vineyard sites you will be able to taste “terroir”- that mythological French term for sense of place. So if one pinot noir comes from the village of Chambolle Musigny it is usually a little lighter and more sensual then one that comes from the town of Nuit St. Georges, which produces brawnier and more fruit driven wine. That is because the soils in Chambolle Musigny, contain more limestone and the soils in Nuit St. Georges contain more clay. These differences have been like that for 100’s of years and are consistent from vintage to vintage.
So, Burgundy or Bordeaux, you really cannot loose…