They are the twin peaks dominating the French wine landscape, the two names synonymous with the stratospheric heights wine can reach both in the bottle and on the price tag attached to it.
Burgundy and Bordeaux both have winemaking histories stretching back to Roman times and are foundation stones of any great wine cellar, but it’s their difference, rather than any similarities they share, that make them so fascinating.
WORDS NICK RYAN
BORDEAUX IS ORCHESTRAL, BURGUNDY, A SOLO VIRTUOSO.
Perhaps the most fundamental distinction between the regions is the composition of the wines they produce. Put simply, Bordeaux believes in blends while Burgundy celebrates the full expression of single varieties.
In Bordeaux, the whites will be built mainly on semillon and sauvignon blanc and the reds will be cabernet sauvignon or merlot dominant blends with a little seasoning from varieties like malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot.
Burgundy eschews such complications in favour of strict mono-varietal expression. If your Burgundy is white, you’re drinking chardonnay, if it’s red you’ve got a glass full of pinot noir.
But that’s about the only time you’ll ever see Burgundy described as easier to understand.
BORDEAUX IS ORDERLY, BURGUNDY IS CHAOTIC.
Most people would advise the novice wanting to explore the great wines of France, to begin with, Bordeaux because the road map is much easier to follow.
Back in 1855, Napoleon III commissioned a classification of the wine producers of Bordeaux to be displayed at the Exposition Universelle de Paris. The various chateaux were ranked according to reputation and price from First Growths down to Fifth, and with only minor fluctuations in the years since, the classification remains much the same to this day.
Burgundy, on the other hand, is a byzantine labyrinth of small producers, tiny plots with fractious ownership and a system of classifying vineyards that kind of works but also throws up countless exceptions to the rule.
That’s possibly explained by the fact that…
BORDEAUX IS MERCANTILE, BURGUNDY IS MONASTIC.
Bordeaux has always been a trading city, its location on the estuary of the Gironde River putting it in the prime position for cross-channel commerce.
That geographical advantage was further reinforced in the Middle Ages when Henry Plantagenet married Eleanor of Aquitaine and began a tightly entwined relationship with the British wine trade that continues to this day.
In those periods when Anglo/French relations were a bit testy, the Bordelaise had great success opening other markets in Europe and it was the wines of Bordeaux that drove the fine wine booms occurring in the USA at the end of the 20th century and in China in the early days of the 21st.
While the Bordelais were worshipping a god called Franc, the Burgundians went about their business in silence with heads bowed. Most of the vineyard planting and wine production along Burgundy’s famed Cote d’Or (Golden Slope) began with Catholic monks from the Benedictine and Cistercian orders. It’s commonly believed that when applied to vineyards the Cistercian practice of quiet contemplation and studious observation of nature is especially effective in identifying the best sites for planting. That so many of the vineyards they considered to be the best almost a thousand years ago are still revered today would suggest there’s some validity in that.
THE BORDELAIS ARE ARISTOCRATS, THE BURGUNDIANS ARE FARMERS.
Bordeaux is a place where grand chateau tower over vineyards and names like Rothschild mark the bottles they produce. It’s old money and big money, a community of noble families, the super wealthy, large corporations and, in recent times, an influx of Chinese billionaires.
It’s winemaking on a large scale too. Bordeaux’s annual output is on par with the entire Australian crush.
Burgundy is all about small scale winemaking from tiny plots often divided into even smaller slices by the way intricate French inheritance laws carve up the assets of farming families. Here visitors are received in dark cellars rather than grand drawing rooms and narrow village streets are clogged with tractors, not Bentleys.
But Burgundy is also home to the highest priced vineyard land on the planet and while it rarely changes hands, when it does only the exceedingly wealthy can afford it, so the fabric of Burgundy is starting to change.
BUT THE BOTTOM LINE IS THIS: BOTH MAKE SOME OF THE BEST WINES ON EARTH.
Whether it’s the plush and polished wine of Bordeaux or the exuberantly expressive offerings from Burgundy, there’s no doubting these regions fully deserve their preeminence in the minds of wine lovers the world over. The distinct differences between them – sternly structured Bordeaux up against intriguingly complex Burgundy – are what makes exploring these places and their wines so compelling. And it’s the boundless pleasures each can provide that keeps drawing us back.