The Great Rivalry

The Great Rivalry
If you talk to people who talk about wine a lot, you’ll notice a Grand Canyon–sized divide: Bordeaux is on one side, and Burgundy on the other. Never the twain shall meet. You have to pick sides in this age-old contest, if only because it’s the conversation that animates your fellow wine lovers. Not having an opinion would be like not caring who becomes the next president, or the next American Idol champ, depending on your circle.

What is it about the red wines of these regions (we’re not talking about the whites here) that can lead to verbal sparring over a table in a three-star restaurant? That’s the subject of a worthy new book, Bordeaux/Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry ($25, University of California Press), that comes out next week. Author Jean-Robert Pitte (translation by M. B. DeBevoise) seems just the man for the job of dissecting what he calls “a very French quarrel” — he’s not only the author of 12 books, he’s also the president of the Sorbonne, Paris’s legendary university. Well excusez-moi.

Pitte says animosity and competition between Bordeaux and Burgundy starts with the residents of these regions themselves, not surprisingly. “Not content to ignore each other, hardly tasting each other’s wines, they delight in denigrating each other more or less fiercely,” he writes. Pitte’s book is full of fascinating digressions into the history of the wines, the areas, and the people — he even deals with the way religion has impacted wine production in Catholic Burgundy and the more Protestant–influenced Bordeaux. My favorite line in the whole book: “The traditional cuisines of Bordeaux and Burgundy resemble each other only in their shared love of garlic.” Good to know.

Ultimately, the partisanship is purely a matter of taste, because these red wines are fundamentally different. Burgundy is made from 100 percent Pinot Noir, a difficult and moody grape, and it’s often made by small farmers on tiny plots of land (even when they sell their grapes or wine to negoçiants who use them in blends), often in vineyards shared by many producers. It’s harder to get and more chancy in a bad vintage, but exquisite when it works. Burgundy is the wine of lovers, poets, free thinkers, and people who don’t mind crushing disappointment in the search for ecstasy. Bordeaux, on the other hand, is a blend, usually of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and a couple of other varieties. It’s more likely to come from a large single chateau making many thousands of cases, and it has a better chance of aging well. The track record is clearer with Bordeaux, and it’s easier to find a good one. It’s a sure thing dressed in a blue blazer.

Pitte comes out of the closet early on — he’s a Burgundy man, no two ways about it (and in truth, I’m with him). But he’s very even-handed, elegantly summing up the dilemma this way by quoting a Bordeaux partisan:
Farnoux-Reynaud points out a genuine difference between the two wine producing cultures, however, when he writes, “When a man from Burgundy feels admiration for his wine, he says of it, ‘It’s got love’; and when a man from Bordeaux takes pride in his cuvée, he murmurs simply, ‘It is distinguished.’ By no means would I speak ill of love…but it is not something that lasts…. But distinction, with all due respect, is a result. It is transmitted to you as a consequence of [the labor of] earlier generations and daily discipline.” In the face of such confidence there is nothing to be said, for here one touches upon the very heart of the dispute between Bordeaux and Burgundy. These two positions are difficult to reconcile. One must not even try.
Since Pitte is a Burghound, he’s a lover, not a fighter, and he ends on a note of reconciliation and warm fuzzies. He writes that it’s time to “bury the hatchet” and to see these towering wines as “brothers and sisters in a family.” I’m game for that approach. But when he concludes, “Long live Bordeaux and Burgundy!” I can’t help but notice the underlying emotion that bursts forth anytime a French writer puts pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard: Vive la France.

Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.