Bordeaux/Burgundy job swap

Bordeaux, Burgundy People & Places Articles
  • Friday 6 November 2009

What happens when a winemaker from Bordeaux and one from Burgundy spend a week in each other’s cellars? jane anson finds out

The cellars at Albert Bichot in Beaune are typical of a Burgundy négociant-grower, containing more than 2,500 barrels of wine from 50 appellations across the region. Keeping track of all of them is no easy job; these barrels represent tiny parcels of land from a patchwork of vines all over the Côtes de Beaune, Côtes de Nuits and Chablis: the smallest being just 300 litres from Richebourg; the largest 2,000 hectolitres from Chablis.

They couldn’t be more different from the cellars at Château Preuillac in Bordeaux. Here you find about 600 barrels, but from just one appellation – Médoc. Even a nearby property, Château Talbot in St-Julien, which at 107 hectares is one of the largest in the region and has 2,000 barrels in its cellars, still only makes wine from one appellation.

The differences don’t stop there. The cellars below the handsome but functional Bichot offices in Beaune are miles from the nearest grapes that are vinified within them. The honeyed limestone of the 19th-century Château Preuillac is surrounded by 26ha of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that reach right up to the château door. In Burgundy, the only red grapes are Pinot Noir.

When you stop to look at these two iconic wine regions, almost every element of vine growing, winemaking and selling is different. So taking a winemaker from each area and parachuting them into the other for a week-long immersion – a kind of vinous Wife Swap – was always going to be illuminating.

But it was not going to be easy. For a start, getting from Bordeaux to Burgundy and vice versa is no simple task. There is no direct flight that goes between the two regions (there was one, but it was stopped a few years ago due to lacklustre usage) and no direct train. You can’t help but wonder if this is significant, as the rivalry between the two has always been fierce, and in both places there is a healthy set of jokes that have sprung up over the centuries, usually depicting Burgundy as a place for hedonists, Bordeaux for intellectuals or businessmen.

Breaking the barriers

The Bordeaux week was first. Philippe Seguin, long-standing cellar master at Domaine du Pavillon in Pommard, drove west to spend a week at Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan and Château Preuillac in the Médoc, both owned by Jean-Christophe Mau.

This was not entirely new for Seguin: his company, Bichot, has spent the past few years hosting the winemaking facilities for François Pinault of Château Latour – one of the very few high-profile owners who has properties in both regions (along with Eduard Labruyère, see box, p42) – while his cellar was being constructed at Domaine d’Eugénie in Vosne-Romanée. But for this week, Seguin was dividing his time between the two Mau properties, in the cellars and vines, and observing the blending of the previous vintage alongside consultant Stéphane Derenencourt.

Then it was the turn of Preuillac’s young winemaker, Nathalie Billard, who was making her first ever (‘a bit shameful, I know, but true’) trip to Burgundy. She spent a week visiting the domaines in the Bichot stable, getting an understanding of the viticultural methods, taking part in tastings, and working in the company’s new cellars in Beaune.

Alberic Bichot, owner of Maison Bichot, explained why he agreed to our suggestion of the swap over a lunch to welcome Billard on board. ‘We need to break the barriers between these two regions. We are so used to highlighting our differences that perhaps we forget how much we have in common.’

That might be true, but you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone rather enjoys the stand-off. For a start, the Burgundians like nothing better than to point out that Robert Parker is a fan of Bordeaux wines because he doesn’t understand the nuances of fine Burgundy. The Bordelais have been known to dismiss the Burgundian winemakers as ‘farmers’. Even wine drinkers tend to have their favourite of the two regions and are happy to stick up for their choice. Supermarkets in both areas are hardly overflowing with the other’s wines, and each, of course, thinks the other region is more complicated.

‘Burgundy might only have Pinot for red, and Chardonnay for white, but you then have to understand the appellation, village, climat, and then the individual producer,’ said Billard at the end of her week. Seguin was quick to counter: ‘In Bordeaux, you have many appellations and then so many different classifications – it’s hard to keep track.’

To a certain extent, the experiences of the swap bore out the stereotypes. ‘I found the work in the Bordeaux cellars very precise, with highly efficient grape sorting and precise work with the press wine,’ said Seguin. ‘You can’t say that over 90ha, Latour has a consistent, single terroir; rather the skill is in taking the most expressive parts and blending them together. For us in Burgundy, the skill is in allowing each wine to express only the one piece of individual terroir on which it is grown.’

New-found knowledge

Although the Bordelais would hotly contest that the concept of terroir belongs in Burgundy, even Billard confessed to being impressed by ‘the revolutionary but simple idea in Chablis that north-facing slopes are classified Chablis, and south-facing slopes are Chablis premier cru, because the south slopes will get better sun and therefore better ripening’.

Both winemakers found plenty to surprise them. The image of Burgundy is of an artisanal winemaker manually punching down grapes in wooden, open-top vats, letting natural yeasts start the vinification and the malolactic fermentation start naturally. In Bordeaux, it’s of a white-coated technician verifying levels of must weight, volatile acidity and temperature of the thermo-regulated vats.

After a week in Burgundy, Billard claimed she was ready to challenge any Bordeaux winemaker not to be jealous of Bichot’s new vat room, where micro-cuvées are stored in specially designed vats with small chambers of between 25 to 150 litres stacked on top of each other. And few Burgundian winemakers could fail to be impressed with the precise maps of terroir that govern the plot-by-plot vinification at Château Brown.

‘At Brown they are experimenting with Burgundy barrels for ageing the white wine,’ said Seguin. ‘We at Bichot, meanwhile, are experimenting with the smaller Bordeaux barrels for our reds. There’s always something to learn from each other.’ Billard agreed: ‘There are definitely winemaking ideas that I want to take home with me. We talk about Burgundy wines in Bordeaux, but rarely drink them. I will come back from this week with as many bottles as I can fit in my case and start brushing up my knowledge.’

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