Jean-Robert Pitte looks at the centuries-old rivalry between the most revered wine regions in the world
‘Your Honour,’ an old marquise once asked, from her end of the table to the other, ‘which do you prefer, a wine from Bordeaux or from Burgundy?’
‘Madame,’ the magistrate who was thus questioned answered in a druidic tone, ‘that is a trial in which I so thoroughly enjoy weighing the evidence that I always put off my verdict until the next week.’ Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste
The famous anecdote above, told by Brillat-Savarin, reveals an educated and eclectic connoisseur who varies his wines to suit the food he eats, the weather, and his mood.
In 1963, the Burgundian cellar master and wine taster Pierre Poupon adopted a similarly civil tone:
‘I am not jealous of the wines of Bordeaux. These are difficult wines for our Burgundian palates; we have to spend a long time with them, with an open mind, before being able to detect their great virtues. But they are so different from ours that I manage to like them only when I stop trying to compare them.’
And Parisian journalist Bernard Frank cheerfully confessed, ‘I had probably never drunk a single glass of wine when I chose my camp once and for all: Bordeaux rather than Burgundy. Once and for all! But one lives and learns. Since then I have learned to put some Burgundy in my wine. The palate must give way to the mind.’
A fine phrase, this last one, that illuminates a whole geography of wine, a geography founded upon the marriage of pragmatism and the senses.
It is true that in Bordeaux the aristocrats of the vine sometimes condescend to serve one or another of the great white wines of Burgundy at the splendid feasts they hold in their townhouses on the Pavé des Chartrons or in their châteaux.
Bernard Ginestet describes a prodigious luncheon given not so very long ago at Mouton by Baron Philippe de Rothschild, one of the most discriminating gourmets and connoisseurs of the Médoc:
‘With the fried filets of sole, sauce tartare, a Montrachet was served, Marquis de Laguiche 1952; a marvelous wine, pale golden yellow in colour, flecked with green tints. It captivated the entire table, which was unanimous in its praise.
“You spoil us, dear friend Philippe,” declared Edouard Minton. “There is hardly anywhere in all of Bordeaux, except your home, that one can drink white Burgundies of such quality. This is truly magnificent. We don’t have such wines.”
“Glad you like it, my dear Edouard. For a long while now I have exchanged two or three cases of Mouton every year for some Montrachet from my friend Philibert. Do you know how large his vineyard is? Hardly more than two hectares! I serve this wine only to those who are worthy of it. But I find it agreeable to let my taste buds wander through other lands.” ’
Exchanges of this sort are unfortunately exceptional in both the Gironde and the Côte d’Or. Seldom do they do each other such favours. Ask the natives of these two universally renowned wine producing regions about each other, and you will not find the slightest sign of sympathy or fellow feeling.
They are not from the same world – a fact they miss no occasion to proclaim loudly and clearly. Not content to ignore each other, hardly tasting each other’s wines, they delight in denigrating each other more or less fiercely.
The Bordelais are annoyed by the subtle smells of the great Pinots, by their colour, which is often less bold than the reds of the Gironde, and by the fact that these wines nonetheless manage to overwhelm the head and the senses with lighthearted ease.
They are a bit jealous, too, of the best Chardonnays, tinged with the flavour of honey like their sweet, strong white wines, yet at once dry, full-bodied, and round.
But above all they are irritated by the division of minuscule appellations into a multitude of parcels belonging to many owners: to the Bordelais mind, such a practice is incomprehensible and unjustifiable.
Jean-Paul Kauffmann, who, though he is not originally from the Gironde, sang the praises of its wines for years as the editor-in-chief of L’Amateur de Bordeaux, comes straight to the point.
‘The system of classification of Burgundies is a work of art, but, like all works of art, it contains an element of mystery. Its beauty is a real puzzle. Burgundy, with more than 100 different appellations, is as complex as the duchy of the same name in the time of Charles the Bold. With 51 hectares, the Clos Vougeot consists of some 90 parcels divided among 80 different owners. Nothing lasting can be built on such subtleties.’
Let it be said, too, that the Bordelais find it hard to get along with these crafty, food loving peasants, whose hands are calloused and deformed by manual labor, their heads habitually covered by an old cap; who roll their rs and who are given to telling crude jokes when they get together, and drinking to excess like their ancestors, the bearded Gauls and ancient Burgundians.
None of this prevents them from having access to large piles of money, in the form of real estate and business profits both, which they spend on expensive foreign cars like so many vulgar nouveaux riches.
Some years ago, the television host Bernard Pivot devoted his Christmas show to the subject of good eating and fine wine. One of his guests, the Bordelais Jean Lacouture, expressed a rather favourable opinion of one glass he was given to taste.
On learning that it was a fine Burgundy, Lacouture replied, ‘Burgundy, really? I had no idea. It’s excellent, but just the same I prefer wine.’
Some years later he acknowledged having issued this backhanded compliment, saying that he still did not understand Burgundies and could fully appreciate only Bordeaux.
It is true that poor Lacouture is much to be pitied, suffering as he does from a dramatic impairment of the faculty of taste known as anosmia, or insensitivity to smells – a fatal impediment in the case of Burgundy…
In saying as much, however, Lacouture was only following in the steps of the author François Mauriac, perhaps without knowing it. Father Maurice Lelong recounts a delightful anecdote told to him by the superior general of the Dominicans, Father Martino Stanislao Gillet.
Gillet was living in Dijon and hoped to be elected to the Académie Française. Mauriac, accompanied by another academic, paid him a visit. The candidate took his guests to Aux Trois Faisans and ordered, altogether correctly, a bottle of Burgundy.
At this point, Lelong relates, one of the Immortals, congenitally devoted to a certain vineyard of the Gironde, doubtfully pursed his lower lip.
There was a long silence, the kind that occurs when a faux pas has been committed. The eyes of the guest searched the eyes of the host, who now found himself in a state of most painful anxiety:
‘It’s wine,’ said the most reverend father, who told this to me with a certain bitter amusement. ‘I shouldn’t have thought so,’ replied Mauriac, with the inimitable tone of false naivete for which he was famous.
The epilogue to this story will not come as a surprise: Father Gillet never became a member of the Academy.
Mauriac, for his part, naturally placed Bordeaux, his Bordeaux, at the pinnacle, ‘For me, the
superiority of Bordeaux comes from its naturalness: it is born of my earth, of my sun, and of the attentive love that my people devote to it. The primary virtue of Bordeaux is honesty.’
Extraordinary – to think that honesty has always reigned along the Quai des Chartrons!
Philippe Sollers, another Bordelais, has expressed himself still more explicitly on this point, and far less good-naturedly,
‘True wine exists only in Bordeaux. I would like to make it clear that wine which is not from Bordeaux is a false wine. Of course, there is Burgundy! But it’s too full-blooded; it doesn’t have the circulation, the sifting of the various states of matter that you find in the wines of Bordeaux. It isn’t by chance that one says “beef bourguignon,” for the wine accompanying it is indistinguishable from the sauce. I know that the French much like this sort of thing, but then again, I don’t much like the French.’
Not content to leave matters there, Sollers went on to indulge a taste for doubtful historical commentary that would have brought him a defamation suit in the courts of Dijon.
‘It is no use to recall the immemorial struggle between Armagnacs and Burgundians – this is a fundamental reality of French history. There is a France of ports and a continental France, a France of the periphery and a France of the land, a France of trade and a central, centric France, which conjures for me the various episodes of the closing of the nation – the incessant reproduction of the peasant spirit of collaboration with foreign powers, German or Russian – the supreme tragedy of which in France is Pétainism.’
Sollers reverted to this theme a few years later:
‘I loathe Burgundy, it is a wine of sauce and blood. It is necessary just the same that people be made aware of the fact, and recognize that Burgundy is not wine, it is a drink used for making sauces. The more Burgundy one consumes, the more one has the terrible sensation of drinking something bloody, not to mention the dreadful heaviness of the land that one senses in it as well. For me, then, anyone who likes Burgundy (and Beaujolais) is, let’s face it, a hick.’
The domaine owners of Burgundy, for their part, fail to understand the red wines of Bordeaux, which give themselves up to the nostrils and taste buds with such difficulty until they have reached maturity, especially if Cabernet Sauvignon is predominant.
The sweet white wines of Bordeaux sicken Burgundians, and in any case they do not know what to eat them with. The notion that one might produce the same wine on domaines of several dozen hectares belonging to a single owner has been totally foreign to them since the Clos Vougeot was dismantled in the 19th century.
The distrust the Bordelais practice of skillful blending, so contrary to their devotion to single grape varieties, small-scale production and small scale parcels.
Most of all, they dislike the pretensions of the lords of the great Bordelais estates and the wine merchants and brokers of the Chartrons, with their light southern accents (and English intonations), their bow ties, their tweeds (old, but impeccably tailored), and their handmade English shoes (worn, but well polished).
Many years ago the Parisian poet Raoul Ponchon, a man who seldom, if ever, touched water, and who inherited the capital’s ancient predilection for the wine of Burgundy, dashed off a few lines that no Burgundian today would dissavow,
‘Oh! never to have been trailed by a lackey serving me Bordeaux; I make no bones about it, it’s Burgundy I prefer above all.’
Jean-Francois Bazin, a former president of his region and bard of Burgundian viticulture, recalls that during his childhood Bordeaux was practically never mentioned in the family home of Gevrey-Chambertin.
No bottles of Bordeaux appeared on the table, ‘We abandoned it willingly to its medicinal vocation and to its sad fate as the “wine of the sick,” contenting ourselves with [drinking] the “wine of the healthy.” ’
People made fun of the shape of the Bordeaux bottle, stretching their necks and hunching their shoulders. A more serious cause for complaint was the stingy Bordelais custom of allowing guests to taste only a little wine from the barrel:
‘When you visit a cellar [here], at least you are offered something to drink. Unlike in Bordeaux.’
Jean Laplanche, a professor of psychoanalysis and formerly the owner of Château de Pommard, had a cruel experience of this practice not long ago, in 1989.
‘Since then,’ he says, ‘whenever I receive visitors from Bordeaux in my cellar, I give them a glass of the newest wine in casks, and then I announce, “The visite bordelaise is over. Now begins the visite bourguignonne” ’ – and, with it, the opening of a dozen bottles, some quite old, going back through all the great years.
Ah, what sweet vengeance! With a great roar of laughter, Laplanche admits he now enjoys a glass of Bordeaux once it has matured, but that in the past he had always found that it resembled the ink he knew as a schoolboy.
As an eminent member of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, and despite two official and reciprocal visits, he notes that the members of his brotherhood have never managed to establish close, friendly relations with their counterparts in the Bordelais confréries.
Laplanche adds that on the wine lists of restaurants in Burgundy one always finds at least two Bordeaux wines – a small gesture, to be sure, but better than nothing, since the like of it, he says, is never found in the Gironde with Burgundies.
It must be admitted that exchanges of courtesies of this sort, whose value is inevitably a matter of opinion, testify to the existence of a geographic barrier between two impenetrable worlds.
With the death of Jean Calvet in Beaune and the recent failure of negotiations between Château Smith-Haut-Lafite and Château de Pommard, financial investment in one region by a house from another is hardly ever contemplated anymore.
Yet the requisite capital is lacking in neither Burgundy nor Bordeaux. It is invested instead in Languedoc or abroad.
To hope to be able to heal the rift, and one day to move beyond it, we need to understand its origins, and therefore to examine not only the whole cultural and economic history of the two regions, but also the people who manage the vineyards, their customers, and, incidentally, various aspects of the natural environment.
To use the term incidentally in this context may seem an affront to the viticulturalists and the many professional experts who assist them in their work – soil scientists, agronomists, biologists, chemists, oenologists, lawyers, bankers, and geographers, all of whom have devoted years of research to explaining the nuances of winemaking.
Yet after listening to Philippe Sollers, one cannot reasonably suppose that a few hours of sunshine and a bit more or less gravel will suffice to bridge the gap.
This is an edited extract from Bordeaux/Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry (California Press,
£14.95), Jean-Robert Pitte is president of the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne.
Written by Jean-Robert Pitte