Bordeaux vs Burgundy (Stellenbosch vs Swartland?)

How’s this for a characterisation of the difference between France’s (the world’s?) two greatest wine regions: “Bordeaux makes you piss, Burgundy makes you fuck.” Pretty clear which side of the divide that particular speaker was on, I’d say. The quote, with no source given, appears in a book published a few years back and not yet quite finished by me – Jean-Robert Pitte’s Bordeaux/Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry.

The rivalry between the two regions and their champions goes way back, of course, and has been characterised in less earthy terms than those cited above, although one persistent idea does relate to them – that Bordeaux is more intellectual, Burgundy more sensual. Perhaps it’s the dominant grapes involved more than the terroir as such: in the red wines (which is usually what the debate seems to be about) the suave power and polish of cabernet at its finest, the earthy, subtle elegance of pinot noir….

It’s a debate that is becoming more and more significant, I think – regrettably so. It’s certainly one that I’ve been increasingly conscious of for some time. As have others, to judge not only by Pitte’s book, but by quite a number of articles on the subject. A few weeks back, for example, Eric Asimov, the excellent wine critic of the New York Times, wrote in his notably un-trivial blog The Pour about how Bordeaux is losing prestige among younger wine-lovers in the USA. Despite the vast prices paid by rich “collectors” for the top wines; despite all the hype by the fancy journalists of Europe and America who troop over each year to, absurdly, pass judgement on a vintage whose wines have been scarcely six months in barrel; despite all of this, for the majority, Bordeaux, “once the world’s most hallowed region and the standard-bearer for all fine wines, is now largely irrelevant”, says Asimov. The excitement is all for Burgundy and a handful of other regions.

But probably Bordeaux’s decline in wider prestige is not “despite” those things, but precisely because of them. For the Bordeaux-Burgundy battle is now less than ever about wine as such than about the two cultures that apparently divide them. According to the growing dichotomy, Bordeaux is corporate, bourgeois, full of hype and commercialism, and the technology-driven wines are cynically designed to appeal to Robert Parker and his point-collecting followers. While Burgundy is replete with soulful peasants, keen only on expressing their little patch of terroir, keeping one eye on the phases of the moon while making honest and beautiful wines.

There’s an element of truth here, particularly in the characterisation of the grander end of Bordeaux in recent decades. But I can’t help thinking (helped by my radical scepticism about biodynamics and the moon) that there’s plenty of wishful thinking about Burgundy. Is it just that its marketing has been rather cleverer? There are certainly more than a few Burgundies whose prices rival the top Bordeaux, and the high prices spread possibly wider and deeper there. The Burgundians use plenty of the new oak that the soul-mates find so excessive in modern Bordeaux; chaptalisation, the addition of sugar to the fermentating must, is rife, and the agro-chemical industry is no stranger to those incomparably valuable rows of vines nor are the peddlars of cellar-tricks shunned.

But it’s the myth that counts. On my recent trip to France I became much more aware that near-contempt for Bordeaux and a corresponding reverence for Burgundy is rampant among young winemakers there (OK, it wasn’t a representative sample I met) – and it focused my awareness that that is also somewhat true in South Africa too, amongst the winemakers and winelovers who have the interest and finances to drink smart foreign wine. More importantly, the dynamism of the Swartland is partly exactly about the same issues. Just ask the young winemakers there about their feelings regarding cabernet sauvignon versus the less glittering grapes of the Mediterranean – grenache, cinsaut, etc, even more than shiraz and chenin. (Quite apart from the suitability of their terroir: fortunately they realize that pinot is not an option for them!)

For there is, I suspect, a shadow of that great divide in South Africa as well – just as there increasingly is in California, I believe, where Napa Valley and its overweening cabernets play pretty much the Bordeaux game. Think, moving from the Swartland alternative, to the great heartland of fine South African wine, Stellenbosch (and include Constantia too, if you like, and even wannabe Franschhoek), with their rich owners, grand buildings and estates, sweeping lawns and imposing gates. And think that most of the highest-priced Cape reds are made from the Bordeaux varieties, and that most of the marketing hype (I’d say) accompanies them. If Bordeaux wears a suit or elegant tweeds and Burgundy wears tatty blue jeans, you could say much the same for the styles of Stellenbosch and Swartland.

At present it’s even less useful to exaggerate the differences here than it is in Europe, but I have a feeling that they will become more important. I’d be willing even now to take a bet on the dominant answer if you asked ambitious young winemakers here, and ambitious young winelovers too, which region had more “soul”: Swartland or Stellenbosch.

I myself am glad we have both – and I can see places in Stellenbosch that take a  “Burgundian” line in many important ways (Waterkloof, for instance). But then, if not my heart, my palate is still probably more with Bordeaux than Burgundy when it comes to European examples, while I heartily dislike its snobbery, pretensions and crass commercialism, and many of its modern wines. I still bear the imprint of learning about fine wine mostly in Billy Hofmeyr’s cellar at Welgemeend with its collection centred on good Bordeaux from the 1970s and 1980s. And here? While I love Stellenbosch and think some of its cabernet-based wines are amongst the Cape’s best reds, I must say that the rough roads and modest farmhouses and the scrubby bushvines under the wide skies of the Swartland do indeed seem to me to harbour more “soul” these days than the fine old manor houses and faux-Tuscan mansions of the grander region.

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