The great debate

BordBurgBordeaux or Burgundy? For a long time I was emphatically on the side of the former in that vital question of red-wine devotion – perhaps because it was with Bordeaux (mostly modest stuff from the 1970s and ’80s), along with the few excellent local versions, that I developed my wine aesthetic. In the last decade or so, however, my allegiance shifted firmly (and expensively) to Burgundy – though perhaps I’ll prove either my fickleness or my loyalty by returning: my apostasy is shattered every time I have some older Bordeaux (or, rarely, a younger one) and am reminded how ultimately supreme it can be. Only old-style Bordeaux has what I treasure – the element that Cardinal Richelieu (at least in a Dumas novel) brilliantly characterised as “an indescribably sinister, sombre bite”.

Incidentally, amongst the beautifully made, very ripe, oaky local blends of today, I rarely find one that approaches the unpretentious elegance that I recall of the best of the 1980s: Welgemeend, Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Delheim, Le Bonheur. They were, I think, the best wines of that generally dismal decade.

Even recently though, despite my Burgundian orientation and spending habits, I’ve been perplexed and irritated by some of the local fiery radicals who adore Burgundy and habitually sneer at Bordeaux (and even extend their dislike to cabernet sauvignon – poor grape!). It’s an article of faith that seems to be internationally widespread amongst the wine avant-garde. Sometimes it seems to be because they think Bordeaux has sold out to Americans whose model is Napa cabernet, more specifically because of too much new oak, too much manipulation in the cellar, too much bigness, too much marketing – that sort of thing.

Yet Burgundy is, frankly, not much different in many ways, and at the top end is at least as expensive and as Bordeaux first growths, and even more unobtainable, because made in much tinier quantities. And, further down the price ladder, there is surely no question that modest Bordeaux offers much better quality and value than modest red Burgundy.

The other classic region and grape that the youthful rebels (me too!) continue to worship is, of course, Germany and riesling. Which gives one clue, I think as to why Burgundy as a region is let off the hook that hangs Bordeaux: the finest wines of both Germany and Burgundy are unquestionably devoted to expressing terroir through their minutely discriminated vineyards. And that is, almost as a definition, what the radicals claim to be most interested in. Bordeaux plays at least lip-service to terroir, but the château is defined as a brand not a place (the physical boundaries of which can and do occasionally shift alarmingly). And the grand Bordeaux châteaux are mostly owned by insurance companies or supermarket-rich vulgarians or gentlemen in English tweeds, while – so it seems, and so it just a bit is, Burgundy’s vineyards and little cellars are owned by … peasants rooted in soil and tradition. Maybe.

pitteJean-Robert Pitte in his fine book on the “rivalry” between the two great French regions goes much deeper at more length than this, as he speaks of “two opposite civilisations, two distinct ways of feeling”.

You can see (if you choose to) the same sort of split in the Cape, and many people do, I think: on the one hand, the white-walled, grand estates of Stellenbosch and Constantia (the former, at least, oriented like Bordeaux to cabernet sauvignon and also over-oaking and over-ripening it!), owned by more or less smartly dressed and conservative rich people; on the other, the rough and ragged guys of the Swartlanders, rich only in their passion and their love of old vines and soil and the expression of terroir. Again, maybe. So the story goes.

I’m raising all this, simply because a sentence in the latest issue of the great journal World of Fine Wine summoned it up for me, and underlined that a lot of the split is about something other than wine in itself (is wine ever something in itself, devoid of other factors?). Hugh Johnson, the incomparable English wine writer now much less active than before, talks about Bordeaux in his column, and the “medium-powered” claret that the English (as opposed to Americans, implicitly) have traditionally enjoyed – “more juicy than meaty, with fresh acidity and a tannic nip”. Then the sentence that got to me: “Some 80 percent of the wine drunk in my London club is claret like this.”

gentleman“My London club….”Suddenly, the image of that upper-class, male-dominated institution, the gentleman’s club, with (generally) its rules and traditions and fusty prejudices and right-wing associations, became fused in my mind with Bordeaux – and I could hear the class drawl with which “claret” is pronounced by the 80% from the depths of their leather armchairs.

A fundamental reason that the youthful wine radicals have such a distaste for Bordeaux (the place, the institution, the concept, if not the wines) is surely that it is seen as representing the Establishment, the conservative enemies of youth and exuberance and change. Again, you could (if you insist) try to apply the model to the Cape….

7 thoughts on “The great debate

  1. Hi Tim, another interesting column, thanks.
    Not sure I follow though … Can we really compare cab/merlot driven wines with pinot?

    I would guess that to the extent there is a move from one to the other that has more to do with the emergence of a much bigger selection of good pinots?

    For me the more interesting debate is Bordeaux v Rhone, especially with the wines coming out of the swartland.


  2. Thanks Tim

    I love this topic and can’t but read it with a smile on my face. At least in SA I can still be friends with the guys in the Swartland and Hermanus and secretly drink and enjoy their wines, but I didn’t say that in public.

  3. Tim, re the Napa/Bordeaux sellout idea. This is a truism that I was also quite happy to agree with until this month and a whistle stop tour of five small producers in the Napa. I expected to find wines that were at the riper, oaky, concentrated end of the spectrum,and couldn’t have been more impressed. Admittedly I did get the good oil from a couple of guys in the know and stayed away from the rockstar wineries that get the 100 point accolades, but these cabs were both elegant and delicious, dry, phenolically ripe and yet barely cracking 14% alc. It was a real eye opener. I’ll not generalise about what Napa represents again, and hope to have a chance to go back and explore a little further. Happy New Year to you, by the way.

  4. That is good news, Grant – if not for easy generalisation-making! Knowing that California is undergoing a wine revolution similar to ours, I’m not surprised really by your observation – though cabernet is usually the last grape to get affected, as are places like Napa….

    • I’d have to dig a whole lot deeper to find out if I just got lucky or not…there certainly seems to be a lot of pressure on producers to toe the ‘points’ line which has historically aligned with ripeness/concentration, but off the beaten track there are plenty of guys making wines to please themselves, and dedicated mail list customers who buy most of their production on allocation every year. Desperately envious of that aspect of Napa…selling a large portion of your production at 500- 1000 rand a bottle on release is a business model we can only dream of…but dream we will 🙂

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