Wine for February – 2014 Mercurey; and some words on the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy

“Bordeaux is said to be cerebral: the algebra, the musical theory, the astrophysics and the essay; Burgundy meanwhile, is a scintillating flare of emotion and pure being that eclipses thought like the sound of an operatic aria or the sight of the northern lights”

Victoria Moore, in The Guardian (having admitted that “one of my shameful wine secrets is that I crave good Bordeaux more than I do good Burgundy”)

Alright, so wine for February is a 2014 Mercurey produced at the Domaine La Tour Brully.

This is an example of just how much a preference for one particular wine, or style of wine, is a matter of personal taste. This wine has had rave reviews. It’s a Pinot Noir, with 13% alcohol content, and the distinct whiff of Bourgogne. Mercurey is the third largest appellation of Bourgogne (after Chablis and Pouilly Fuissé).

But neither I, nor the Saucy Dressings’ chief taster, really liked this wine.

First of all there is the colour. I like my reds to be a Homerian ‘wine dark’. You look into them hypnotically (ideally to a backdrop of candlelight) and lose yourself in their deep velvety maroons. This wine was much lighter.

Then there is the taste. On my first taste, I thought it was a bit ‘stewed’. About ten minutes later I revised that to ‘rusty’, in a sort-of good way.

It is possible to find deep, dark Burgundies, but they tend to cost considerably more than deep, dark Bordeaux.

Ah well….

So what is the difference between red Burgundy and Bordeaux wines?

The shape of the bottle

It’s easy to identify the difference visually because they come in different shaped bottles. The bottle shape used in Burgundy is older and has slopping shoulders. The softer curve was easier for glassmakers to produce.

difference between burgundy bottles and bordeaux bottles
The sloping-shouldered Burgundian bottle came first.

The principal Burgundy grapes are Pinot Noir (for red) and Chardonnay (for white), and winemakers in other countries using those grapes tend to use the Burgundy-originated bottle as well. In fact, all sorts of winemakers, particularly those making the sort of light, bright wine that comes out of Burgundy, use this shape of bottle.

Not to be outdone in the branding stakes, shortly after the Burgundian bottle was invented, the Bordeaux winemakers began to square the shoulders of their bottles.

The difference between bordeaux and burgundy
Then the Bordeaux winemakers squared their shoulders.

The grapes

As I mentioned above, most red Burgundy is made from just one grape – the Pinot Noir. While Bordeaux tends to be ‘built’ (blended) from a mix of Cabernet-Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. To my mind that makes it a bit more interesting.

The colour

The lighter colour I noticed in this month’s wine, the Burgundian Mercurey, is typical of the area – the wines are bright, clear and ruby. And my mesmerising ‘wine-dark’ velvety-purple colour is typical of Bordeaux.

The geography – physical and social

Well, obviously the two areas are in opposite sides of France. So the ground is different. But as I learnt recently at a very illuminating wine tasting session in Paris so is the rainfall. “About 50% of wine in Burgundy is organic”, our sommelier told us, “but in Bordeaux only about 5% is – you’d have to be a hero to grow organic wine in an area where there is so much rainfall.”

A respected French wine scholar, Jean-Robert Pitte, has written a seminal work on the difference between these two wine growing areas, Bordeaux Bourgogne: Histoire d’une rivalité. He makes the point that it’s not just the physical differences that should be considered – the social and cultural differences also affect the nose and the taste of the wine.

And it’s at this stage that the gloves really come off.

The Burgundians, it seems, are wild and voluptuous, and so is their wine. They swig back the dregs with abandon. In Bordeaux, by contrast, they are obsessive decanters and clarifiers, inhuman accountants of the wine world – and the purchasers probably aren’t much better – they’re probably bankers (Saucy Dressings is very far from being a banker).

Wines from Burgundy have soul, they are made by people marching around their estates with mud on their boots; wines from Bordeaux are ‘technically excellent’, made by absentee landowners sunning themselves in Chanel swimming trunks somewhere, on their own island, in the Carribean. Get the idea? Cliché, stereotype… alternative fact…it’s all starting to sound horribly ‘post-truth’.

Heated rivalry

I thought the rivalry between our wineries in Hampshire, and those in Kent and Sussex, was quite bloody enough, but it’s clear we haven’t even got off the starting blocks and, as usual, the French are way ahead of us. Burgundy and Bordeaux wines have been vying for top placement for centuries.

It may be that if you have bottomless pockets the best of Burgundy beats the best of Bordeaux into the ground. Roald Dahl opined that “to drink a Romanée-Conti is like having an orgasm in the mouth and nose at the same time”. Bear in mind though, that, at the time of writing a 2005 vintage of that is being offered by Hedonism wines at just over £15,000. Four out of the five most expensive wines in the world are from Burgundy. On the other hand, good vintages of Margaux, Pétrus,  Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, and Cheval Blanc – all Bordeaux – are not especially affordable either.

But the humble opinion of a mere (albeit wild and abandoned) mortal such as Saucy Dressings, is that, for those in more straightened circumstances, pound for vanishing pound, Bordeaux offers better value.

difference between bordeaux and burgundy
Heated rivalry – worse than Hampshire versus Kent…

“Burgundy makes you think of silly things; Bordeaux makes you talk about them, and Champagne makes you do them.”

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

“We had clarets [ie Bordeaux, Ed] with both courses—a Pétrus with the daube, a Cheval Blanc with the guineas. Mirande said that his doctor had discounselled Burgundies. It was the first time in our acquaintance that I had heard him admit he had a doctor, but I was reassured when he drank a bottle and a half of Krug after luncheon. We had three bottles between us—one to our loves, one to our countries, and one for symmetry, the last being on the house.”

A J Liebling, A Good Appetite, Memoirs of a Feeder in France

Two random, additional facts about Bordeaux

  • Bordeaux is a much bigger area, about four times the size of Burgundy, and producing about four times the yield.
  • Bordeaux has long been enjoyed, in quantity, by the English. We often refer to it as Claret rather than Bordeaux.
  • The most stylish way of going to explore Bordeaux wines is in a London cab. Go to Wine-Cab to find out more.

Links which you might find interesting

For more on Bordeaux, follow this link.

For more on Burgundy (where the Saucy Dressings’ contributor argues for the supremacy of Burgundy), follow this link.

For more wine reviews, follow this link.

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