Ali-Frazier it ain’t
But the Bordeaux-Burgundy rivalry is one for the ages

Sketch by Lorraine Emerson


Question to noted wine expert: “Ever mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux?”

Expert’s answer: “Not since lunch.”

Along with Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy may be the most well-known words in the wine world. Even people with no wine experience at all know these names and with good reason.  Each began its wine-obsessed life shortly after the Roman conquest of what is today France; each is mainly famous for its red wine; each is a prime object of interest to connoisseurs and collectors.

It’s nice to know your Burgundy from your Bordeaux, but it is even better to understand that these two famous regions take quite different approaches to the question of how good wine should be made. They serve as models for two different approaches to winemaking wherever in the world it’s undertaken.

From the beginning, Bordeaux, sited along the French Atlantic coast within easy seagoing reach of lucrative English markets, took an aggressively commercial approach to the making and marketing of wine. Anglo merchants set up on the Bordeaux wharves where they could collect the wine they bought from smallholders in the high country upriver, quickly blend it into the generic light-bodied red wine the British knew as claret (better not to inquire too closely into their technique), barrel it up, and ship it in the nick of time for Christmas.

Branded wine got its start here, with merchants blending wine from many subregions, vineyards, and even vintages, into a single wine identified with the broker’s name. Where the wine was sourced was not initially a matter of interest to anyone except the brokers themselves. We have no record of famous cru vineyards from the era. The aim was to make wine in a recognizable house style, as consistent from year to year as artful blending could achieve, while maintaining opacity with respect to sources.

Meanwhile, in Burgundy, a culture of wine was taking shape that was at odds with the Bordeaux model. Here, vineyards had been established under the auspices of religious houses whose monk inmates were under an obligation to offer up to God not just their prayers but also their labor. The Church’s approach was what we would today call vertical integration: It owned the vineyards, put up the wine, and made big capital investments in research, infrastructure, and quality control. It kept careful records, had a long institutional memory, and enjoyed a loyal, wealthy clientele.

Burgundy and Bordeaux serve as models for two different approaches to winemaking wherever in the world it’s undertaken.

By the High Middle Ages, the Cote d’Or, Burgundy’s acknowledged sweet spot, had been thoroughly mapped and the individual sites we still know as grand crus were identified.  These are discrete, named plots each of which is known to impart a distinctive character to wine made from its grapes, a profile so distinctive that it seemed a pity to dilute its personality with other varietals or with grapes from other plots.

In theory at least, the sources of fruit for the better sort of Burgundy were transparent to purchasers because the vineyards were identified on the label.  Today we would call these wines vins de terroir—wines with a sense of place.

Bordeaux’s path to greatness lay in an almost diametrically opposed direction.  There, red wine is always a blend with either cabernet sauvignon or merlot playing a leading role and cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot in the supporting cast.  It is the estate, rather than any single vineyard, which is considered primary. Only insiders know the details of how the wine is put together and they’re not talking.

The picture I’ve sketched is simpler and tidier than reality, but it will have to serve. The point is that today history presents us with a matched set of points of view that between them bookend the world of wine as we know it. On the one hand, production that strives to produce an appealing, drinkable, stylistically consistent wine from year to year despite the vagaries of weather, yield, disease, and vine age; on the other, an approach that glories in particularity, diversity, variability, and the nuanced differences apparent only to experts.

It’s no accident that it’s the Bordeaux pole that larger-scale, more commercially oriented producers are attracted to. After all, consistency is the very hallmark of the branded product whether we’re talking peanut butter or Pinot Grigio. In the same way, it makes sense that smallholders and artisanal producers want to put the focus on their strong suits: individuation, a nontechnical approach, family ownership, a instinctive distaste for anything corporate.

A preference for Bordeaux over Burgundy (or vice versa) doesn’t just reflect a taste in wine. In my experience, it says something about an individual’s whole approach to life—a bit like the way that the choice of a Mac or PC operating system draws a line between creatives and business types.

Given all the differences, is it really possible to confuse one with the other?  In my own experience, it’s much more likely to happen if the wines in question have some bottle age on them – age tending to flatten the varietal and regional distinctions between quality red wines in ways that can be alarmingly destructive of a wine taster’s self-esteem.

Reading this may not help you when it comes to infallibly knowing your Bordeaux from your Burgundy—but if you’re ever asked the question at least you’ll have plenty to say about it.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at

First published on the Americas Test Kitchen blog,  The Feed.


Beyond boo/hurrah
Is there a better way to talk about wine?


From week to week, guests queue up at the Formaggio Kitchen  tasting table to sample a few wines from our shelves, chat about their respective merits and demerits and decide what they might enjoy taking home. It’s a ritual we count on to introduce guests to wines that we think are worthy of their dollar.  After all, if they’re in our shop, it means we thought them worthy of our dollar.

How someone makes a decision about a wine may be entirely her or his secret, but often clues reveal the internal process by which the taster arrives at a conclusion.  I’ve noted at least three schools of practice.  Here’s how I parse them.

The boo/hurrah school.  Students of ethics have long been confronted with a problem that goes something like this: When we describe one behavior as good and another as bad are we making objective judgments about the state of things in the world, or are we really just shouting out our personal preferences?  If we take the position that ethical judgments are really just expressions of our attitude rather than statements of fact, we’re engaging in something moral philosophers call emotivism.

According to this view, saying something is good really just means we approve, like, or enjoy it – we give it a “hurrah.”  To say that something is bad implies the opposite, and we give it a “boo.”  The technique is emotive because we’re reacting on an immediate, instinctive level.  Often, we’ve decided to like or not like even before we’ve had time to engage in any thought process at all.

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A place at the table
Is wine a condiment, side dish, main course, or something else?

Still-life, Pieter Claesz. 1641. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Wine has been an integral if not always necessary element of many of the world’s cuisines for a very long time now. Those intrepid proto-vintners of the Caucasus, the Georgians, assert that they’re working on their 8000th vintage (give or take a kveveri or two), a claim which places the origin of winemaking back to the early-neolithic.

Evidence exists that the Chinese were in the game as far back as 3000 BCE, a millennium or so earlier than the first documented fermentations in the Nile Delta.  Wine was a ritual beverage at the courts of the great cereal empires of the ancient Near East for ages before being banished — or driven underground — by the Islamic conquest.

We know about the Greeks and Romans, of course, because they are the direct antecedents of modern Western wine culture,  but it’s worth noting that classical-era wine practices differ markedly from our own. In that era wine was almost never drunk neat but was always mixed with water and generally consumed after, rather than before or during, meals at male-only drinking parties called symposia.  The sterner sort of Roman husband thought it improper for his wife to drink wine at all.

If we define cuisine as a more or less durable socially-constructed schema for preparing and consuming  food, the places to which we assign various consumables assume importance.  Some examples (drawn from our own culture) might be (i) that the sweet course marks the end of the meal (we call it dessert); (ii) that a salad may be positioned as a first course and thereby function as an appetizer, or make its appearance after the main course as a kind of palate-cleanser; (iii) that a proper  main course requires a starch, a vegetable, and a protein source (or at least 2 out of 3).

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What you can learn from a glass of sauvignon blanc

Recording a radio segment with America’s Test Kitchen Radio host Christopher Kimball.

Sauvignon blanc is one of the most popular wine grape varieties in the world.  French in origin but widely planted elsewhere, wines made from this varietal display a distinctive profile. It’s readily recognizable sensory profile make it a favorite among younger and novice wine drinkers and it makes a handy exemplar when talking about the sources of flavor and aroma in wine.

I think of this varietal as the wine-equivalent of a first reader—a book with a simple story composed with a limited vocabulary and printed in big block letters. Its characteristic smells and tastes are flagrant, dramatic, and familiar. For all these reasons, I think of wines made from sauvignon blanc as unusually “legible.”

In a recent America’s Test Kitchen Radio segment we started by having host Christopher Kimball taste and comment on four wines in order to illustrate the kinds of aromas and flavors the grape typically presents.  These can be organized into (i) primarily herbal and grassy, (ii) primarily piney and resinous, and (iii) primarily citrusy (lemon-grapefruit-gooseberry). We could have added a fourth: the pungent scent known to experienced tasters by the inglorious but wonderfully accurate descriptor cat pee.

After Chris tasted through the samples, we took a step back to consider the larger phenomenon of flavors and scents in wine and where they come from.

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Tedium in the Vineyard
The million euro payday that wasn't

Book Review
Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine
By Maximillian Potter

We know from prison movies that inmates who really ought to be spending their time hatching plots to amend their lives are more likely to use their enforced leisure to meditate new and better crimes.

So it was with Jacques Soltys, aged 57, a second-generation French citizen of Polish descent and career lowlife who, jailed for nine years after conviction for a botched kidnapping scheme, decided that he had aimed rather too low in seizing the aristocratic wife of a well-to-do Bordeaux winemaker and holding her, unsuccessfully, for ransom. How much cleverer – and more remunerative – to take hostage vines planted in the most famous and cherished vineyard in all of France and reap a million euro payday for not poisoning every last one of them?

It’s a bit hard to communicate to those who aren’t lovers of red Burgundy the reverence, even awe, in which Romanée-Conti, the vineyard that was Soltys’s target, is held.  A bit less than 2 hectares (about 4 acres) in area, it annually produces a few thousand cases of some of the most sought-after wine in the world.  Prices in the Boston area for the current release start at around $5,000 per bottle but some vintages sell for much more. The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti owns this vineyard outright and portions of other grand cru vineyards nearby.  If you were looking to shake down people who could afford to pay you real money, you could scarcely do better than this, and Soltys, once released, lost little time in putting his plan into action.

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