WineInk: Bordeaux or Burgundy
Cabernet or Pinot Noir for the Table?
It happened at an upscale Aspen restaurant, or so I was told, just this last week.
A group of well-heeled diners were swilling drinks and a rather expensive wine list was opened. The person at the table’s head who had been given the list, and would be selecting the wines, turned to the section which featured the wines from France and asked out loud to the group, “Cabernet or Pinot?”
“It doesn’t matter-just as long as it is red!” replied one of the revelers in a dismissive squeal.
Well … it does matter.
If you are going to take the time and spend the money to get a decent – or in the case of most Aspen restaurant wine lists – a great bottle of wine, it helps to have a bit of knowledge about what you are going to buy. The most important thing about a wine is that you enjoy it. But, if you have any interest in enjoying the world’s best wines, one thing you might want to know is what the differences are between two of the most popular grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir – and the wine regions from which they hail in France, Bordeaux and Burgundy. A little information can go a long way in helping you decide which region’s wines suit you best.
Let’s start with the grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is a big, bold, dark, and powerful grape and the wines made from it reflect those characteristics. If Cabernet were a ski run, it would resonate with runs like Walsh’s on Aspen Mountain or maybe the G Zones in Highland Bowl: places that are steep and deep and challenging. The character of the grape and the ease with which it can be raised makes it not only popular with wine growers and producers but also with the wine consuming public. The flavors and aromas associated with wines made from these grapes are intense. Think dark blackberries, plums, smoke, leather – tastes and smells you might expect from a wine whose name derives from the word “savage.”
Though it is grown in just about every wine region on Earth, Cabernet tends to find its purest expression in the Bordeaux region of France where the pedigree of the vineyards is famed for producing wines with tannin and acidity that make them perfect for aging.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine world’s most popular red wine.
If you prefer a touch of subtlety in your red wine selection and you prize elegance, beauty and perhaps a little more versatility, then, when offered the choice, you might opt for wines made from the Pinot Noir grape. In skiing, a Pinot Noir might be a long, graceful cruiser. Think of making a series of linked turns, floating with precision and tension on the groomed steeps of Ruthies. Maybe figure-eights around the Aspen trees on Bell Mountain down to Spar Gulch in freshly fallen powder. Pinot Noir is a softer, kinder, thin-skinned grape that is much more difficult for growers to master than Cabernet Sauvignon. But when done right it can provide the kind of experience than can be transcendent.
And, as our aforementioned host was contemplating wines from France on the wine list, one should also consider the two ancestral regions where these grapes are grown and the wines are produced. Let’s take a look at some of the differences.
Bordeaux is located in southwestern France, a little north of the Spanish border. The region is bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, which provides a maritime influence that moderates temperatures in the hottest months of summer and generally prevents killing frosts in winter. Bordeaux is one of the most prolific wine growing regions in the world with upwards of 7,000 producers and over 13,000 growers.
Bourgogne, or Burgundy, lies in a region known as the “heart of France,” and is a province that is south and east of Paris. The Burgundy wine region begins near the city of Dijon (yes, home of the famed mustard) and runs 120 miles or so south to Lyon, which sits in the shadow of the Alps. Oh, and don’t forget Chablis, a district which is not really attached to the rest of Burgundy but is still considered an important part of the region.
In Burgundy, it is all about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There is a grape called Gamay, which is used to make Beaujolais, but if you are talking Burgundy, it is the Pinot and Chard that you need to know about. In Burgundy they don’t blend the varieties. Buy a bottle of Burgundy and, with few exceptions, it will be made with either 100% Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, though the wines may be blends from grapes grown in different vineyards.
In Bordeaux, the dominant red grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, but other grapes, including Merlot, with Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere are used as supporting players in making the wines. It is the way these wines are constructed that makes the iconic “Bordeaux Blends.” The wines of Bordeaux tend to be higher in alcohol and tannins, which will make your mouth pucker.
Then there is the vibe. Bordeaux is a bit more formal and based on commerce. While the Burgundians are also motivated by profit, there is a focus on the land and the art of making wines. Burgundy is a more rustic environment with small villages tucked below hillsides. Bordeaux is influenced by the Gironde River which flows through the region and divides it into the Right and Left Banks, two sub-regions of the whole. Both Bordeaux and Burgundy have their own charms, it just comes down to what one prefers.
And then there is the matter of glass. A bottle of Bordeaux on the shelves has severely sharp shoulders while the Burgundy bottle slopes softly. And each is poured into a different shaped glass for drinking. A Burgundy glass has a large, wide bowl that allows the aromas of the fragrant Pinot Noir to rise in the glass and heighten the senses. A Bordeaux glass is taller, tapered and is designed to direct the wine towards the back of the mouth when drunk.
But there are similarities between the regions as well.
First, both regions have long histories of wine. In Bordeaux, it was the Romans who first planted wine in the first century AD. In Burgundy, the earliest recording of wine dates to 591 when Gregory of Tours first tweeted about the region. Both have seriously complex and sometimes archaic rules around what is and what is not allowed in production. They also have their own decrees that designate what wines can be classified as of the region.
The “Classification of 1855,” which created five “classes” of wines and designated Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Haut-Brion (though at the time of the classification they did not include the word “Chateau” in their name) as “First Growths,” or the very best, is the most significant wine law ever. And it made the owners of each of those estates rich for generations to come. In 1973, Chateau Mouton Rothschild was added to the list of First Growths which brought the total to five.
Burgundy also has a strict classification system, but rather than classifying the individual estates and Chateau, the laws define the terroir, or the individual vineyards, as either Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Village wines. In both regions it is all about the money. If you are looking to buy either First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy, I hope you are a 1-percenter.
This may be too much information for the group of diners at that Aspen restaurant, but in wine a little knowledge can go a long way. The bottom line is not that you need to know everything about a wine, a wine grape, or a region, but rather, that if you pay a little attention and have the wherewithal to differentiate between the wines you like, you will have a better wine experience.
And it will make your host’s job a little easier as well.
Olivier Leflaive “Bourgogne” 2019
The Leflaive name is always a good place to start when drinking Burgundy as the families roots in the region extend back three centuries. Olivier Leflaive produces a number of white and red wines, with many single vineyard and Premier Cru wines on offer. The house is especially well-known for their production of Puligny Montrachet Chardonnay produced in their ancestral home. But, since we are talking Pinot Noir this is a great wine to get a feel for the style and tastes of the Burgundy region. A blending of different vineyards, located on la Côte de Beaune, la Côte Chalonnaise and les Hautes Côtes de Beaune et Côte de Nuits this wine is pale in the glass and exudes the floral aromas of the region. Fresh fruits, cherries and raspberries, the flavors of spring abound and the precision and elegance of the wine is readily apparent.
This one is for those who make graceful turns.