French wine regions: Bordeaux versus Burgundy
France has the fortune of possessing numerous winegrowing regions on its territory, each with their own unique characteristics. Two regions in particular hold great prestige internationally: Bordeaux and Burgundy. While they bear similarities, there are also a great many distinguishing hallmarks.
Both Bordeaux and Burgundy vineyards have a long history. As early as Roman times, grapevines were being cultivated in Libourne and Saint Emilion near Bordeaux. In Burgundy, winemaking has its roots in the second century AD (although there are some archaeological records of viticulture dating back to the Roman conquest in 51 BC).
And both regions are famous the world over. The finest wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy are served at some of the most prestigious tables in the world, and will feature in any decent private collection. Thanks to the hard labours of winegrowers over the centuries, from choosing the plots to cultivating the vines, Burgundy and Bordeaux have conserved their status as premium winemaking regions.
Both regions produce white and red wine, though not in the same proportions.
Both regions produce fine wines that cellar rather well over time: 20 to 30 years —sometimes for certain Grands Cru and Sauterne wines, for instance.
What about the differences?
Their size, for starters! With over 110,000 hectares — 20% of France’s vineyard surface area — Bordeaux is the country’s second biggest winemaking region in size after Languedoc. Burgundy, however, has no more than 30,000 yet offers more appellations (84) than Bordeaux (64). The characteristically fragmented parcelling of Burgundy plots will not be lost on visitors to the region!
Their distribution system too diverge. Established in the 18th century, the primeur system in Bordeaux is the only one of its kind. Under this scheme, wine estates sell virtually all their wine to négociants (or wholesalers) in the spring after harvesting, allowing them to generate cash flow. There are also négociants in Burgundy, but most of them are also wine growers. Given their limited growing capacity due to parcel size, operating this way allows wine growers to buy grapes with which to produce wine and top up their own sales volumes.
The wine colours: 80% red wine in Bordeaux (60% Merlot + 20% Cabernet Sauvignon) versus 40% red wine in Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and 60% white wine (Chardonnay and Aligoté, to a lesser extent).
The grape variety (cépage) is another important distinguishing feature. Burgundy wine is qualified as single-variety (mono-cépage — Pinot Noir for red wine and Chardonnay for white wine); Bordeaux is known as a multiple-variety region, with six varieties for red wines (dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) and two for white wine (Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc). Interestingly, this single-variety characteristic in Burgundy originates from the Great French White Wine Blight, when the Phylloxera aphid devastated French vineyards in 1874. Burgundy winegrowers adapted by only replanting the best terroirs and by concentrating on varietal wines.
The landscapes themselves are also very different. While parcels in Bordeaux often adjoin estates and can span several dozen hectares, in Burgundy winegrowers very early on classified their crus by micro-terroirs known as climats, numbering 1,463 today. Each plot is often farmed by several winegrowers, unless it is a monopole, controlled by just one wine company.
And finally, what trends do you see emerging for these two bastions of winemaking?
Both Bordeaux and Burgundy wines present major disparities. A fraction of their vineyards constitutes some of the most prestigious appellations and belongs to different local classifications. These fine wines, whose prices have ballooned over recent years, are what give the Bordeaux and Burgundy appellations their international eminence. Yet, while Burgundy winemakers on the whole benefit from this development, most Bordeaux winemakers, not included in these prestigious appellations, are more affected by the current global context. The Place de Bordeaux has lost substantial international market share in recent years with the emergence of quality wines from other regions in France and the rest of the world, but also because of new consumer habits, less in favour of age-worthy wines(2), for example.
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(1) Sources of data provided in the article: Vitisphère, Land Use and Rural Settlement Corporation (SAFER - Société d'Aménagement Foncier Et Rural), French Ministry of Land and Food.
(2) Age-worthy wine: wines that are worth cellaring for several years before being consumed as they improve with age.
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