Bordeaux and Burgundy couldn’t be much more different. In this extract from Académie du Vin Library’s new publication On Bordeaux, Stephen Brook considers how the two regions market themselves – asking whether wooing the world’s press is enough to keep Bordeaux in pole position
It’s often noted that Burgundians know nothing about Bordeaux and its wines – and vice versa. This is an exaggeration, though it retains a nugget of truth. These two great French wine regions are poles apart culturally. This is not a novel observation. Indeed, Jean-Robert Pitte, a professor at the Sorbonne, wrote an entire book, Bordeaux Bourgogne: Histoire
d’une rivalité (2016), on this very theme.
Just a couple of examples. In Bordeaux you will encounter people with names such as Basile, Vanessa, Diana or Jennifer – that would be inconceivable in Burgundy. This may be to do with the fact that Aquitaine was English-owned for centuries, or it may be that some Bordelais believe that an English name confers a certain cachet.
At celebrations organized by the Chevaliers du Tastevin at Clos de Vougeot, and just about anywhere where Burgundy’s wines are praised and consumed, the ban bourguignon is an unavoidable part of the proceedings. It entails raising both arms in the air and twisting them in time to a raucous ditty with the words ‘Lala, lala, lalalala layla, lala, lala, la, la, la’. Can you imagine such a thing at Haut-Brion?
Another striking difference is that Burgundy excludes, while Bordeaux includes, at least in terms of embracing those it considers helpful to its promotion, such as merchants, auctioneers and journalists. I have visited Burgundy and its growers every year for over three decades, and can count on the fingers of two hands the number of times I have been invited to stay for lunch, let alone dinner. Without fail, a 10.30am appointment will come to an end at noon, and the visitor will be politely shown the door. Hungry after a morning of tastings? That’s your problem, monsieur.
I used to find this irksome, but soon came to understand that for the Burgundian, noon is the time when family members return to the homestead from pruning or tractoring or delivering bottles. It’s the sacred lunch hour, and outsiders have no place. You can taste from every barrel in the cellar, but that hospitality doesn’t extend to the dining room.
It’s the exact opposite in Bordeaux, where it’s assumed that a visitor with a late-morning appointment will stay for lunch. Indeed, when researching one of my books in Saint-Emilion, I was amazed to find that my programme, organized with enthusiasm by the local syndicat, included lunch and dinner every day, weekends included. The Bordeaux proprietor will usually use the occasion not just to offer a fine meal, but to open some older vintages for the delectation of the visitor.
The Burgundian really couldn’t care less. On one occasion, a grower with whom I spent a morning in order to research a profile for a magazine, had suggested, when I made the appointment, that I might like to stay for lunch. With pleasure, I responded, hoping that a mature Richebourg might be brought up from the cellar for my appreciation. But sur place, when I had completed my interview, it was clear that the owner had completely forgotten
his offer. (However, after an embarrassing few minutes all around, his wife did rustle up a rather good meal.)
BORN TO BE HOSPITABLE
Burgundy’s wine culture is about the nuances of terroir; Bordeaux is about selling wine that’s produced in far larger quantities than from patchwork Burgundy, and all those who can serve that purpose are corralled into a network of hospitality. A lunch will always take the same form. Coats and bags are deposited in the hallway of the château and one is led into a salon, where a small table supports a bottle of Champagne (often Pol Roger, sometimes Bollinger) and some glasses. In comes the butler or maid (often on hire from the local traiteur, or caterer) with a plate of gougères or roundels of toast with foie gras to stimulate the appetite. Then the host rises to his (and occasionally her) feet and leads the way into the dining room. Lunch is invariably a butler-service event, so guests must calculate how much meat or veg to convey onto one’s plate without either appearing greedy or depriving others of their fair share. The dishes are always replenished, however, so seconds are in order. No need to panic.
If the aim is to impress, it usually succeeds. In contrast, the Burgundians en fête are after a good time. Other than the rather forced jollity of the Chevaliers du Tastevin dinners, usually accompanied by indifferent wines, the highlight of the Burgundian wine calendar is the Paulée de Meursault (other paulées are available, but all agree that Meursault does it best). This is in effect a giant bottle party. Each producer, who may be accompanied by family or guests, will bring a basket stacked with a few bottles or magnums of a venerable or prized vintage. These will be poured and later circulated in the course of a five-hour lunch. Those lucky enough to attend can often taste spectacular rarities.
This is not the Bordeaux way. At a formal dinner, for example during the En Primeur tastings or Vinexpo, invited merchants or journalists will find themselves at a large round table in the company of two or three château owners or winemakers. They will have brought bottles – often very fine bottles – that will, in due course, be delivered to your table. There’s a certain amount of swapping with other tables to provide more variety, and certain journalists, towards the end of the evening, will be seen roving the room in search of wines to try on distant tables. (I plead guilty.)
Here again the aim is to impress. Brigades of waiters and waitresses, quite often students from a local catering college, will swoop in from the kitchen with such efficiency that a few hundred guests can be served almost simultaneously. Moreover, the food will usually be excellent, provided by one of the many highly professional traiteurs who flourish in Bordeaux.
Access is the name of the game. The privileged guest, sipping Champagne or Sauternes during the prolonged apéritif hour before a grand Bordeaux dinner, will be in the company of dozens of château owners. Reach out a hand, even to someone you’ve never seen before but vaguely recognize, and it will instantly be shaken: ‘Bonsoir, monsieur.’ Everyone present is within the magic circle. You have been appointed, like it or not, as an ambassador for Bordeaux.
Over 20 years ago I was present, along with 400 other guests, at the Fête des Vendanges, a great feast organized each year before the harvest by a leading château. I could see from the menu that 1985 Haut-Brion was to be the final wine of the evening, but what I hadn’t anticipated was that it was to be served in magnums only. Moreover, on a very warm evening each magnum had been lightly chilled before serving to ensure that it would retain
its freshness and digestibility in the glass. Other blandishments include guests of honour who are often prima donnas or celebrated actresses. Who wouldn’t want to be around when, as once happened, Gina Lollobrigida was escorted between the tables by the château owner? These feats of generosity, glamour and service are to be observed at all such events in Bordeaux. If you’re lucky enough to be present, it’s hard not to experience a wave of self-satisfaction.
This warm embrace of the wine trade is not extended to mere consumers, of course. Although châteaux are more open to visitors than they were in the past, most wine tourists making their way up the roads that connect Margaux to Saint-Julien and Pauillac are confronted by closed gates or notices that read ‘by appointment only’. Some 25 years ago a delegation of Bordeaux worthies came to London to ask friendly journalists (over a good lunch, of course) what they could do improve the image of their region. ‘Try opening your gates,’ was my suggestion, and it did not go down particularly well.
FEES, FACTOTUMS AND FIXERS
Oeno-tourism has been slow to come to Bordeaux. Showcase châteaux such as Pavie, Smith Haut Lafitte or Lynch-Bages have become adept at offering tours and tastings, though at a price. A fee is understandable, as the cost of staffing the tours and the wines to be poured needs to be recouped. Napa does it differently. Visitors are courted, and the customary tasting fee will be refunded if you buy a bottle or two. In Australia, too, the ‘cellar door’ is always open for visitors to enjoy the wines and other merchandising. However, in Bordeaux, most prestigious châteaux make little effort to welcome visitors.
In Burgundy, top growers sell to a band of importers and perhaps a few private customers and restaurants. In Bordeaux, châteaux sell to négociants, who distribute their wines worldwide. Châteaux have no direct influence over who sells or buys their wines. That’s why it’s important to have influential writers and critics on their side. A high score from a wine guru may just persuade a group of merchants or consumers to buy Château X in preference to Château Y. And the other way around the following year. No wonder top châteaux treat the media with affection and respect.
Consultants, too, form part of the hype machine. They are rarely present in Burgundy, where savoir faire is passed down (not always successfully) from one generation to the next. But in regions such as Tuscany or Bordeaux, where estate owners are often rich and enthusiastic but short on expertise, the consultant is an essential member of the team. Nothing wrong with hiring good advice, of course. But choosing the right consultant also adds lustre to the estate. In Italy, take on Carlo Ferrini or Riccardo Cotarella and you can be certain, at the very least, of media attention.
In Bordeaux, the consultant is more than an adviser on viticulture or vinification, suggesting how high your canopy should be or which coopers are best suited to your style of wine. They have influence too. Michel Rolland, notoriously, had the ear of Robert Parker for many years. This was perfectly understandable because, broadly speaking, they liked the same style
of wine. I once asked a château owner with a group of properties why he had chosen a particular consultant rather than another of similar renown. ‘He’s good at what he does,’ was the reply, ‘but he also has a track record of getting his clients’ wines onto airline lists.’
Many of the older generation of consultants were invisible. In decades of visits to Bordeaux I never encountered Jacques Boissenot, who advised most of the top estates of the Médoc, or Gilles Pauquet in Saint-Emilion. Others, such as Stéphane Derenoncourt, court importers and the press assiduously, with regular tastings that provide a showcase for all their clients. Wine writers like, for sound reasons, to be on close terms with consultants such as Derenoncourt, as they can be invaluable sources of information.
SAVE TIME AND SCORE IT?
Admission to the magic circle of Bordeaux carries its own risks. I doubt there is much corruption as such – no wine writer of any importance would, I assume, be foolish enough to accept backhanders in exchange for favourable ratings – but what has happened is that independent assessment has been almost abandoned. And there are stories of bribes, often in the form of a few cases of wine, being offered. Newly minted bloggers would be particularly susceptible to a helping hand.
Back in the 1980s or even 1990s revered critics such as Robert Parker would not hesitate to give a poor score to a wine he considered below standard. These days a poor score has become close to inconceivable. A score below 90 has become the equivalent of a smack in the face. In an article some years ago I predicted the scores that the major critics would give the 2014 vintage when, a few months later, the wines became available for tasting En Primeur. My educated guesses, made without tasting a single wine, were alarmingly accurate. That, simply put, is because critics now score the brand and not the wine. No one is going to rate a first growth or scarce Pomerol at below 96; likewise, no obscure fifth growth or Côte de Bordeaux red, however fine, will ever be scored at 93 or higher.
Bordeaux has succeeded in imposing its own self-valuations on its critics. Price has become equated with quality, as has been the case since the 18th century. This is why new owners of certain properties relentlessly push up their prices, because this is the best way to confer prestige on the wines. For Bordeaux as a whole, it may be a costly business organizing lavish dinners with superlative vintages, but it has paid off in establishing a group of wines as safely within the band of the world’s most appreciated and sought after. For the wine critic it’s a tricky balance. Without access, an article or vintage assessment becomes impossible. I am not immune. In order to research my own publications on Bordeaux, I have accepted offers to stay at comfortable châteaux for extended periods. I do my best not to let my own judgements be swayed by this quid pro quo (which I disclose), but one can never be certain.
SCHMOOZE OR YOU LOSE?
It’s not only the wine press that is courted and pampered. Top châteaux will lay on lavish feasts for négociants and brokers too. Corinne Mentzelopoulos of Château Margaux once described such events as a way of thanking the Bordeaux wine trade for their success in selling her wines (not an arduous task, I would have thought). She intimated that it was also a way of keeping the trade on her side. Selling top claret in a great vintage is a doddle (except when grotesquely overpriced); selling the same label in a mediocre year such as 2013 is another matter.
Maintaining brand loyalty – both to Brand Bordeaux and individual châteaux – is crucial. By 2020 the region was having to face the threat of USA tariffs, the cold shoulder from China, the uncertainties of Brexit for the important British market, not to mention the growing climatic vagaries bringing drought, frost and hail in their wake. There are other challenges that are stylistic rather than economic. A colleague who is involved in assessing the wine lists of top restaurants worldwide notes that there are a growing number of such lists that ostentatiously scorn Bordeaux in favour of, usually, ‘natural’ or other styles considered trendy. This is sommelier-driven, and Bordeaux producers and merchants are not always aware of how old-fashioned and stuffy their offerings appear to sommeliers (and their clients) in search of novelty rather than reliability.
It’s hard for individual châteaux to promote their wines worldwide since they don’t know precisely who is buying their superb wines. In contrast, their Napa Valley equivalents stage auctions and other events targeted very precisely at super-rich clients and social media. Australia has its highly regarded agricultural shows, awarding medals that confer more prestige than most medals from wine competitions. Bordeaux doesn’t have such marketing opportunities at its disposal, which is why generic marketing campaigns, prestigious tasting events, and the assiduous wooing of the media are such necessary tools. Whether they will
continue to be effective as they have been in the past is undoubtedly open to question.
On Bordeaux: Tales of the Unexpected from the World’s Greatest Wine Region – an anthology of writing on Bordeaux with a foreword by Jane Anson – is published by Académie du Vin Library and available now. Enter code FINE5 at checkout to save £5 on a copy.