Bordeaux Burgundy swap


The cellars at Albert Bichot in Beaune are typical of a Burgundy negociant-grower, containing over 2,500 barrels of wine from 50 different appellations across the region. Keeping track of them all is no easy job; these barrels represent tiny parcels of land from a patchwork of vines all over the Côtes de Beaune, Côtes de Nuits and Chablis, with the smallest being just 300 litres from Richebourg, and the largest 2,000 hectolitres from Chablis.

They couldn’t be more different from the cellars at Chateau Preuillac in Bordeaux’s Médoc region. Here you find around 600 barrels, but from just one appellation, AOC Médoc. Even a nearby property, Chateau Talbot in St Julien, which at 107 hectares is one of the largest in the region and contains 2,000 barrels in its cellars, still only makes wine from just one appellation.

The differences don’t stop there – the cellars below the handsome but functional Bichot offices in Beaune are miles from the nearest grapes that are vinified within them, while the honeyed limestone of the 19th century Chateau Preuillac is surrounded by 26 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that reach right up to the chateau door. In Macon, the only red grapes are Pinot Noir.

When you stop to look at the two iconic wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, pretty much every element of vine growing, wine making and selling is different. So taking a winemaker from each area and parachuting them in to the other for a week-long immersion – a kind of vinous Wife Swap – was always going to be illuminating.

It was not, however, going to be easy. For a start getting from Bordeaux to Burgundy and vice versa is no simple task. There is no direct flight that goes between the two regions (there was one, but it was stopped a few years ago due to lacklustre usage), and no direct train. You can’t help but wonder if this is significant, as the rivalry between the two has always been fierce, and in both places there is a healthy set of jokes that have sprung up over the centuries, usually depicting Burgundy as a place for hedonists, Bordeaux for intellectuals or businessmen: ‘In Burgundy everything is for drinking and nothing for selling, in Bordeaux everything for selling and nothing for drinking.’

Testing the theory, the Bordeaux week was first. Philippe Seguin, the long-standing Maitre de Chai at Bichot’s Domaine du Pavillon in Pomard travelled over (by car) to spend a week at Chateau Brown in Pessac Léognan and Chateau Preuillac in the Médoc, both owned by Jean Christophe Mau. This was not entirely new for Seguin – his company Bichot has just spent the last few years hosting the winemaking facilities for Francois Pinault of Chateau Latour while his cellar was being constructed at Domaine Eugénie in Vosne Romanée (one of the very few high profile owners who has properties in both regions, along with Eduard Labruyère, see Box). For this week, however, he was dividing his time between the two Mau properties, in the cellars and vines, and blending the previous vintage alongside consultant Stéphane Derenencourt.

Next up was Preuillac’s young female oenologist, Nathalie Billard, who was making her first ever trip over to Burgundy (‘a bit shameful, I know, but true’). She spent a week visiting the different domains within the Bichot stable, getting an understanding of the viticultural methods, taking part in tastings, and working in the company’s brand new cellars in Beaune.

Alberique Bichot, owner of Maison Bichot, summed up the reason for The Swap over a lunch welcoming Billard on board. ‘We need to break the barriers between these two regions. We are so used to highlighting our differences that perhaps we forget how much we have in common.’

That might be true, but you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone rather enjoys the stand-off. For a start, the Burgundians like nothing better than to  point out that Robert Parker is a fan of Bordeaux wines because he doesn’t understand the ‘nuances’ of a fine Burgundy.  And the Bordelais have been known to dismiss the Burgundian winemakers as ‘farmers’.  Even wine drinkers tend to have their favourite of the two regions and are happy to stick up for their choice. Supermarkets in both areas are hardly overflowing with the other’s wines, and each, of course, thinks the other one is more complicated.

‘Burgundy might only have Pinot Noir for red, and Chardonnay for white, but you then have to understand the  appellation, the village, the climat, and then the individual producer,’ said Billard at the end of her week, while Seguin was quick to counter, ‘In Bordeaux, you have so many appellations, and then so many different classifications, it’s hard to keep track.’

To a certain extent, the experiences of The Swap bore out the stereotypes. ‘I found the work in the cellars very precise, with highly efficient grape sorting, and precise work with the press wine,’ said Seguin. ‘You can’t say that over 90 hectares, Latour has a consistent, single terroir; rather their skill is in taking the most expressive parts and blending them together. For us, the skill is in allowing each wine to express only the one piece of individual terroir on which it is grown.’

Although the Bordelais would hotly contest that the concept of terroir belongs in Burgundy, even Billard did confess to being impressed by, ‘the revolutionary but simple idea in Chablis that north-facing slopes are classified AOC Chablis, and south-facing slopes are AOC Chablis Premier Cru, because the south slopes will get better sun and therefore better ripening’.

But both found plenty to surprise them over the week. The usual image of Burgundy is of the artisanal winemaker manually punching down his grapes in open-top wooden vats, letting the natural yeasts start off the vinification and the malolactic fermentation start naturally in Spring, while in Bordeaux it is of a white-coated technician busy verifying levels of volatile acidity, must weight and temperature of the thermo-regulated vats.

After spending a week in Burgundy, Billard claimed she was ready to challenge any Bordeaux winemaker not to be jealous of the new vat room in Bichot’s cellars, where micro-cuvees are stored in specially-designed vats with small chambers of between 25 to 150 litres stacked on top of each other. And few Burgundian winemakers wouldn’t be impressed with the incredibly precise maps of terroir that govern the plot by plot vinification at Chateau Brown. 

‘I noticed at Brown that they are currently experimenting with Burgundy barrels for ageing of the white wine,’ said Seguin. ‘While we at Bichot are experimenting with the slightly smaller Bordeaux barrels for our reds. There’s always something to learn from each other.’

‘There are definitely winemaking ideas that I want to take home with me,’ agreed Billard, smiling with enthusiasm at the end of her week. ‘We talk about Burgundy wines in Bordeaux, but we rarely actually drink them. I will come back from this week with as many bottles as I can fit in my case, and start brushing up my knowledge.’

Philippe Seguin on Bordeaux
‘In some ways you are more free as a winemaker in Bordeaux, as you have such choice over blends, and have the chance to create second and third wines, and I really did enjoy the precision of the blending session. The desire to create great wine is the same across both regions, so the biggest difference is not in philosophy, but in practicalities. The vines, for example, are all around the chateaux in pretty much one single parcel in Bordeaux, while at Bichot our vines are all over Burgundy in tiny plots – we have nothing outside of our own windows. ’

Nathalie Billard on Burgundy
‘I was surprised to learn that are so few women oenologists working in Burgundy – it felt more of a male domaine than in Bordeaux, whereas in Bordeaux I am just one of a number of young women working in the cellars. But I felt that the concept of terroir seemed closer to the everyday reality – we follow the notion very closely in Bordeaux of course, but I have been impressed over the week by how much it is part of every single decision for Philippe. But I was surprised at their letting malolactic fermentation happen naturally in the spring time – we would always try to control our malo, so as to avoid the greater risk of developing off-aromas.’

A Foot in Both Camps...

Eduard Labruyère: Owner of Domaines Jacques Prieure in Burgundy and Chateau Rouget in Pomerol.
‘Having one foot in Burgundy and one in Bordeaux is not easy. You have to resist your natural tendency to apply the same techniques, and to keep the specificities of each region. But we now use horses for ploughing in Pomerol, as is common in Burgundy, and I have tried to import some Bordelais techniques to Domaine Jacques Prieure – to ensure the cellar workers know the exact kilograms of grapes to put in each vat, how to strictly control temperatures, how to write down everything that we observe during vinification and ageing.

‘People in Burgundy have a lot of ideas of how to approach winemaking, without knowing scientifically why they do it. In Bordeaux, there is more scientific experience - winemakers understand precisely what they have to extract in any given year to produce the best vintage they can. Burgundy is about feeling that you should do things a certain way, and there is still more variation between the years because any interventions are less precise.’

‘There is also a greater pressure on individual properties in Bordeaux – there is the challenge of not letting down your team, and working towards the ‘en primeur competition’ every year, whereas in Burgundy winemakers tend to be more philosophical – if it’s not a good year, then so be it. The market pressure is less intense in Burgundy.’

‘It was tough at first to be accepted by the Bordelais, who were suspicious of a Burgundy family coming over to make wine. And we found it tough to understand how Bordeaux works, and why they didn’t feel the need to know their customers. But we quickly realised that if you want to be recognised as a good Bordeaux wine, you have to be sold through negociants on the Place, so that’s where we are. On promotional trips, it can be difficult to talk about the three estates in Beaujolais, Burgundy and Bordeaux, and only be responsible for selling two of them, but that’s the way Bordeaux works, and I wouldn’t change it. Each region has its own specificities and I am not going to be the guy to change hundreds of years of experience!’