Few topics can start an argument among oenophiles more quickly than the Bordeaux versus Burgundy debate. The friendly rivalry between these two celebrated wine regions has existed for centuries, and both camps are steadfast in their belief that their region of choice showcases not only the best of the vine, but also the very heart and soul of France herself. Is there really a winner in this race? Not likely, as it’s far too easy to fall in love with both.
Burgundy wines carry a longer history than those hailing from Bordeaux—one that represents a deep-rooted love for the land. The region, nestled in east central France, has been producing wine since the 1st century AD, with medieval clerics and monks later securing its position as a vinicultural force to be reckoned with. Burgundy reds were long the preferred sacramental wine of the Catholic Church, adding to its popularity. The region enjoys a reputation for celebrating its juice above all else, and cultivating its vineyards with a tradition of personal, hands-on care. Its image is rustic, romantic and resilient, while its wines are soft, ethereal and refined.
Bordeaux, resting on France’s southwest border, has a long, impressive history of its own. First cultivated by the Romans as early as 70 AD, Bordeaux’s global appeal got its start from the 1152 marriage of England’s Henry Plantagenet (later King Henry II) and France’s Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of the Middle Ages. With Aquitaine becoming English territory, their union opened the door to wine export, introducing the beauty of Bordeaux first to England and, as time went on, the world. Characterized by long-standing, sometimes centuries-old grand chateaux, Bordeaux wines are complex and aristocratic.
Simply put, Bordeaux is considered the jewel in the fine wine crown while Burgundy is its roguish, sensual competitor that confidently levels the playing field.
Bordeaux and Burgundy are miles apart when it comes to land ownership. Vineyards in Burgundy are not owned by a sole proprietor. Instead, portions of the land are divided among multiple owners and independent winemakers who cherish their smaller tracts and work them accordingly. Bordeaux, on the other hand, opts for singular ownership of its vineyards by sprawling, high visibility chateaux.
The structure of ownership in each region also influences the classifications of their wines. Bordeaux wines are classified according to chateaux and, by extension, producers. This echoes the inaugural Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, which was requested by Napoleon III for the Great Exhibition in Paris, and ranked the region’s wines according to the reputation of their respective chateaux and trading prices. While there have been minor changes in the classification process since then, these standards still apply today. Burgundy wines are classified not by producer, but by the vineyards where the grapes are actually grown. It’s important to note, however, that a Burgundian producer’s reputation comes into play when consumers and investors are in selection mode. Highly regarded producers benefit from Burgundy’s cachet and return the favor with the quality of wine they bring to market.