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The Queen of Wine has lost her Crown?

The age-old rivalry. No, not the French and the English, but the Bordelais and the Bourguignon. Bordeaux versus Burgundy, the gently sloping gravel vineyards of cabernet and merlot against the east facing limestone ridge of pinot noir, (I am speaking red here as in white terms I think Burgundy has long claimed the crown). Impressive Disney chateaux owned by wealthy families against balding medieval monks and small family holdings. The annual en primeur sales circus or the patient waiting for a direct allocation. You might say chalk and cheese, but both regions have produced world class wines for centuries and still don’t really face any foreign equivalent in terms of their abundance of quality.

As I write this, President Macron of France is serving King Charles III of England at Versailles the 2004 Mouton-Rothschild, the only Bordeaux to have been upgraded (in 1973) to Premier Cru, and one that features a different artist on the label each year. The 2004 artist was a chap called Prince Charles.

This summer my wife and I were looking for somewhere to stop en route to the southwest of France and landed up in Poitiers. It was only later that I realised that in 1152 the cathedral there hosted the (second) marriage of one of history’s (and wine’s) most remarkable ladies.

Born in 1122, at fifteen she was married to a Louis who shortly thereafter appended VII to his name, and as Queen of France accompanied him on the Second Crusade (an unheard-of thing to do). Having only borne him two daughters, (no son), she twice filed for divorce to the Pope and eventually succeeded, and hence we find her in 1152 in Poitiers marrying again. This time it was to a Henry, Duke of Normandy who in turn soon added II to his name as King of England. She went on to outlive him until she was an unbelievable 82, after being regent to her son and raising the billions in ransom for and freeing Richard the Lionheart from kidnapped captivity. She also introduced a host of Middle Eastern exotic food to England after her crusade (cinnamon, cumin, saffran, ginger and sugar, as well as aubergines and spinach). She is the only person ever to have been royal in both France and England.

But from a vinous perspective, Eleanor of Aquitaine was most famous for linking Bordeaux to England for three centuries and beyond (the late Queen Elizabeth II was apparently directly descended from her granddaughter, so Charles as well). And it is alleged that the wine served at that 1152 marriage was from the Seigneuries de Cantenac, Lamothe-Cantenac which in modern parlance would be Chateau d’Issan, a grand cru from Margaux.

And if the English connection isn’t enough, what about the Irish, five centuries later? In 1688 William of Orange deposed the Catholic James II King of England, Scotland and Ireland who promptly sought refuge with Louis XIV in the chateau near here at St Germain-en-Laye (Louis of course being just down the road in Versailles). But the attempted reconquest via Ireland ended in bloody disarray in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne prompting mass emigration to France, the so called ‘Wild Geese’.

And to put this back into a wine bottle, the well-known St Julien Châteaux Langoa & Léoville Barton come via Thomas Barton of Fermanagh, one of Bordeaux’s most influential wine traders. John Lynch from Galway married Elizabeth Bages so you can guess where the ‘super second’ Pauillac Château Lynch Bages comes from. Their son Jean-Baptiste went on to become mayor of Bordeaux and a peer of France thanks to Louis XVIII. Amongst the Irish connected grand crus, you also have Boyd Cantenac and Kirwan in Margaux. No wonder they so love their ‘claret’ across the Channel.

Sadly (I speak as a Brit) the English lost control of Aquitaine (& Bordeaux) at the end of the 100 Years War in 1453 and I suspect that they don’t serve Bordeaux at royal events anymore in London, But for centuries the great estates of Bordeaux led the way, and I should stress that for this piece I am talking of the cabernet sauvignon led blends of the left bank and the Medoc. Certainly, in the UK the red wine served at the top university colleges, elite clubs, parliament and I dare say Buckingham Palace was ‘claret’ and for years, Bordeaux was the world’s best known red wine. The English (mis)called it ‘claret’ though this is really because the wine back then was ‘clairet’, closer to the colour of modern rose, and before the famous classification of 1855 contained a quiet high proportion of the ‘black wine’ of Cahors (malbec or ‘cot’) perhaps to help beef up its hue.

But why was Bordeaux the world’s flagship wine, and what has happened in the last ten or so years to, in some ways, dethrone it? And by that I am not talking of quality, which is subjective, but of price, and the position on the auction sales podium. The Olympic gold nowadays goes not to the famed chateaux and noble families in Bordeaux, but the ‘peasant farmers’ in Burgundy. Twenty years ago, there were few wines that outpriced the premier crus of Bordeaux. But now as well as the traditional top Burgundy domaines that always commanded the highest prices due to quality, history and miniscule supply (think of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti as the pinnacle), there are two recent phenomena – the vertiginous rise of cult vignerons and cult vineyards, mainly in Burgundy. It’s a subject that I will return to, at some length later.

La Romanee-Conti, the world's most famous vineyard

You can now name a string of grand cru vineyards (in the Cote de Nuits: Chambertin/Clos de Beze, Musigny, Romanee-Conti, Richebourg, Romanee St Vivant, La Romanee) that outsell Lafite or Latour by multiples. And if you add in the new cult winemakers, you can throw in a heap of other vineyards, many of them not even grand cru. Indeed, if you look at the two quality hierarchies – in Bordeaux (the Medoc left bank) you have the 5 levels of Grand Cru from 1 (the top) to 5 whereas in Burgundy you have Grand Cru above 1e Cru above Village, but now there are village Burgundies that outprice the premier grand cru classes of Bordeaux. An insane reversal and, I guess, in part due to the advent of social media and selling of wine and image via the internet.

If you are looking at the two areas, the one Anglo Saxon controlled for 300 years, the other utterly French, the whole structure of the vineyards, and classifications is different. In Bordeaux, wealthy families owned large chateaux and created what are brands, with a changeable blend of grapes (there used to be that good dollop of malbec, but not anymore). The classification was based on the 1855 demand by Emperor Louis Napoleon III to the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce to classify the wines for his Universal Exhibition. They did so largely on market price and there is no division of ‘terroir’. If a premier cru estate in Pauillac buys another, say cru bourgeois estate also in Pauillac, legally it can be added to the premier cru and they can label its wines as the grand vin if they so wish. Effectively you can add to the brand providing it falls within the same commune.

In Burgundy the rules are far stricter and inflexible. It was back in 1395 that Duke Philip the Bold outlawed the ‘very bad and disloyal’ gamay grape (as in Beaujolais) and decreed that pinot noir was the sole grape variety for red Burgundy. I am amazed that there are not more statutes standing in his honour. The vineyards were also mapped and divided up after decades, centuries of trial and error, and accumulated knowledge of which plot of land produced the better wine. The medieval Cistercian monks certainly had a part to play in the process, though I suspect the modern image of the current vineyards all being drawn up, defined and walled in by monks is somewhat romantic.

Still, if you add one drop of the neighbouring 1e cru vineyard to your grand cru, the whole lot has to be downgraded to premier cru, Burgundy always assuming the lowest denomination in any blend, unlike Bordeaux which can maintain the classification of the top component or should I say branded blend.

But what happened? For years Bordeaux was pre-eminent, I suspect due to several factors (as I said, I put quality aside). Large blends made by wealthy, prominent families carried considerable marketing power – a world famous banking family with over 100,000 bottles of grand vin carries more heft than a grower family in Burgundy with a few thousand bottles of each of its small vineyards if you are lucky. Add to that French inheritance laws splitting up the vineyards between sons and you end up in Burgundy with massively fragmented ownership and precious little selling power (pre-Internet).

Look at the much-photographed walled vineyard of Clos Vougeot. It has a mosaic of mini-parcels now owned by around 80 different people – over just 50 hectares. Lafite’s holdings stretch to twice that and maybe 250,000 bottles of grand vin depending on the harvest. Go back further and the Clos was under religious ownership before the French Revolution and was thereafter sold to one Julien-Jules Ouvrard in 1791 (son of Napoleon’s banker). The whole vineyard was then sold to 6 negociants in 1889, then to 15, then to 40 by 1920 and now 80. A few bottles only from each grower…

Clos Vougeot

That fragmentation and the constraint on supply in Burgundy (the walls are the walls, one inch outside and you cannot label your wine as Clos Vougeot Grand Cru) has historically worked in two ways. It has been a weak lever for marketing against the might and size of Bordeaux, but now it has become the ultimate desired commodity, and of course the legally limited small supply adds much wanted exclusivity as the world gets richer (especially to the East). The age of ‘the Influencer’.

And if modern social media (& traditional media) can hype the ownership of one tiny plot (say owned by Domaine Leroy) then the ultra-small supply suddenly becomes the ultra-expensive wine. After all, you can gain much ‘face’ by plonking a bottle of Chateau Lafite or Margaux on the table, but a bottle of numbered single vineyard Burgundy can be 10 or 20 (or more) times rarer and thus more ‘desirable’. You must wonder, sadly, if taste even comes into the equation.

Premier Cru Bordeaux, now 'better value' than a lot of Burgundy?

Bordeaux used to be helped by the very fact that there was a generous supply and a nice easy classification. You only needed to know a few dozen names from 1855 and you had what you needed in any restaurant. Whereas in Burgundy you faced a cornucopia of tiny vineyards with weird names (often the same but in different villages) plus an extra layer of dozens of owners.

It also didn’t help that Burgundy had no appellation classification until 1936 and was mostly not bottled at the winery, so a significant amount of adulteration went on to boost up your naturally pale pinot noir with some nice rich wine from further south. Indeed, when I started an interest in wine, Burgundy was considered heavier than Bordeaux, but the pale skinned, ethereally fragrant pinot noir in its pure form (as in today) is a softer, lighter wine than the more robust, dark and tannic wines of cabernet.

That is history now, and with the ease of wine sales on line and tons of information available, the very size and simplicity of Bordeaux has given way to the tiny niche growers and rarity of the monk-delineated climats of Burgundy.

Fashions change and the scales have tipped. And how quickly.

Think back to 2000. The world was gripped by millennium fever and fears about ‘Y2K’, that every computer was going to flip at midnight. Meanwhile a lighter, sunnier vintage was born on the golden slopes of Burgundy and a much vaunted, tough tannic one in Bordeaux. To a young man in Paris, the grand crus of the Medoc were easy to find, understand and afford. Good value, reliable wine. Further east, in the Cote d’Or, the wines were less reliable, difficult to access, and expensive. The Medocs were a lovely, digestible 12.5% and the Burgundies maybe a degree higher.

Jump to the 2020, the third heatwave vintage in a row, much heralded in both regions. What has happened? The market has somersaulted in two decades. Now the Bordeaux’s are the far better value, but the alcohols have vaulted over Burgundy, top wines these days being over 14% and often 15%. In Burgundy the effects of global warming seem mysteriously less, but the prices and frenzied demand are off the scale. Whereas I can still easily buy a case of grand cru Bordeaux, in Burgundy even if I could afford it, the allocation might stretch to only 2 or 3 bottles if lucky.

In Burgundy though, little has visibly changed. Yes, the villages look clean and affluent, the cars parked in vignerons’ drives might have expensive German or Italian ensignia, but the cellars and wine making facilities remain relatively simple. But send your drone above the Medoc and you’d not recognise it, multi-million-dollar designer-architect chais having popped up everywhere in a sort of architectural beauty contest of which chateau can show off the most impressive winery (& money).

And somewhere along the way the fashions shifted. Bordeaux flashed its marble and glass, and in 2005 the top crus tripled their prices overnight and set their eyes on the Orient. Lafite 2008 added a Chinese symbol to its bottle and Mouton’s label artist was Chinese. The word ‘Rothschild’ on wine label became the ultimate badge of prestige in China and the market went crazy. Longtime, loyal buyers at home were ignored as prices escalated and the top chateaux scrambled to head east, wine magazines and retailers all vying to set up first in Hong Kong.

I stopped buying Bordeaux en primeur as I was simply priced out, and frankly disgusted at being so unceremoniously, greedily dumped. But I sold my Mouton 2008 the day after I received it for four times what I’d paid for it. Anything I had in the cellar with Rothschild on the label went likewise. Wines that I had bought through financially clenched teeth to drink, not sell.

The marketing machine was in full swing, with the American critics very much on board, and every Bordeaux vintage was heralded as the best of the decade, and even the ones badly affected by rotten summers described as ‘saved by a miraculous September’ and/or modern winemaking and technology. To lovers of old school Bordeaux, it seemed that prices, marketing hype, alcohol levels and American critics scores were all rising in a commercial desire to impress the new market. The premier crus morphed into ‘blue chip investment assets’ or so people thought.

Until the financial markets crashed in 2008/9, President Xi stamped down on corruption and civil service expense accounts and those holding en primeur top chateaux were left watching the value of their prime investments tumble. But the marketing machine did not stop, the alcohol levels hit southern Rhone levels by 2015 and a new phenomenon arose – ‘Bordeaux bashing’ as disaffected clients turned away. Perhaps the Bordelais were too preoccupied, but they missed the nascent shift towards more environmentally friendly farming as organic and ‘natural’ wine bars appeared, and the younger generation turned their backs on the rather cynical commercial and corporate world of top Bordeaux.

Meanwhile in Burgundy the shift to organic and biodynamic which had really started a decade before grew pace, the alcohol levels notched up only slowly as growers tried to cope with global warming and suddenly the small, independent and traditional seemed in vogue. That much over-used and under-defined word ‘terroir’ became all the rage and as the top Bordeaux chateaux watched their prices drop after their vertiginous ascent, Burgundy became a la mode, and some growers complained as prices started to take off astronomically, demand ramped up and allocating small quantities of wine became a headache and the price of viticultural land and inheritance taxes became horribly unsustainable.

In an ironic twist, without calling on influential American wine critics, marketing departments or trendy architects, the Asian market latched on to Burgundy and social media turned its back on Bordeaux and drooled over the new Mecca.

And so here I am, two delicious bottles in front of me, a 2000 Durfort-Vivens from Margaux and Duhart-Milon-Rothschild from Pauillac (I didn’t sell them all it seems), absolutely classic Bordeaux, 12.5%, now with tannins all softened out, the ripe cassis of cabernet, plus the earthy, cedary tones of maturity, wines that gently stop you and ask you to pay attention, all elegance and shaded flavours. Whether the more recent version with their much higher alcohol levels will attain the same level of subtle pleasure, who knows, but these older vintages nowadays offer remarkable value and quality.

And across the divide as it were, there has never been higher quality and more attention to detail, to farming, the environment, and the vinification, producing lovely balanced Burgundies that respect their individual birthplaces, but, and alas it’s a huge BUT, who can afford them?

By the way for what it’s worth, I drank the 2004 Mouton last year and it was dense, dark and brooding, suitably regal, but needs a good few years more to soften out and show its full splendour.

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