This is the second in an ongoing series of essays on some aspect of the enjoyment of wine. Responses from wine-pages’ visitors at the end of the article.
On the home page of this site there are links to my guides to the world’s great wine regions. Included, naturally, is a guide to Bordeaux and its wines. In it I write: “For many people, myself included, great Bordeaux remains unsurpassed in the world of wine”. A bold statement, but one I feel confident in defending. On the other hand, in the archives section of my site, you can find my “Wines of Year, 1997” – a list of my favourite wines tasted during the year. It struck me as interesting that the “Red wine of the year” prize was scooped not by a Bordeaux, but by a fabulous Burgundy from Domaine Dujac. This is despite the fact that I drank many, many superb red Bordeaux during the 12 months – indeed, 6 brilliant clarets dominate my runners-up list. But none of them – not the ’83 Pichon-Lalande, not the ’85 Léoville-Las-Cases, not the ’90 Lynch-Bages – could nudge the silky, earthy, soulful Burgundy from its pedestal.
So is claret flawed by over politeness? Is it too well mannered, too stuffy, too much hard work? As Jancis Robinson said in her recent TV Wine Course, “If red Bordeaux’s appeal is strictly above the neck, that of red Burgundy is something completely different…”
Talking about the wines
There’s nothing scientific about this, but I thought taking a closer look at what I wrote as I drank these wines might reveal something about this apparent anomaly. I am looking not for what my words tell me about the correctness and absolute quality of the wines, but rather for what can be interpreted from them on a more basic, spontaneous, gut-reaction level. Here are my tasting notes for the Dujac Burgundy and for one of my favourite Bordeaux of the year, the 1985 Léoville-Las-Cases, written as I drank them:
Château Léoville-Las-Cases, St-Julien, 2nd growth 1985
Most even, dense and youthful colour of the evening so far. Very classy cabernet fruit on the nose and intriguing complexity. On the palate amazing concentration of intense licorice flavour with lovely creaminess too. Sense of focus and purity. Great length and stays balanced and in place throughout. A truly great wine.
Domaine Dujac, Echézeaux, Grand Cru 1989
Lovely pale mahogany colour. Gorgeous animal nose with burnt sugar and deep, caramel, slightly sherried scents, but beautiful. Really rich mocha coffee notes becoming more and more pronounced. Lovely on the palate too: mouth filling, rich, lovely sour cherry fruit and a raft of soft, silky tannin. A sumptuous wine with clove spice notes in the finish and great length – really first class. A complete and beguiling wine.
Let’s look at the adjectives I used in these notes:
Burgundy: gorgeous, animal, beautiful, rich, silky, sumptuous, beguiling.
Bordeaux: classy, intriguing, intense, lovely, focused, pure, great.
It is obvious that I think very highly of both wines. Analysing these lists of adjectives however, suggests that for me the appeal of the Bordeaux is respectful and intellectual, whereas the Burgundy is undeniably more involving and seductive. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the Las-Cases and got profound pleasure from drinking it.
Maybe it’s like the difference between classical music and pop, Ali and Tyson, Gielgud and de Niro, nouvelle cuisine and steak and chips…..all could be considered great in their own right, but their appeals are really quite different. In each of the pairings, the lattertaps into a basic, instinctive level that the former – arguably the greater of the two – rarely seems to reach. So it is with Bordeaux and Burgundy perhaps?
Horses for Courses
So can red Bordeaux have the sensual appeal of, say, red Burgundy? I put the question to someone who should know a little about the charms of Bordeaux wine; Jean-Michel Cazes, boss of Châteaux Lynch-Bages and Pichon-Longueville Baron amongst others. He had this to say:
“Burgundy has a very rich tradition for good food, and wine in this area is commonly associated with fun, laughter, etc… It corresponds to the character of the people.
In comparison, the Bordeaux people have a more restrained attitude. Food and wine are (too often in my opinion) considered as independent. Food should serve wine, and not the other way around. Quality of taste is considered more important than just drinking. It comes before fun.”
So these wines have evolved from traditions and peoples that have shaped their character? I like this argument and understand it: like Australians producing wines that are up-front, focused and confident, or Southern Italians producing reds that are earthy, generous and hearty (forgive the stereotypes, but hopefully you take my point). So this product of the reserved, educated, aristocratic, “old-school” Bordelais reflects those qualities: admirable, classy, refined, restrained, but maybe just not huggable?
Jean-Michel Cazes went on to say:
“The tannin in Bordeaux wines can also be considered as a more austere element of the character of the wine. Burgundy wines are more easily approachable, especially when young.”
Again, a very well made point. There’s no doubt that of all the world’s great wines, the cabernet sauvignon based clarets need most time whilst their tannins soften and they evolve into more supple, open wines. The great Pinot Noirs of Burgundy are normally softer when young, Syrah based wines more flamboyantly fruity, the Tempranillo of Rioja Gran Reservas softened by long ageing in oak. But it’s more than just the tannin surely? Even Bordeaux at its peak of drinking, when the tannins have softened and melded into harmony with other components, rarely elicits that hedonistic, involuntary sigh of contentment. Maybe the closest I’ve got personally is my beloved ’85 Beychevelle (which, admittedly, has a slightly higher merlot content than some other Médocs). This is a hugely accessible, warming and welcoming wine that thrills the senses. But still its overall appeal is to the head.
If not sexy, then what…?
Tradition and physical factors seem to suggest that the very nature of claret is intrinsically not sexy: it doesn’t set out its stall to be immediately appealing, easy-to-drink and full of oomph they way some other wines do. Certainly, my experience is that this is fundamentally true. Ask a non-red wine drinker to choose between a glass of “serious” claret or a glass of fruity, new-world shiraz and their preference is almost always for the latter. The chewy, tannic, structured and many-layered nature of claret is a complex, acquired taste that requires more concentration from the drinker. This might sound like a rather elitist viewpoint, but I think it is true: consider other expressions of great “art”: painting, music, poetry, cinema, cuisine, etc. I would contend that the very highest expressions of all of these need a certain amount of experience, education and concentration if their subtleties and complexity are to be appreciated.
Why is it that so many of us wine-lovers are so besotted by claret? Recently, American wine writer Robin Garr carried out a survey of some 150 wine-lovers asking what single category of wine made up the bulk of their cellars. Whereas 18% said it was Bordeaux, only 6% voted for Burgundy. Just 2% said the wines of Spain, for example. Robin’s survey was largely amongst fellow Americans, but I would bet my last penny that the Bordeaux dominance would be far higher amongst European and Oriental collectors. Of course, this raises a question about whether or not this wine is for drinking at all: as well as the intrinsic quality of red Bordeaux wines, there are other factors at play:
There is something about that 1855 classification isn’t there? It is easy to understand for a start – not like the complexity of Burgundy’s domaines, negociants, villages and parcels. It’s up there, carved in stone and immutable. We humans love and are comfortable with this idea of league tables and rankings, awarding points and seeing relative positions. Whether it’s football leagues, pop music charts, or restaurant guides, we like to know where we stand and where the product stands. And the almost legendary status accrued by these Châteaux of Bordeaux has huge pulling power. Imagine I was to offer you a choice from a couple of bottles as a gift – a top Cru Bourgeois from a great year, or a bottle of Lafite from an average year. Be honest: which one would you choose?
There is a saying in the computer business that no one ever got fired for buying IBM. Likewise, very few investors have had their fingers burned by gambling on first growth claret. It has been an investment banker throughout recent years. Whether you are actively investing for profit, or simply hedging against inflation by buying early, there are compelling financial reasons for laying down Bordeaux above most other wines.
Well, classed growth Bordeaux has it in spades of course. Classy restaurants need it on their wine-lists, movies use it as a metaphor for sophistication, power and wealth, wine bores will correct your tiniest mis-pronunciation of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande with smug satisfaction….
So Bordeaux has plenty going for it then. As well as being a wonderful wine to drink, it has a whole raft of plus points that make it an immensely attractive commodity. It undoubtedly earns its place in the world of wine.
For all its qualities, I would reluctantly agree that red Bordeaux is rarely sexy – at least not as blatantly sexy as some. Of course, like beauty, “sexiness” is in the eye of the beholder, and in my opinion Bordeaux can often be seductive, charming and thrilling – all aspects of sensual appeal. It can certainly scale the highest heights of fine wine with complexity, power, finesse, a glorious array of flavours and exquisite completeness that is rarely matched.
I can see why that Dujac Burgundy stole my heart. It is a great wine (a lesser Burgundy would not have done it) and its generous spirit tapped a deep, involuntary, reflex in me. Bordeaux’s charms worksdifferently and play to a much broader set of senses. It can be a holistic triumph that reaches more places – intellectual, emotional, physical – than other wines. But when up against a velvety Burgundy or fruit-filled Shiraz, perhaps the one area where Bordeaux struggles – for all its depth and breadth – is its inability to make a piercingly direct assault on just one sensory front. Like Tyson delivering a killer punch, or de Niro delivering a killer line; an instantly gratifying, mind-blowing, sensation that can sweep you off your feet.
Even the runaway pricing hasn’t managed to stop me from buying and drinking fine claret. The bond is just too strong. Bordeaux and me have a thing going that I’m sure will strike a chord with many other wine-lovers, but which might appear odd, even perverse to some. It may not have the immediacy, or the out-and-out sexiness of other wines, but it has more discreet charms that, eventually, get deep under your skin. For all the voluptuous manoeuvres of the rest, pulling the cork on a bottle of perfectly matured, finely honed claret remains a personal Nirvana.
It may not be sexy, but it has some kind of grip on me. I’m a hopeless case. What can I say?
Responses to this essay
Nick Alabaster, London, England
Good piece Tom, lucid and provoking as usual. There is something in the instant gratification in PN that you don’t get in Bordeaux. Good bottles of PN rarely have a chance to hit the sides, let alone time to intellectialise. The difference is apparent in cooking. Who can live without a main course ? Yet who wants to miss out on the chocolate mousse? Still, this is my favourite wine :- gorgeous, animal, beautiful, rich, silky, sumptuous, beguiling, classy, intriguing, intense, lovely, focused, pure, great. It’s a Rhone of course, Jaboulet La Chapelle ’90!
Mark Levesque, New Hampshire, USA
I quite agree with the premise that Bordeaux’s appeal is to a great extent intellectual, but I would contend that it can be sexy as well. I also have a great love for fine burgundy, and would have to concede that it is perhaps the sexiest wine around, but that does not mean that it is the only sexy wine around. Burgundy is a great deal more accessible and is more flexible in terms of wine and food pairings, but Bordeaux also has its opulent and hedonistic wines. Some of the ’89s were extremely voluptuous right out of the gates, with silky tannins, decadently ripe flavors and exotic aromas, especially those from the right bank. I consider such wines, wines that offer such immediate and considerable gratification to be sexy and not quite so intellectual as their more austere and firm peers, such as the Médocs of ’88 and ’86. Bordeaux will never be a wine of such easy pleasures as Burgundy. But it certainly has a great sensual appeal, even if its greatest expression requires more of the wine drinker to appreciate.
My response to Mark:
I totally take your point that though it doesn’t have the immediate in-your-face appeal of (some) Burgundy, Bordeaux can of course be sensual, seductive, charming – all elements of “sexiness”. Maybe I don’t make this entirely clear and I have actually put an extra line in the “Conclusions” section to reflect more closely what I really meant to say.
You probably realise that I do play Devil’s Advocate to an extent in these essays, and am deliberately over-simple at times, all to encourage debate (I’d soon give up if the essays elicited NO responses whatsoever!)
Bernard Leak, High Wycombe, England
I find that I distinguish between “raunchy” and “seductive” as possible interpretations of “sexy”. Claret, of full age (as we in England reckon it), can be more seductive than any other wine I know. Madeira may be more efficient ammunition for merely human seduction (“Have some Madeira, m’dear”), but that is another matter. Claret does not merely leave the drinker wrestling with its difficulty, as it can when young, but steps forth, a helpful guide, and draws the drinker graciously in. Such polish of manners! Such address! Such an invitation to trust, with such a smiling countenance! Only one with nefarious intent would labour so hard to be winning. Burgundy, by contrast, is raunchy. It does not attempt to lull your mistrust, but vamps directly. The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman, and lives in one of the great houses overlooking the Gironde. Over in the east, Big Maggie is – but we know about her. Heading farther, I suppose that Massandra ought to be the spiritual home of Catharine the Great, and damn the dates, but that’s a speculation for another day.
My response to Bernard:
I agree wholeheartedly about the ditinction between “raunchy” and “seductive”. You realise that by the time one gets to Big Maggie, Massandra and Catharine the Great, most people will suspect you are completely off your trolley?
Victor de la Serna, Madrid, Spain
I take your point and Jancis’, Tom, and it’s one we’ve all fiddled with and there are many reasons to validate the intellectuality of Bordeaux. One of them, however, is nicely hinted at by Cazes: Bordeaux as a city, and its neighboring “communes”, have an excessively disrespectful attitude towards fine food, which certainly is not Burgundy’s case. And there’s the tannins, and the austerity of certain vintages… (Then again, how about the a 1987 in Burgundy!)
But there’s also many arguments in favor of Bordeaux’ sexiness:
1. Great claret is the finest red wine in the world. No way are you going to find the finest of any pleasure-related product that isn’t sexy.
2. There are vintages like 1982 or 1990 that are by definition sexy in their opulence.
3. There’s the Médoc and the northern Graves, which if one insists in oversimplifying could be construed to be “intellectual” areas. But there’s the Right Bank too! Sexiness is frequent around St.-émilion and Pomerol…
My response to Victor
I cannot disagree with any of your points. The whole approach to eating and drinking in Bordeaux/the Medoc is a million miles removed from Burgundy and most of Southern Europe. In these regions food and wine is a cause for celebration, where the social occasion is more important than either. Good food and wine, however – in plentiful quantities – is the glue that holds family life, friendships and even business partnerships together. If you can accuse the Bordeaux region of being relativly “stuffy”, then this attitude extends to its wine and maybe that’s a tag they are landed with. And yes, I agree that there are seductive and voluptuous exceptions to the more austere clarets – I am playing Devil’s Advocate a little in my essay.
Ruth Blakely, Alberta, Canada
I think it’s as personal as each individual’s taste. I tend to think of a great Bordeaux as elegant. Maurice Chevalier was elegant, and to me, very sexy, but not to everyone (do you think a long lanky blonde is sexier than a curvey brunette…everyone is different). Maybe bordeaux does tend to be more restrained, but that’s part of the appeal, the mystery.
A long answer when a simple “yes” would do?
My response to Ruth
Very nicely put! Sexiness, like beauty, is most definitely in the eye of the beholder. To clarify what I meant by my question about Bordeaux, I should draw a distinction between sexiness which is “raw” – offering instant gratification – and a gentler, more subtle form of seductiveness. Fine Bordeaux certainly has the latter, though rarely the first in my experience.
Thomas Neufang, Germany
Tom, my girlfriend votes for Burg, concerning sexiness. After all, that is, what counts ( at least for me ):)
Colin Baxter, Ontario, Canada
I enjoyed your essay, nice site too. Although I haven’t been drinking wine all that long (10 years or so), the wine that I’ve found to be the most reliable in giving me lots of pleasure is good Bordeaux. This may be because it is so analyzed and reviewed by others that there is a wealth of information about it and the classification system is (relatively) easy to understand. For a wine novice this makes it fairly easy to select a very nice wine. I’m not sure, but I don’t think I agree with you that Bordeaux isn’t sexy (although I’m certain that it is seductive.) Perhaps it is a matter of timing. You’ve obviously had a “thing going” with fine Bordeaux for quite a while, maybe you should think back to your initial impressions when the excitement was still young.
I have trouble isolating the wine from the rest of the experience when I’m drinking it. When I drink Bordeaux it is usually with my wife, a nice dinner, candles, soft music, kids in bed, which may be why I think of it as sexy. (Are you reading this dear? ).
One of my favourite wine reviewers is Bill Munnelly who puts out a newsletter on “best wine buys at the LCBO” here in Ontario. He has an essay on Cabernet Sauvignon. In his introduction he states: “My wish is to see Cabernet put back in its proper place, which is in the formal restaurants, clubs and cellars of the world.” Basically his point is that prestige, not pleasure, is what drives the wine business. He thinks that there is far too much cab sauvignon being produced because of the reputation of Bordeaux wines. He’d definitely agree with you that Bordeaux isn’t sexy but for different reasons. He says: “most of the time the wine is too serious. Bordeaux elegance comes with an austerity and a dryness that is popular with stern, aloof British wine types”.
My response to Colin
I think you have made a good point about the sheer volume of words that have been written about Bordeaux wines – there is so much information, opinion and statistics out there that the subject can’t help but seem a little dry, analytical and academic at times – not at all what wine should be, and definitely not sexy. Wine – of whatever class or cost – should be about drinking pleasure. If it stimulates you intellectually, then so much the better, but let’s not lose sight of the main point here!
No, I don’t think I have lost initial enthusiasm for Bordeaux – not at all. But maybe, as I have drunk more and more wines of differing characters, I’ve come to celebrate the diversity that’s out there a little more. I think Bill Munnelly maybe goes a little too far in his criticism of cabernet sauvignon – it doesn’t need to be dry and austere to be great!
Bob Henrick, Kentucky, USA
You ask a question that isn’t easily answered with a short reply. I think of Bordeaux as sexy in (at least) two different interpretations. First it sometimes has a coy sexiness about it, a sexiness that need to be coaxed from the glass. other times Bordeaux is full blown, overtly sexy, almost like a street walker. Sometimes it is almost lustfully sexy (one can hardly wait to get at it). I realize this doesn’t adequatley address your question, but this is how (good) Bordeaux affects me (when I can afford it).
Jim Verlautz, Minnesota, USA
Tom, I think I’m a little more in your camp than some of the other respondants, although Ruth hit upon the defining question for me.
Usually when I use the word “sexy,” I’m thinking of something that produces a very emotional, instinctive response. This contrasts with an intellectual response. ( The one exception to this for me is when “sexy” is being applied to a person. In that case, my initial reaction to a person quickly becomes irrelevant, and sexiness is dependant on the intellectual interaction.)
When I drink great Burgundy, my response is mostly hedonistic. I savor the wine, but I’m less likely to analyze it. OTOH, for many of the reasons already enumerated, Bordeaux is a thinking wine, requiring some study and contemplation. To me, who loves a good game of bridge or a philosophical discussion with interesting people, this is still very pleasureable.
For better or worse, I spend far more time in intellectual pursuits than in engaging in “instinctive hedonistic activity.” Similarly, I drink more Bordeaux than Burgundy. However, when the time and mood is right, there is nothing better than great …er…..Burgundy.
My response to Jim
We’re straying here from “sexiness” to relationships I think – where we take time to get to know all the facets of a person/wine, build up a rapport, and see what lies beneath the surface beauty. That is certainly part of the point I am trying to make in the essay – that other wines can streak straight to pressing some emotional button, whereas Bordeaux rarely does; it is usually a more long-term courtship, that leads to something deeper.
Michael Pronay, Austria
When comparing the relative merits of Claret and Burgundy “sexiness” is not the term that would come to my mind immediately, and not even on the second hand.The first time I ever used the term “sexy” in a tasting note was back in 1992 in a blind tasting of 82s, where I noted (the wine turned out to be Haut-Marbuzet): “On palate full-bosomed and sexy” — now I know what Robert Parker means when he uses that term. “Sexy” was defined in the context of other 1982s.
Back to Claret vs. Burgundy I would characterize them in quite another way. True, I admit, drinking classed growth has something stiff and black-tied to it: Michael Broadbent in tuxedo at the Union des Grands Crus First Growth Dinner at Château Margaux in 1995 comes to my mind. But, on the other hand, family life, rose cheeks, good food and (if one wishes to have) songs: I would associate this rather with Beaujolais or Hautes Côtes de Beaune, and not with Grand Cru Burgundy. For me, fine claret immediately goes to the brains and stimulates intellectual activity. Sharing a fine claret and talking about the wine is one of the great experiences on earth. But, drinking alone, I would chose fine Burgundy rather than fine Bordeaux, because Burgundy on the finest level directly goes to the tummy (the “yummm!” type of sensation). I remember the situation I had the finest Burgundy in my life: 1959 Grands échezaux, an obscure Marché aux Vins à Beaune bottling (a Patriarche subsidiary — but what a wine!) with my then girlfriend: I poured the wine, we both leaned back — and kept quiet, smiling at each other. No words necessary. If Burgundy is great, it’s fantastic and hedonistic. I am definitely sure: The same situation, repeated with a 59 Lafite or 59 Latour, would immediately have seen us discussing the merits and the beauty of the claret.
One word to your “collectability” argument: Would Burgundy be available in the same quantities as Bordeaux (and vice-versa), I am more than sure we all would drink Burgundy. For me it’s simply a matter of availability around the world.
My response to Michael
Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t think I have ever used the term “sexy” in a tasting note either – like you, it’s not a term (or a whole frame of reference) that springs to mind! I would guess your enjoyment of the Grands échezaux at the Marché aux Vins had a lot to do with who you were with and what you were doing – the whole experience helped make the wine extra special (you were lucky by the way – my experience at the Marché didn’t produce any great memories!). As to collectability, I don’t know if simply increasing availability would result in a switch to Burgundy – there are questions of ageability, consistency etc. which also affect the market – and people’s perception of the wines.
Jean-Michel Cazes, France
I found your piece quite entertaining and well written. Isn’t wine a great thing, that can be associated with so many different feelings, and impressions…that sometimes have not much in common with actual taste or flavours. It’s really an intellectual exercise, and a very enlightening one!
I also enjoyed reading the comments, and your reactions. A good site to spend a little time on a cloudy week-end. Makes you feel like going down to the cellar and getting ready for a good bottle for lunch!!