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This is the second in an ongoing series of essays on some aspect of the enjoyment of wine. I will publish a new essay here every couple of months, and build these into a permanent archive. Essay number 1, "The dumbing down of wine" has been archived along with some excellent responses to it from wine lovers around the world.

These thoughts are entirely my own, are possibly the most opinionated part of this site, and are all open to comment and argument.

The Wine Essay
March Copyright 1998 Tom Cannavan

Is red Bordeaux sexy?


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:

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.
  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.
 

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 latter taps 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:

Collectability
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?

Investment Value
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.

Snob appeal
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.

Conclusions?


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 works differently 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?

© 1998 Tom Cannavan. My thanks to Jean-Michel Cazes