What is the most divisive issue among wine lovers? It’s whether you prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux. All sides tend to shake their heads in disbelief if you plump for Burgundy, and there are lots of reasons it isn’t the obvious first choice. For a start, it’s relatively expensive, it has hundreds of tiny producers who all seem to be related, and it can often be a disappointment if you don’t have proper guidance. My friend Jasper Morris, who is Burgundy director of Berry Brothers and has written the definitive book on it (Inside Burgundy, 2010), says: ‘Burgundy is for those who want to be intrigued by wine, not offered certainty in a glass — so the best approach is looking for the differences between one wine and another.’
Bordeaux is far more straight up and down the wicket. The Cabernet Sauvignon grape thrives all over the planet and all good Cabernets possess a certain linear, focused aftertaste. Because of this precision, it is far easier to get the point — Bordeaux is Bach (intellectual, logical and rigorous) while Burgundy is Mozart (emotional, joyful and sensuous).
From the signs so far, 2015 is going to be a superb vintage for Burgundy, so my advice for the uninitiated is to get in touch with a wine merchant that specialises in it, such as Berry Brothers, Corney & Barrow or Lay & Wheeler, and simply go for the generic Bourgogne rouge or blanc from the very best Côte d’Or producers. You can then proceed from Village to Premier Cru and ultimately to Grand Cru if you like what you taste — and can afford it. I haven’t really touched on white Burgundy; you just have to establish whether you like the chalky austerity of Chablis, the voluptuousness of Meursault or the precision and harmony of Chassagne or Puligny-Montrachet.
At the very pinnacle of Burgundy, there are a range of half a dozen wines made by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which are rare and celestial. Sadly, they have also become trophy wines of the vulgar rich. Recently, I was staying at the Chèvre d’Or, high above the Riviera in Eze, and dined at their classic two-star Michelin restaurant. I noticed that the neighbouring table were drinking Romanée-Conti — the first time I have seen it consumed in a public place. It was a party of Russians, with the male head of the table looking like Gertrude Stein in drag. After they finished their meal, there was a commotion at the exit — terse expressions on the face of Mr Stein, interspersed with emphatic jabbing of the wine list by the sommelier. Finally, the Russian thrust his hand into his pocket, licked off a wad of freshly minted €500 notes and walked out. It transpired he had asked for the best bottle on the list. The sommelier suggested the Romanée-Conti 2000, but made a point of showing the price. Problem was, the Russian thought he was indicating the Echezeaux 2000 just above, which was a mere €5,000; the Romanée-Conti was €15,000. Tant pis.
In the wider wine world, there has been a dramatic slowing down of the crazy prices for Bordeaux paid by the Chinese. The hardest hit has been Château Lafite, but everything else has softened too. This has hastened the demise of the Bordeaux en primeur system, where punters would pay for fine wine in advance on the expectation that this would save them money when it was eventually bottled. It is still possible to get most of the stunning 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux vintages below opening prices, so only a fool would buy younger wine from an inferior vintage at a similar cost.
But because Burgundy is made in tiny amounts by comparison, there is a strong argument for getting hold of allocations of the 2015 vintage as quickly as possible: many will rarely see the open market again. I know it should be an irrelevance, but I find it thrilling that many of the very best Burgundies consist of only a few hundred cases, compared with, say, the 20,000 produced of Château Latour or Lafite. On top of that, Burgundy is less than a day’s drive from London. Last summer we drove to a Dijon restaurant and marvelled at having their last bottle of Dujac’s Morey-St-Denis 2002 and a Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 2005 in Nuits-St-Georges for less than retail. This can’t go on for ever — with such minuscule amounts and a growing awareness of Burgundy throughout Asia, these may be the golden years for us to get the habit before the good wines are beyond our reach.