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Burgundy or Bordeaux?

Kelly J. Hayes

I spent this past week in the Napa Valley with vintners, wine writers, public relations people and sommeliers. I’ll have more on that in future columns, but suffice to say it got pretty thick.

When I got back to Aspen I had dinner with some friends. The wine list came. Somebody at the table sheepishly asked, “What’s the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux?”

It was a breath of fresh air. I was out of the rarified “inside baseball” world of people who are consumed by wine and its deep details and back among those who had simple questions that called for simple answers.

“Well,” I replied, “Burgundy comes from a region in central France where they make wines from either 100 percent pinot noir grapes, the red wines, or 100 percent chardonnay grapes, the white wines. They are traditionally lighter in style and clear in the glass. Made well, they are among the most delicate of all the world’s wines.

“Bordeaux, on the other hand, is made in a region in southwestern France, not far from the Atlantic Ocean,” I continued. “There are six different grapes used in red wines from Bordeaux, but the ones you may know best are cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The wines of Bordeaux tend to be much bigger, darker, higher in alcohol and tannic, which means they make your lips pucker.”

I was just getting started. I wanted to talk about blending and how the Burgundians use horses to till their vineyards, and the classifications of 1855 and the difference between the Left and Right Bank and, and, and … But alas, I could see glaze coming over the eyes of my tablemates and clearly it was time to shut ‘er down.

It got me thinking, though, about how wine can be enjoyed by someone who is not the least bit interested in all the “inside baseball” stuff.

To me, the more I know about a wine the more interested I am in drinking it. I like to know the grapes, the vintage, the blend, the alcohol level, the region the wine came from, the winemaker. Much of that information can be found on the label. (Though seemingly the trend in labels is to have less and less information, but that, too, is for another story.)

And beyond that, if there is something unique I know about the wine, perhaps who owns the winery, or if vineyard is close to another great vineyard, or that the wine was made with the consultation of a famed consultant, or, or, or … any of that sort of stuff, I am even more intrigued by the process of tasting and drinking it.

But for others, the enjoyment of wine can be as simple as ordering one in their price range with a color they like, having a waiter or waitress open it, offer a taste, and then pour it. No fuss, no muss. And you know what? More power to them. There is joy in simplicity.

One need not be an expert on dotage to get a thrill at the racetrack when the ponies sprint for the wire, have avalanche training and backcountry prowess to get a good workout on the nordic ski track, or know an obo from an elbow to listen to the Kronos Quartet.

But those who are in the world of wine, wine writers chief among the culprits, have a tendency to turn the tasting of a glass of wine into a competition. Wine people have a habit of making those who don’t share their passion feel somewhat “outside baseball,” if you will.

If this column has played that game, I apologize and will endeavor not to do so again. My goal is to make wine, and the opportunity to enjoy it, just a little easier for everyone who reads the column. Sometimes, particularly after a week in wine country, it takes a simple question to reground a wine scribe.

While the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux are so vast that tomes have been written on each, perhaps the best way to learn the difference for yourself is to simply have a glass of each.

Now, won’t that be fun?


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