A Burgundian boldly braves Bordeaux

The rivalry between Bordeaux and Burgundy is as ancient as the creamy stones of Saint-Émilion. But as she heads west to dine in "the Other Place", our new columnist finds open-mindedness far more important than competition

Words by Nina Caplan

The medieval town of Saint-Émilion and the venerable château of Troplong Mondot are just two kilometres apart, above an intervening valley of vines. To reach one from the other you descend, then rise, and the cluster of pale, elegant limestone buildings seems to rearrange itself as you approach.

It was a pleasant, 20-minute westward walk on a sunny summer day, although I wasn’t finding it easy to relax. Perhaps it was the invisible enemy, still lurking despite months of full lockdown. Or maybe all that time inside had made me forget how to be elsewhere. Or could it actually be the elsewhere? After all, when in France I live in Burgundy; Bordeaux is the Other Place.

The rivalry is centuries old. To the Burgundians, Bordeaux is ‘sick people’s wine’; the Bordelais inhale the rich liquor of boeuf bourguignonne and snort that Burgundy isn’t actually wine at all, but ‘an ingredient for sauces’. The Bordelais are stingy; the Burgundians are drunks. Landlocked and river-poor, the peasants of Burgundy scratch a living from slim slices of land where a chicken could starve to death during a harvest; Bordeaux merchants pander to an English market that slavers over powerful, Cabernet Sauvignon-based Left Bank blends requiring decades of cellaring. These wealthy denizens of France’s west coast think only of money, goes the reasoning, while their manure-drenched rivals barely think at all.

Saint-Émilion is just two kilometres from the venerable château of Troplong Mondot

It’s all rubbish, of course. Burgundy grand cru land is the most expensive vineyard in the world: €6.25 million a hectare would feed a lot of chickens. As for manure: yes, some great Burgundies I’ve tried have a certain farmyard je ne sais quoi, but I’d like to see the Bordeaux estate – many now proudly organic or biodynamic – that shuns manure in its vineyards.

Medieval monks would lick the stony soil to divine what would grow best where

But back to Troplong Mondot. With the graciously-proportioned 17th-century château behind me, I walked towards the distinctive needle of the Saint-Émilion bell-tower. I have loved this creamy stone town for years, and I’ll probably never see it so empty again: that invisible foe had caused the tourists to vanish. And I’d be dining that evening at the Secret Table of David Charrier, the estate’s Michelin-starred chef, which promised good things, particularly to a hedonist who hadn’t eaten out since February. I needed to work up an appetite.

That tower tops a superb 12th-century church, the body of which is actually underground, hollowed from the rock. Anchored in limestone and reaching towards heaven – just like the vines. Which is no coincidence: wine and Christianity are intertwined, and even we heathens have cause to be grateful, especially in Burgundy, where medieval monks would supposedly lick the stony soil, to divine what would grow best where.

Photo by Romain Ricard
Michelin-starred chef David Charrier heads up the restaurant at Château Troplong Mondot (left)

Yet peace on earth has been elusive. In Saint-Émilion, that monolithic church was battered during the Hundred Years’ War, while the Dominican monastery just beyond it was reduced to a single wall, still etched with graceful arches, now standing solitary beside a vineyard. It’s a shock to realise that the desecrators were probably French, attacking enemy territory: Bordeaux, after all, then belonged to England.

As the windows framed the sun setting beyond the town, we took our seats at one end of the château’s long table, a family of local winemakers at the other. Course followed delicious course: candied lamb spilled from a pot-bellied courgette; pale bream topped a dark sea of periwinkles and pork gravy.

While waiting, not terribly patiently, for our next glass of wine, we discreetly eyed our fellow diners. It was the husband’s birthday – yet he had chosen the wines his wife was tasting, blind. She was quietly confident, this friendly competition clearly an intimate ritual. At one point, they politely offered us a taste of a spicy, exotically perfumed wine. It turned out to be 2001 La Tâche. Clearly no anti-Burgundy prejudice here – and no penny-pinching, either. A La Fleur-Pétrus 2010 followed, an interesting comparison with the château’s own seductive, perfumed 2011.

Caplan's modest selection of lunch wines, spanning Burgundy and Bordeaux. Photo by William Craig Moyes.
Caplan's dish of candied lamb. Photo by Bernhard Winkelmann

Bordeaux probably has more old disagreements than it has vineyards – and it has a lot of vineyards. Wars and revolution, religious controversy (Protestantism took hold early and strongly here), debates around varieties (Troplong’s managing director, Aymeric de Gironde, enamoured of Cabernet Franc’s perfume and freshness, wants to plant more). And let’s not embroil ourselves in the arguments around wine classification on this Right Bank of the Gironde, except to point out that they are fierce, and often self-defeating.

So, why prolong an ancient rivalry with another wine region, as well? The word rivalry comes from rivus, a small stream or brook: it refers to the tension between those who use the same water source. Burgundy and Bordeaux, separated by culture, topography and over 500km, share only their place in the pantheon – plus threats from climate change and competition from the world’s ever-expanding repertoire of fine wines.

Back in Burgundy, we barbecued rabbit and drank Thierry Richoux’s 2015 Veaupessiot, a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from Irancy, earthy yet perfumed. It was a peasant meal, at least in comparison to seven courses by a starred chef at a premier grand cru classé château. But why compare? There’s enough water in the brook for everyone – for now. And open-mindedness and generosity may save us. They have a lasting power that even the greatest wine cannot rival.