The Two Faces of French Wine

A new book by Jean-Robert Pitte provokes a reconsideration of wine stereotypes.

It is very easy to fall into the habit of thinking of the world of wine in terms of Old World and New World.  Everyone does it.  Old World (Europe) is associated with vins de terroir and the struggle against natural and market forces to produce wines of great distinction.  New World (everyplace else) is associated with vins technologique and the business of selling large quantities of homogeneous wines to brand conscious consumers.  Difference is the key attribute of the Old World.  Sameness is the hallmark of the New.

Everyone knows that it isn’t as simple as this.  Old World / New World is more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, for example, and difference versus sameness is an issue that cuts across every wine market and culture.  But Old versus New is a convenient simplification and such shortcuts are hard to resist in our overcomplicated world.

Old World versus New World in France

Jean-Robert Pitte’s thoughtful new book forces us to confront the beauty of complexity by reminding us that the global battle for the soul of wine is also a local battle, fought most fiercely, perhaps, in his native France (Pitte is Professor of Geography and former President of the University of Paris Sorbonne).  The opposing forces are not noble vignerons versus multinational corporation (as you might think after viewing Mondovino), but rather the two most famous Old World wine regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Both wine regions, Professor Pitte reminds us, owe a debt to foreign influences, especially the Romans who introduced vines to France.  Bordeaux is warmer and sunnier, like California, so grapes will ripen in the broad valley, permitting large vineyards and high production volumes.  Burgundy is cooler and farther North, more like Oregon, so narrow hillside vineyard locations are needed to capture solar energy; individual vineyards are small and fragmented and the production correspondingly modest. Bordeaux wines, unlike their Burgundian cousins, are blended for style and consistency.

Both regions were shaped at critical moments by the markets they came to serve.  Bordeaux, with easy access to the Atlantic, found a large market for powerful wines in Great Britain and Northern Europe. Wines needed to be strong to survive the ocean voyage. This large export market matched very well with the substantial productive capacity of Bordeaux.  Burgundy’s location made ocean export impractical, but a vigorous internal trade emerged with Paris and the French court.  Differences in tastes and the less stressful transport encouraged production of a lighter and more sensuous style of wine. Pure Pinot Noir versus sturdy, barrel-aged Cab and Merlot blends.

Both wines can be wonderful, but they can also be horrible.  Vast quantities of unsold mediocre Bordeaux are distilled into industrial alcohol each year.  Burgundy’s problem is less over production than unreliable production – the weather is a constant foe and the strict rules of the region restrain winemakers from correcting in the cellar the damage that nature inflicted in the vineyard.

Dysfunctional Family

Bordeaux is more New World, when you think about it that way, and Burgundy fits quite well the stereotype of Old World.  So naturally they despise each other, which is the point of the book.  The great debate about Old World versus New World wine is here revealed to be but a global projection of the continuing squabble among the members of France’s dysfunctional wine family. No wonder the conflict is so bitter.

Professor Pitte’s apparent self-appointed mission is to patch up family relations. He doesn’t want Burgundy to become Bordeaux or vice versa.  He wants them to respect their differences and learn from each other. “Bordeaux and Burgundy, fraternal enemies, are two faces of a stimulating dialectic and debate that one must hope will not soon cease.”

In doing this Professor Pitte seems to stake out opinions in the deadly crossfire of the middle ground of many wine debates, which is where I often find myself.  He doesn’t dispute the idea that wine is made in the vineyard, for example, but he doesn’t reject the notion that it can sometimes be improved in the cellar.  He seems to respect both terroir and technologie as universal concepts.

He doesn’t think difference and sameness are as incompatible as they seem, but rather simply two faces of the same idea of wine. It is an interesting position to take – so French!  Yes, I know, and so anti-French, too.

Bordeaux/Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry by Jean-Robert Pitte (translated by M.S. DeBevoise). University of California Press, 2008. Originally published in France by Hachette (2005)  under the title Bordeaux Bourgogne: Les passions rivals.

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