Harvesting Bordeaux and Burgundy – Patrick O’Connor

Patrick O Connor in Burgundy

Working in the wine business does not mean sampling glorious wines from around the world, willy- nilly. The wine trade is just like any other retail business and requires just as much business acumen, in addition to the all the wine knowledge that must be absorbed.

I am 7th generation O’Connor who has worked in business in Wexford town, and from a young(er) age, my parents instilled a love of what goes into the making of a wine rather than just the finished product.

That is why, when the chance to be involved during a harvest in Bordeaux, I jumped at the opportunity. In 2017, I was invited to pick grapes in Chateau La Fleur Pétrus. “It’ll be good for you to get some honest to God dirt under your fingernails,” said my father, James.

I would finally get to see the sources of many of the bottles of wine decorating the shelves in the Green Acres tasting room that I have cast my eye over, thousands of times.

I would finally get to see the sources of many of the bottles of wine decorating the shelves in the Green Acres tasting room that I have cast my eye over, thousands of times. Click To Tweet

This year, 2019, I was invited to Domaine des Comtes Lafon to harvest for a week. Memories of very early starts, an aching back and sharing rooms with 5 others came flooding back. However, the chance to work in such a famous region and producer wiped all that away, pronto.

I did keep a dairy from 2017 but didn’t put anything into a blog post. This time I decided to keep a few notes, compare them with 2017 and then write about the differences between working in Bordeaux and Burgundy during the harvest period. That is what I am going to write about now.

Bordeaux and Burgundy.

My intention is not to get caught up in the discussion about which Region is better, but just note the differences from my own point of view. First of all, let me give you an overview of the regions and then the two vineyards where I worked.

I heard Bordeaux often described as old money. It is a wine region founded by the Romans in a port city with old school access to trading, wine distribution, and growth. Burgundy, on the other hand, is the ancient, monk-fostered home of spiritual terroir, the land of single grape expression in a single plot of land cultivated on a far smaller scale.

Burgundy is land-locked up in France’s north-eastern region, and much smaller, about 74,000 acres of vineyards to Bordeaux’s roughly 300,000.  

Bordeaux has its famous Left and Right Banks, and five “growth” classifications (the “First Growths” are Chateaux such as Rothschilds, Chateaux Margaux, etc.), whereas Burgundy has its Grand and Premier Cru and Villages designations. These are smaller family-owned operations that make up the region’s dizzying patchwork of vineyards—about 100 different appellations.

The Vineyards in Bordeaux and Burgundy.

In Bordeaux, Chateau Lafleur Pétrus is owned and run by Christian Moueix and his son Edouard in a region called Pomerol. Pomerol is on the right bank in Bordeaux about 40 mins drive from the City centre.

Jean-Pierre Moueix is Christian’s father, who is widely known as the man who put Pomerol on the map. As well as La Fleur Pétrus the Moueix family are also responsible for Trotanoy, Hosanna, Lafleur-Gazin, La Grave, Lagrange, Latour à Pomerol and Bel-air Monange in the neighbouring Saint-Émilion.

In Burgundy, Domaine des Comtes Lafon has been in the Lafon family since 1865. Dominique Lafon took over the domaine in 1983. It is comprised of approximately 14 hectares situated in the communes of Volnay, Monthélie, Chassagne-Montrachet, and of course, Meursault, where the Domaine and its monopole vineyard Clos de la Barre are located.

All of his vineyards are cultivated biodynamically and he is proud to own every Premier Cru in Meursault. As part of the fourth generation of winemakers in the Lafon family, Dominique Lafon and his wines are superstars not only in Burgundy but throughout the world.

My Experiences in Bordeaux and Burgundy.

I suppose, the best way for me to compare my personal experience of both of these regions, in a fair way, is to write about them under the same headings.

Getting there: I flew direct from Dublin to Bordeaux and then got a train to Libourne, near Pomerol. I didn’t rent a car but if you do, I suppose you could see the various vineyards without going on an organised tour. For Burgundy, I flew to Lyon and then took a train to Beaune. I guess you could also fly and rent a car here also.

Bordeaux:

Bordeaux is a major city with all the advantages that goes with that. In 2017 however, I stayed in a house near the vineyards that the Chateau owns. There was about 45 harvesters in total living in the one house and coming from all over France (with 1 Irish and 1 Australian).

Locality. Contrary to the common perception of Bordeaux, Pomerol is a land of small family estates run by vignerons, people who grow the grapes and make the wines. Even as the wines of Pomerol are celebrated in much of the world, and the best are among the most expensive on the planet, the region operates on an approachable, direct human scale that is rare in Bordeaux’s exalted precincts.

Grapes. On the LEFT BANK, which encompasses the classic Bordeaux regions west of the Gironde estuary, cabernet sauvignon rules. But in Pomerol, where the shorter growing season is more challenging for cabernet, merlot is the primary grape.

It is superbly adapted to the region’s rich clay and gravel soils. It yields wines that are characteristically lush, round, and fine-grained, unlike merlots from anywhere else.

Work. The fact that we, a team of 45, could complete a vineyard in a day makes it seem like there wasn’t much to do, but there was. Each crate held a minimum of 10kg of grapes. These crates were then loaded onto pallets. Each pallet held 30 crates and we harvested enough crates to fill 84 pallets. So, in one day we harvested a minimum of 25 tonnes of grapes.

Entertainment. For the record, St- Émilion nearby, is a wonderful little town to visit. However, we made our own fun. Every night the owners had a different theme planned for us after dinner. For example, the first proper night in La Fleur-Pétrus was a Disco night complete with laser lights, a DJ and a smoke machine.

Restaurants / eating out opportunities.  None in Bordeaux as we stayed in our groups each evening which was fantastic fun.

Overall score9/10.

Burgundy:

I flew into Lyon which is a very large city with all that that can offer a visitor. I took the train to Beaune which took about 1h 30 minutes. There is an average of 31 trains a day between Lyon and Beaune, leaving approximately every 21 minutes.

Locality. Beaune is situated between the gastronomic settlement of Lyon and the mustard town of Dijon to the North. With its cobbled lanes, wine tourism, romanesque churches, and ancient façades, this small city of Beaune could be easily be explored over the course of a day. It has around 20,000 inhabitants which are packed into a historic city centre that’s still surrounded by ruinous ramparts to this day.

Grapes. Unlike most of the large Chateaux in Bordeaux, Beaune is forty-two different crus. Most of them are blended together into a cuvée by the big négotiants or the Hospice de Beaune. The grapes being Pinot Noir, which Burgundy made famous, and Chardonnay of course. Burgundy’s variously more acidic, minerally, and/or lighter Pinot Noir is finicky, and I love the description of it being delightfully unpredictable.

Work. The actual grape picking was different to my Bordeaux experience. The grapes where much smaller and much scarcer here. Since you are on a côte (hill), some of the vines are on some quite steep slopes. We had an earlier start than Bordeaux (7am vs 9am). The work was back breaking for me (especially when picking the grapes). I coped much better carrying the grapes, even if it was close to 70kg up a slope in 25 degrees heat!!

Entertainment. As I wasn’t bunking up with other harvesters, any downtime could be used to explore. I rented a bike and cycled through the villages of Volnay, Pommard and Meursault from Beaune (a 16km round trip). Côtes de Beaune appears to be much more lush and prettier than the Côtes du Nuits, possibly because it seems to be more concentrated. Hospitality is part of the Burgundian mentality. Good meals were easily found locally and the service is generally friendly.

Restaurants / eating out opportunities. The small little wine bars on the outskirts of Beaune are the ones to go for. Some of my favourites are La Dilettante, The Publican, La Bussonniere. Very much local food everywhere (beef bourguignon, epoisse cheese, escargot.)

Overall score: 9/10.

I’ll finish with a piece I read in the Guardian paper a long time ago.

“Bordeaux is said to be cerebral: the algebra, the musical theory, the astrophysics and the essay; burgundy, meanwhile, is a scintillating flare of emotion and pure being that eclipses thought like the sound of an operatic aria or the sight of the northern lights (without the technical explanation of why they appear).”

Guardian

For me, the experience of working in two iconic vineyards with people I can now call friends was the stuff of dreams. Bordeaux vs Burgundy, nah, they are more alike than they think they are.

Many thanks for reading my brief comparison of these magnificent regions of French wine. I highly recommend you putting a visit to either or both in your bucket-list. Au Revoir Patrick.